June 14, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
What are you reading this summer? The question is important for your leadership development. I suggest fiction. It’s a powerful and enjoyable pedagogy.
When we read fiction, author Annie Dillard reminds us, we slow life down: study it and our reactions to it.
Good fiction lets us view events from multiple perspectives – our own, the writer’s, and the various characters in the story – increasing our understanding of human diversity; the impact of time, culture, and experience; and the frames of reference we use to make sense of all that.
It offers a behind-the-scenes look into the complexities of organizational life. In today’s world, educators and authors do a disservice when they convey the illusion of simplicity or control with models and theories that portray the workplace as linear, rational, neat, and tidy. Human nature is complicated, and social processes like leadership and management are steeped in ambiguity, confusion, and choice. Good literature acknowledges that and plays out human nature in its fullness.
Internal struggles, confusion, ambiguity, and doubts of the soul are all par for the course. Leadership looks more like the gritty and human process that it is – and less glamorous and heroic – when seen through the difficult choices of compelling characters.
The health sciences have known this for a long time. They have a strong tradition of encouraging the use of literature – the reading and writing of it – for growth: the medical humanities are a well-established curricular tradition in medical education. Leadership education could borrow a page from their play book.
Harvard Professor of Medical Humanities and Psychiatry emeritus Robert Coles sees it like this: fiction and storytelling deepen the inner life of those who work at life’s harsh boundaries, offering insights into the role of learning and growth from disappointment and suffering, providing historical perspectives on the meaning of care and service, and more.
Reading fiction nurtures skills in observation, analysis, diagnosis, empathy, and self-reflection – capacities essential for good healthcare givers and for good leaders in any field.
Where to start? Anything that appeals to you – contemporary or classic. It’s the process of reflecting on the story, its characters, their struggles, and your reactions that matter.
Dip a toe in the water with business ethicist Joseph Badaracco’s Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature. The book uses nine pieces of literature to examine challenges that test a leader’s soul. Read and think about a suggested work, and then use Badaracco’s chapter on it to stretch your own thinking. The book offers its own self-study course, modeled on Badaracco’s long-term Harvard Business School course.
Or do something similar using On Leadership that captures lectures by organizational theorist James G. March from his famous Stanford course on learning about leadership through the classics using works like Shakespeare’s Othello, Shaw’s Saint Joan, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
“Literature is an extension of life not only horizontally, bringing the reader into contact with events or locations or persons or problems he or she has not otherwise met,” reminds philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “but also vertically, giving the reader experience that is deeper, sharper, and more precise than much of what takes place in life.”
 Nussbaum, M. (1990). Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 48.