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Good Leaders Should Read Novels

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Sea Rocks at Dawn-s.cI recently trailed one of my children on school visiting day and was struck by the relevance of the English lesson. The students were discussing difficult choices, using as their texts the novel “Tuck Everlasting” and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Less Traveled.”  The lesson reminded me of why I love novels (aside from the fact that I was an English major), and why I think leaders should read them.

In an article earlier this year about CEO character traits, the New York Times’ Peter Brooks postulates that reading novels could offer these leaders “greater psychological insight, a feel for human relationships, a greater sensitivity toward their own emotional chords.”  He’s on to something. I would add to his list the following:

  1. Perspective on Difficult Choices. As in life, the characters in novels rarely get black and white choices.  Tom Sawyer has to confront racial injustice as he considers his friendship with Huck. Edith Wharton’s Lily Barth in House of  Mirth tries to find a way to avoid the socially and financially correct marriage that society in her time demands. James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom struggles with the existential crises of the individual living in modern collective society in Ulysses. The list goes on.  By reading these novels we gain insight into our own dilemmas.
  2. A View of Character.  “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” by Joyce Carol Oates was one of my favorite–yet difficult–reads this year. The way this brilliant novelist draws us into the protagonist’s shocking childhood helps a reader understand what can lie behind broken familial relationships and what it takes to be a survivor.
  3. A View Into Other Cultures. Another favorite novel of mine is “The Piano Tuner,” a stunning first novel which provides a view into the unequal relationships within the British Colonial empire, and specifically in Myanmar, at the end of the 19th century.  While set in a distant time and culture, some of the scenes are achingly heartbreaking, and can give us some context for the continuing struggles of the Burmese people.
  4. An Ability to Change One’s Mind. I recently read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by literary power-house John Fowles, and had the pleasure to discuss it in a book club led by my wonderful former high school English teacher.  Over the course of reading the novel, I completely changed my mind about the “woman” of the title, Sarah.  Through Sarah, Fowles slowly brought me to a new perspective on all the characters in the book, as well as a view of modern relationships.  Being able to change one’s mind is something we are less and less able to do in our society, as we seem to be forced into clearly defined groups whose minds have been made up for us (by religious affiliation, by gender, by political party, neighborhood, school choices for our children, etc.).  Being able to think about perspective is the great gift of the novel.

So for all these reasons, I highly recommend that leaders read fiction, and specifically the novel. Try handing out a novel to your board and staff at your next meeting and then schedule a discussion of one or two of the topics above at a subsequent gathering.  It might just give you a new way to think about problems, people, and choices.

Do you have a great novel to recommend?