Can reading literary fiction enhance leadership skills?

Every since Daniel Goleman published his seminal work on emotional intelligence (Emotional Intelligence, 1995, Bantam Books), it has been well appreciated that effective leadership requires much more than simple mastery of facts.  Leaders need the capacity to interact effectively with people on a personal, non-cognitive level, which led Goleman to propose that emotional intelligence was at least as important, if not more so, than I.Q.

Viewed now, almost 20 years later, this idea seems obvious.  The concept of “leadership” is only relevant if more than a single person is involved, and as soon as people need to work together, effective interaction requires empathy for emotional states, different communication styles, and non-verbal cues.

So improving one’s emotional intelligence — in particular one’s ability to interpret correctly non-verbal cues and emotional states — is an important leadership skill.  The question then becomes, “How can it be done?”

The most recent contribution to that conversation was recently published on-line by the journal Science, the primary publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  In their October 3rd article titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York City, write:

Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM.

In simple terms?  Literary fiction is typically character driven, rather than plot driven, as is more typical of popular or genre fiction.  Following a story being advanced by characters requires that the reader engage with the characters themselves, with all the nuance, ambiguity, and subtlety given to them by their creators.  Reading literary fiction therefore trains the reader to interpret nuance, ambiguity, and subtlety.

The authors note that they aren’t (yet) able to demonstrate that this effect lasts over time, primarily because their experiments weren’t designed to look for that.  But like all good science, their results open the door to more questions worth pursuing.

But even these limited results are intriguing.  The connections between the humanities and leadership are even more direct than the simple truism that leaders need to be well-rounded citizens of the world.

To improve your leadership skills … go read a literary book!

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