February 6, 2024

Three Stories Every Great Leader Should Read

Warren Buffett credits his partner, the late Charlie Munger, for much of Berkshire Hathaway’s investment success. Munger, in turn, credits his voracious appetite for reading. “I don’t think you can be a really good investor,” he once said,” without doing a massive amount of reading.” He further underscored this belief saying, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time–none, zero.”

Munger is not alone. There are many leaders who swear that reading is their superpower. But, interestingly, the vast majority will proudly proclaim that they only read non-fiction. Warren Buffett’s top five, Bill Gates’ top three–even Brené Brown’s nightstand–all non-fiction. The variety and depth of these choices is impressive. When you’re looking to be informed, nonfiction can’t be beat.

But to be inspired? To expand your empathy and challenge the way you see the world? That’s the scientifically-proven sweet spot of fiction. Fiction helps you explore relationships, see life in its full complexity, open your mind, and be transported into different worlds. As author and veteran Tim O’Brien said, fiction “is for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth.”

It may seem counterintuitive to imagine that fiction belongs in today's fast-paced, technology-driven workplace. But this is precisely where we need it most. When work is precarious and uncertain, and resources feel scarce, we tend to focus on tasks and put aside both deep thinking and relationships. Fiction pushes us past those blinders and invites us back into humanness. A good story encourages you to reflect on people over productivity, and can even provide the wisdom and insights necessary to navigate the toxic cocktail of uncertainty and fear that is currently derailing many workplaces and teams.

The latest Gallup research reveals that workers are increasingly unhappy: less connected, less satisfied and less likely to believe someone at work cares about them as a person. Your employees are the critical connective tissue in your organization. In this fractured and divided world, finding ways to see, understand and value others–and to honor their diverse perspectives–preserves and protects your workplace and the wellbeing of your people. Reading fiction can make you an avid student of human experience, honing the wisdom and empathy every leader needs. Here are three very short stories that can take your leadership from good to great.

Poseidon By Franz Kafka

The god, Poseidon, riddled with angst, hates his job. After all, he's the God of the Sea who never spends time at sea, because he's stuck at his desk attending to the accounts. It's not that he doesn't have a team, but he's the only one who can do things the “right” way. So he slogs on. He’s not sure whether his role as a leader is a privilege or a prison.

Franz Kafka’s very short story, “Poseidon” feels eerily familiar to the leaders who read it. One private-equity professional found it hit so close to home that he said, “This story should be required reading for anyone who hopes to lead a team.” The story invites readers to think about the challenges of delegating and the leadership skills they wish someone had taught them. It pokes fun at the perennial need to look busy as a proxy for productivity. Kafka challenges us to look at why we do the work we do (destiny, fate or calling) and how hard it is to see the forest for the trees when we get bogged down. Written over 100 years ago, Poseidon packs a shockingly relevant punch.

Dead Men’s Path By Chinua Achebe

Have you ever been so sure of a plan of action that you bullied it through, despite the objections of others? That's exactly what happened to Michael Obi, a young school headmaster in Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path.” Hired to transform a village school in Nigeria, Obi’s ambitions blind him to the traditions, beliefs and culture of the community and its elders. As he clashes openly with a village priest who resists his changes, his chance to succeed evaporates.

For a group of leaders in a high tech company, “Dead Men’s Path” was a cautionary tale about the dangers of reckless innovation. They could see themselves in Obi as they pondered the right balance between old and new, and how to move into the future without destroying the past. A group of leaders preparing for a new CEO, on the other hand, saw something different. They sympathized with the priest, asking themselves how they might preserve their past progress while remaining open to change. The story challenges all its readers to revisit assumptions, and to explore moral conflict in the face of good intention. Grounded in colonial history and written in 1953, Achebe's story also examines larger themes of race, power and complexity, bringing them to life through the tribulations of very flawed human beings.

You Are Now Entering The Human Heart By Janet Frame

In a museum in Philadelphia, a bystander watches an attendant trying to explain the harmlessness of snakes to a class by draping a live snake around the teacher’s neck. In the void between the experienced snake handler and the frightened teacher, an uncomfortable tableau of shame and fear plays out in front of an audience of impressionable school children.

Janet Frame’s story, “You Are Now Entering the Human Heart,” explores the assumptions we make about other people, and our fears of being caught short in a moment of weakness and anxiety. She offers a clear-eyed vision of the personas we strive to preserve at work, and of the difficulty of speaking up for ourselves and others. For business leaders, this story highlights the fragile nature of psychological safety, and the irrevocable damage of casual negligence in interpersonal interactions. Discussing this story, one group of financial advisors explored what it means to be courageous or brave at work, and how much we need empathy as we push people out of their comfort zones. Another group spent time on the snake handler, pondering when the ends might justify the means, even if there’s collateral damage. In a brief and relatable story, Frame’s characters remind us to tread with care as we navigate the workplace, so as not to be oblivious to the sensitivities of those we encounter.

It's hard not to be impressed by how much wisdom can be packed in a good short story. One manufacturing CEO, bullish on non-fiction, had an aha moment when he saw his team engage with literature. “When you can step into the shoes of a character (which is like stepping into the shoes of someone on your team), you recognize that how they’re experiencing the world is very different from how you are experiencing the world,” he realized. “Business books don’t help you to do that.” So, before you pick up the latest book of business advice, also consider the wisdom of fiction. It will expand your insights, heighten your imagination and unlock new and generative ways of seeing your team and the world.

First published on Forbes.com.

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