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Learn Nuances of Leadership: Read Fiction

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Read Business Scholarship and Theory Too

The reading lists of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett make fascinating reading. Both are avid readers. According to a Fast Company story by Stephanie Vozza, Buffett spends 80 percent of his day reading, and Gates reads for an hour a night before going to bed.

Gates 2015 favorites, which he shares on his blog, include The Road to Character by David Brooks, and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck. He introduces his selections by explaining that he enjoys books about how things work. Buffett shares his favorites, many of which deal with multiple aspects of economics and investing, in his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway.

Ajit Singh, partner at the venture capital firm Artiman Ventures and consulting professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford University, told Fast Company reading 50 to 60 books a year helps him be a better communicator. "Leadership requires storytelling; the story can be the vision of the company, or an acquisition plan, or an impending layoff," he says. "Telling a compelling story and listening with empathy have contributed much to my skills as a leader."

Mark Zuckerberg, whose goal last year was to read a book every two weeks, started a Year of Books page on Facebook that works as a book club where he and followers discuss books and invite authors to participate by webcasts.  

Some scholars urge business leaders keep to fiction in their reading repertoire.  Joseph Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, says the multidimensional nature of great works of literature can open people’s minds to perspectives and experiences that differ from their own, and enhance their own self understanding. “Literature givers students a much more realistic view of what’s involved in leading” than many business books on leadership, Badaracco said in a Harvard Gazette article. “Literature lets you see leaders and others from the inside. You share the sense of what they are thinking and feeling.  In real life, you’re usually at some distance sand things are prepared, polished. With literature you can see the whole messy collection of things that happen inside our heads.” He says literature presents historical, ethical and emotional subtleties that aren’t always visible in the real world.

Dr. Badaracco teaches a Harvard course on literature and leadership, and in his book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature,  he says leaders can develop their understanding of complex issues as they reflect on struggles of fictional characters. One piece on his reading list, for  instance, is “Blessed Assurance¨ by Allan Gurganus, in which a young man struggles with his conscience as he wants to be a good person and good professional and at the same time he is misleading poor people about insurance he sells. Dr. Badaracco had his students study A Man for All Seasons, in which Thomas  More struggles to balance his conscience, his faith and the safety of his family. He suggests Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer to explore the meaning of responsibility. 

The 2,500 year old play Antigone by Sophocles has the heroine, who believes deeply in family values and honor, at odds with the king, who wants to promote the stability of the state and peace after along civil war. Dr. Badaracco says that basic conflict is instructive, as is the chorus, which seems to waver from one perspective to another in trying to make sense. The higher one gets in an organization, he said in an HBR blog, the more difficult, complex, grey areas a leader will have to confront.  

Dr. Badaracco says he has been surprised by how often his students over the years have rated Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro as a books they valued greatly. It’s about a British butler who serves high ranking English officials between 1920 and 1930 and struggles with his disappointments and his own high standards. Perhaps, Dr. Badaracco observes, his young American students are wondering about the fate of their own high standards and their own potential responses to disappointment. 

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