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Try This Novel Approach to Business Reading

06/02/2015 05:32 EDT | Updated 06/02/2016 05:59 EDT
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As a business writer, people often ask me what books they should read to become better leaders. For years, my answer has been the same: read good fiction. If you want to learn how people think and behave, read a novel, a short story, or a play.

A skilled fiction writer creates characters who are emotionally real. While a reader is willing to accept fictionalized plots and settings, a character's emotional responses must ring true. Think of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series: we are willing to accept the fantasy element (replete with dragons) but expect the characters to be emotionally rounded. We will accept anything within a novel, as long as people behave like people.

Within fiction, writers have the freedom to explore difficult circumstances and emotions that few people would be comfortable revealing in real life. As writer and Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian states in his interview with The Guardian,

"It's in literature that true life can be found. It's under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth."

In his article for University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good, University of Toronto Professor Emeriti Keith Oatley explains why fiction is so powerful. Based on his research, Oatley concludes that fiction acts much like a flight simulator: when we read about characters' reactions to different situations, we become trained in the nuances of human emotion. We can better recognize and anticipate how people will react. Oatley states:

"[Fiction] measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves."

Empathy is a key skill for leaders as sometimes, in a world of spreadsheets and margins and quotas, it's easy to forget that business is simply a collection of people working towards a common goal. Think of the efforts we take to depersonalize business. We refer to our "target demographic" when we are trying to figure out who could best use our products. We seek to "acquire talent" rather than find the person who would best fit into our group. When people are no longer needed, we "reduce headcount." Even the term Human Resources is not exactly warm and fuzzy. We routinely advise employees not to take things "personally" even though work is where we spend over half our waking hours. In the movie, You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan's character points out the flaws of this thinking to Tom Hank's character (who has just told her not to take his attempts to ruin her business personally):

"What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's personal to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway?"

Because we tend to frame work as "just business," it's easy to think of the people with whom we work much as they present themselves on LinkedIn. Reading about the inner lives of others on a regular basis reminds us that behind every resume is a fully developed human being with hopes and secrets and fears.

Marketers often use their knowledge of psychology to reach our hidden insecurities: If you drink this soda, you will feel a sense of belonging; If you use our whitening toothpaste, you will no longer be alone. Think of how effective we could be as leaders if we used our understanding of people to better empathize with our employees, clients, and boards. If we know that people feel insecure in times of change, we can adjust our messaging to let everyone know that they will be keeping their jobs for at least one year post-acquisition. If we know that people in some jobs feel isolated, we can look to put them on cross-functional teams. The better we understand the inner workings of people from the books that we read, the more we can anticipate and address their needs and increase engagement.

So what fictional books do I recommend? For me, good fiction appeals to both intellect and emotion. To start, read The Odyssey, Atlas Shrugged, and everything by Anton Chekov. Read The Remains of the Day and Middlemarch. Read Margaret Laurence's The Diviners. Read Macbeth and A Streetcar Named Desire. To learn more about the emotional lives of others, read books by Liane Moriarty, Caroline Leavitt, and Marian Keyes. To learn what people might be hiding, read mysteries and thrillers (they will also fine-tune your problem-solving skills.) If you want to stretch your thinking and learn what universal qualities transcend time and place, read fantasy and historical fiction.

If you have absolutely sworn off fiction, read Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar, a collection of columns from Strayed's stint as an agony aunt for the literary site, The Rumpus. The questions asked and answered focus on dark-night-of-the-soul issues like loneliness, depression, abuse, and grief. The promise of anonymity (even Strayed's identity was hidden at the time) allowed Strayed and those who sought her advice to reveal truths normally reserved for fiction. Fair warning: it's not a book for the timid. But leadership -- real leadership -- is not for the timid either. And if you are going to make tough decisions that impact the lives of your employees, shareholders, clients, and peers, it's good to know what you're facing.

While it is important to read business books to keep abreast of current management thinking, adding fiction to your reading list is one of the best things you can do to build your leadership chops. You will develop your empathy and learn how to interpret and anticipate the reactions of other people, which is key element of success. And as an added bonus, you'll be at least 75 per cent more interesting at dinner parties.

Happy reading!

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