As we head into the Labor Day holiday weekend here in the USA, it seems like a good time to check in on how you fared with your summer reading projects. I’d love to hear any strong recommendations.
While I am certainly not alone in urging my clients to read novels (here’s The Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, and Inc. magazine) or to pick up a volume of poetry, I feel like I’ve been mostly unsuccessful in my efforts to turn on new readers of serious fiction.
When my clients tell me about the books they’re reading, the titles typically span current and past business and non-fiction best-seller lists. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow; Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In; selected works of Malcolm Gladwell and Ram Charan; Arie de Geus’s classic The Living Company; and books by successful business leaders such as Larry Bossidy, Tony Hsieh, and Howard Schultz are some recent call-outs. All good reads, of course.
And I admit that most times when clients ask me for suggestions, I tend to make pragmatic recommendations targeting the particular leadership or organization challenge they are facing, whether transitioning into a new role or managing through a complex organization transformation. Executives want short and practical resources, so I tend toward sections of books or the kinds of articles featured in executive education programs. (Or, of course, urge them to follow my Forbes feed!)
Herein lies a missed opportunity. It’s naïve to think that insights into and solutions for our most fundamental business and leadership challenges are all going to be found in “business books.” The most difficult challenges we face as leaders are timeless, and often the best way to grapple with them is to take a more deliberate look at ourselves and our reality in a broader context.
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Hence this unconventional recommendation: Read fiction to become a better leader and executive.
I don’t mean page-turners—Grisham, Steele, Patterson—though there’s benefit to clearing your head once in a while with what the great Graham Greene called “an entertainment.” Rather, pick up a novel that will engage and stretch the right side of your brain—the creative, introspective, empathetic side—in the way your job exercises the logical, rational, analytical left side of your brain for so many hours every day.
Why read (good) fiction? There are a handful of compelling arguments:
Reading good fiction increases empathy and understanding of your fellow humans. Each of us has only one life, one perspective, one consciousness. Great novels enable us see the world through the eyes of others: How does a particular character perceive reality and make sense of things? How does she feel, and how do those feelings that drive her choices? What matters to him, and why? Being able to view the world from other perspectives makes us more effective in engaging others and managing ourselves.
To build on the above, reading good fiction powerfully expands your emotional capacities. The point of great art is not to make us feel good—it’s to make us feel more: deeply, widely, authentically. The ability to understand (and then manage) your own and others’ emotions is essential for developing the resilience, persuasion skills, and emotional intelligence that differentiate highly effective leaders and businesspeople from merely ordinary ones. If your role depends on engaging, influencing, and leading others, you will benefit from enhancing your understanding of what makes others tick.
Good fiction is in effect a powerful simulation—and that’s a research-based conclusion. Reading fiction provides you with a wider and deeper set of options for confronting strategic and workplace challenges. Through war-games and simulations, business schools and consulting firms invent companies or scenarios and then play out what happens as decisions are made. Students and clients learn from these cause-and-effect dynamics to apply the insights to their own situations. Great novels offer simulations for our social and interior lives; when reading great novels we enter a fully realized new world and can see causes and effects, all the while asking ourselves what might have happened if the character had thought or acted differently. As Aristotle noted in his Poetics, “the historian speaks of what has happened, the poet of the kind of thing that can happen.”
Following this train of thought, reading good fiction can improve how you make decisions, manage through conflict, and pull people along—all while encouraging you to reflect critically on your own assumptions and perspectives. Much of contemporary culture today, abetted by social media and increasingly short attention spans, is characterized by controversy for its own sake; divisiveness and conflict; reducing complex and nuanced ideas to simplistic conclusions fit for a tweet; and arguing to win rather than listening to understand. The narratives of great fiction can enhance your ability to understand complicated reality more subtly and get to better conclusions and outcomes.
Reading good fiction will improve your writing. We are all constantly bombarded by bad writing. Business documents disguise poor thinking with technical jargon. Inboxes are filled with e-mails inanely urging “deep dives,” “thinking outside the box,” and “touching base offline.” PowerPoint seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of impeding clear communication by even the best writers. Conversely, the prose in great novels reveals both the art and science of good writing: tone, voice, vocabulary, exposition, narrative arc, rhetorical strategy. As a serious reader you’ll gain an edge in powerful and persuasive writing that will set you apart.
Reading good fiction is an incredibly gratifying pleasure. Human beings are narrative creatures, and well-told stories fulfill some of our most innate needs. Getting lost in a book is restorative: it shuts off your sense of time and gives you mental space to ponder in a broader way the bigger questions you’re facing in work and life. Great novels present important issues and then (mostly) resolve them; that progression and ordering stabilizes the soul, helps you make sense of events both tragic and triumphant, and subconsciously teaches you to process your own issues and/or learn to live more comfortably with problems that can’t be resolved.
An obvious question, of course, is: “What is good fiction?”
Any list of recommendations pretending to completeness could number in the thousands, so I’ll offer a baker’s half-dozen of my favorites—books that I think provide the benefits listed above and are also truly enjoyable to read. (While a case could be made for, say, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, we all know that’s probably not going to happen…)
Paul Harding, Tinkers: The Pulitzer Prize winner in 2010, this novel is almost impossible to describe. A stream-of-consciousness family history told from the point of view of an elderly man whose memory and perceptions fade in and out on his deathbed, it’s a lyrical and somehow uplifting meditation on the world we inhabit and the passage of time, deep with psychological insight.
George Eliot, Middlemarch: A novel one should read as an adult, not in high school. Writing under a masculine penname, Mary Ann Evans, the most intelligent of the great Victorian novelists, offers a subtle and complex study of a town transforming through the Industrial Revolution—exploring along the way the social, personal, and intellectual consequences for a dynamically interrelated network of fully formed complex characters. (And it’s just as addictive as Downton Abbey.)
Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son: An epic espionage adventure that veers unexpectedly from harrowing to hilarious to heartbreaking to hopeful, this novel takes the reader deep into contemporary North Korea, profoundly touching on questions of love, freedom, human rights and dignity, and why we sometimes make the choices we do. Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, it’s an audacious work of the imagination and as compelling as a Hollywood blockbuster.
Toni Morrison, Beloved: A poetic and highly imaginative ghost story (maybe), this novel confronts the history of slavery and its consequences for America at both the national and the personal levels. At times wielding the power of myth, the story contends with trauma and healing, family and memory, transformation and redemption. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven: Finalist for the National Book Award in 2015, this novel is a post-apocalyptic saga written in the rich and textured prose style of a Booker Prize winner. When a pandemic eradicates almost all of earth’s population in a matter of days, a small group of people fighting to survive struggle with the fundamental question, “What really matters in life, and why?” Tragic, beautiful, full of hope, and never more timely than right now. (I gave this book out liberally for Christmas 2019, and many recipients sent me e-mails in March 2020 asking if I was psychic.)
Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit: You’ve seen the TV show, now read the novel—I absolutely promise you, the novel is even better. An eight-year-old orphan in 1950s Kentucky discovers she’s a chess prodigy—and eventually rises up to to the global Grandmaster arena. A dazzling story about competition, obsession, prejudice, hardship, and the trials of growing up, it’s also the most thrilling novel you’ll ever read, even if you barely know how to play chess.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day: Ishiguro is a recent winner of the Nobel Prize and one of the most readable of all Prize winners. This novel, revealing the interior life of an English butler during the changing social order of World War Two-era Britain, is a moving and ironic psychological study that offers insights into dignity, duty, professionalism, and how we live with the choices we make.
Why should leaders read good fiction? I hope I’ve made a case here, and perhaps you’ll choose a different kind of book for your next business trip or vacation.
One closing anecdote: A while back I was having dinner with a longtime mentor—an accomplished translator and professor emeritus of literature. I remarked to my former teacher, trying to score a few points, “I have always felt that a great novelist understands others’ lives better than I do.” He looked back at me with a wry smile and replied: “Actually, a truly great novelist understands your life better than you do.”