Literature and Leadership

My fascination with literature being related to one’s work started in grad school. I’ve always enjoyed literature, which is why I chose the English discipline for grad school. The thought of reading books full-time and writing about them made my heart sing. So I was a little sad when I went on to get another degree in educational leadership because I saw my literature days as being over. Then entered the woman who changed my life: Dr. Kathleen Casey (may she rest in peace). I will never forget the moment I looked at her syllabus. I was taking a class on understanding the concept of “education” and this woman decided to teach the entire class using literature! Cue the music.

I honestly can’t tell you how she got us to connect the concept of education to works of fiction and nonfiction, but she did it. Ever since that class, I have been fascinated with using literature to teach subjects other than English. So, imagine my interest when I came across an article linking reading literature to good leadership.  As I dug a bit deeper, I found multiple articles arguing this same charge: if you want to be a good leader, read more books. Not only self-help books or books on leadership (which can be helpful), but works of fiction, magical realism, historical fiction, etc. Apparently, reading books and allowing yourself to connect with characters, feel emotions, and wrestle with the characters making tough decisions all aid in making us better leaders.  Well I had to see if this was true (Hint: I already suspected it to be true).

Now I love reading, and I have an unhealthy habit. I have books lying around my house that I haven’t read. GASP! I see a book, I get it, and then I see another book and get it. I’m horribly behind on my reading, so for this experiment, I wouldn’t allow myself to get a new book until I had read at least one of those lying around the house. I chose Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds. At the time, I didn’t connect reading about the Great Depression to being emotional. Yep, I missed that one.

The Four Winds

Three days later, I had finished the book. I laughed, cried (cried hard), yelled, and stayed up longer than I should have, engaging with these characters. With each chapter, I had a different favorite character. Once I thought I had one person figured out, the next chapter made me rethink everything. I completely understand why Dr. Casey used literature to teach her students about concepts and roles in life. It’s complicated!  So is leadership. Let me explain the connection:

  • Reading books where a character wrestles with decision-making because it’s not cut and dry?  Leadership.
  • Choosing to move in one direction, even though the odds of it working out isn’t concrete? Leadership.
  • Having people mad at you and others happy with you? Leadership.
  • Doing what is best, even if it doesn’t gain you applause at first?  Leadership.

While the novel reminded me of leadership concepts and moments, the part that made it wonderful was feeling all of those emotions that I just described. I was able to put myself in the positions of the different characters, which allowed me to understand their perspectives. That’s really one of the main components of leadership: making the best decisions and having enough empathy to relate to your team.

I’m going to continue with this theme over the summer, and I’ve chosen my next two books already:  

Where the Crawdads Sing and Half of a Yellow Sun

If you haven’t divulged in literature recently, try it out. See what you learn about yourself and others.

Keep leading and stay safe,

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