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Want to learn about business? Read a novel

Dec 08, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“Even though everyone can now afford books, still no one reads. It is not just the factory workers who don’t read: managers don’t either. And what they don’t read in particular is novels.
I have just asked two senior executives what it is that puts them off. Both said the same thing: I don’t have time. One claimed to read novels on holiday but, when pressed, could only mention Robert Harris’s latest thriller that he hadn’t quite finished. The other said he read biographies and history. He shunned novels as he liked to learn something from a book.
But on this last point he may be wrong. Managers can learn a great deal from fiction, or so thinks Sandra Sucher. She teaches a course at Harvard Business School in which she makes chief executives sit down and talk about novels.”

Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times (29 Sep 2008)

I could not agree more with Lucy Kellaway, the FT’s legendary columnist. This is something that has often perplexed me: the fact that business leaders and managers commonly just don’t read fiction.

I am often asked by students of management and by leaders who want to raise their game: what should I be reading? Indeed, answering that question was one of the prime motivations behind starting this column. But how many of you would be interested if I were to say you should be reading Tolstoy, Shakespeare, or Hesse in order to improve your management skills? So let me shout it out today: to be better at business, read great novels.

Many accomplished people disdain the reading of fiction. I am interested in facts, not the workings of some overwrought imagination, they will say proudly. I want a reasoned thesis, not a fairy tale, they will add. But I’ve always wondered: why do those who scorn written fiction spend so much time watching movies? Do they imagine that those overblown plots are rooted in reality?

I wrote in the Sunday Nation some time ago: “Fiction is not made-up nonsense. A writer does not enter a sealed vacuum and erase her memory before sitting down to write a story. Stories are rooted in reality, in experience, in all the things we have absorbed about life. All that a story does is provide you with a different lens with which to look at the world – and see new things, hitherto unobserved. The late and much lamented Primo Levi defined a story thus: “A fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and of the human race.””

Business is about life, and so is fiction. The great businessperson must understand people, their driving emotions, their ambitions and their fears, and what causes their rise or fall. A great novelist delivers precisely that understanding. If you want to know your employees and their motivations better; if you want to comprehend the lives of your customers better; if indeed you want to do the Socratic thing and know yourself better; you could do worse than crack open a great novel by a great writer.

I have certainly learned more about life, leadership and motivation from the masters of fiction than I have from most of those lifeless business tracts that managers favour.

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