I’ve always been, even as a young child, an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction. I admit to enjoying fiction novels more than non-fiction books and articles, although I do read a lot of the latter. In the past, while immersed in the pleasure of reading a good fiction novel, I sometimes felt a bit guilty that I might be wasting time that could be better spent on reading some non-fiction work that would enhance my knowledge and professional expertise. However, a recent non-fiction magazine article has changed my perspective and eliminated the “guilty” part of my “guilty pleasure” in reading fiction. Apparently, a childhood hobby of reading fiction books, may also have been an unintended investment in developing leadership skills that helped be successful as an adult.
The March 2013 issue of “The Rotarian” magazine includes a fascinating article titled, “The Truth About Fiction, by Frank Bures.” The article describes the findings of cognitive psychologists that by reading more fiction we enable ourselves to better understand and interact with other people. Numerous studies of children have shown that their exposure to the inner thoughts of, and the dynamics of relationships between characters in fiction books, improves their ability to interact with each other in real life. This ability to perceive, interpret and adjust our behaviors in consideration of the feelings and emotions of others is generally referred to as emotional or social intelligence, and it is a critical leadership skill. Researchers theorize that by reading works of fiction we immerse ourselves in a kind of a social interaction simulator. Exploring and processing these thinking and relationship management simulations builds connections in our brains that enhance our ability to interact appropriately with those around us.
A study is just study of course, and there is much more we need to learn about the linkage between brain development, social intelligence and leadership. However, this notion of using the reading of fiction as a kind social intelligence simulator, really resonates with me. In an organization or a society, we accomplish important things through a network of collaborative interactions between people. The degree to which we achieve our goals and objectives is dependent upon the effectiveness and efficiency of those interactions and that depends on the social skills of the people. The role of a leader, it seems to me, is to plan, guide and facilitate those interactions to achieve the goals of the network.
Of course, we can’t indulge in reading about the world around us to the extent that we isolate ourselves from reality. Nothing can ever replace the “life learning” that we get through real human interaction, but that involves the risk of trial and error. However, what safer, less painless way to build and supplement the development of our human interaction skills, than by learning how to interact with each other through the trials and errors of fictional characters in the books we read. It’s essentially a subtle form of risk management.
So this is yet another compelling reason to encourage everyone, and especially our children, to read. Reading fiction allows us to take an exciting, yet safe ride in a life simulator, learning to be more socially intelligent, more effective collaborators and leaders, and better people.
“Readers are Better Leaders.”