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how to be a leader

How to Lead with Empathy: Read Fiction

It’s no surprise that great change-makers and business leaders (like Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Nelson Mandela), when asked about their favorite book, say something like “The Great Gatsby” rather than “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” Perhaps this is because fiction influences people in its own right; it makes readers better leaders.

Looking to hone your leadership skills? Here are five reasons why you should pick up a work of fiction:


Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' is a favorite book of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

1. Fiction helps you understand other people’s emotions.

A study by the Journal of Research in Personality uncovered that readers of narrative fiction score highly on tests of empathy and social acumen. Not only that, but they score more highly on tests involving social reasoning . This kind of skill allows great leaders to connect with others on an emotional level, and it provides them with the emotional basis to tell compelling stories that engage others.


2. Fiction increases social ability.

Reading fiction puts you in somebody else’s head, and studies show that this is good practice for us in our ability to relate— not just to people on a one-on-one level– but to groups and in differing social situations. Fiction provides information on how and why people react to combinations of social forces, and by putting ourselves in the mind of the main character, we are challenging our own perspectives. This skill comes in handy for every leader, but you can imagine that a politician without high levels of emotional intelligence and with a less-than-perfect ability to maneuver socially might not retain favorable polls for very long.


3. Fiction enriches brain functioning.

Of all of our organs, the brain is the only one that will continue to grow and function if we nourish it properly. Reading fiction provides your brain with new scenarios that buff up our brains. And fiction gets us more involved than you might think: our brains are responsible for constructing the voices, appearances, gestures, and even smells of characters and scenes in novels. When we watch a play or see a film, many of these interpretations are resolved for us– so here’s a brain-enriching tip: read the book before you see the movie.


'War and Peace' became Nelson Mandela's favorite book when he read it during his years in prison in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela first read his favorite book, 'War and Peace,' while in prison in South Africa.

4. Fiction makes you more creative.

According to research conducted at Emory University, the brain’s reward pathways respond more strongly to unexpected stimuli rather than expected stimuli. Fiction, more so than other genres of literature, provides the most unexpected stimuli. Readers’ brains light up as they face new scenarios. Being exposed to these kinds of creative forces teaches our minds to think and act creatively in return. Want to perfect your creative problem-solving skills? Studies say that detective fiction will help.


5. Fiction makes you smarter. Fiction makes you smarter in two ways. First, reading has been shown to increase vocabulary and vocabulary is arguably the best single predictor of occupational success. Second, fiction exposes you to different time periods and cultures. It’s impossible to read The Great Gatsby without getting a sense of the prosperity of the roaring twenties in America. The Grapes of Wrath takes readers back to the Great Depression. Not only do readers get a professionally beneficial dose of vocabulary by reading fiction, but they also get an engaging history lesson and taste of other cultures.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Miscellaneous, Nonprofit Marketing 1 Comment