Should Leaders Read Fiction?

I have noticed a common theme among leaders: they rarely read novels. 

Whether they’re the CEO of a business, the pastor of a church, or a manager of a team, most leaders I’ve known stick to nonfiction. While I do believe reading books on leadership, self-help, autobiographies, etc. is crucial to grow in various areas, there can be deep value found in reading fiction as well. 

Many people believe reading stories that aren’t based on true events is a waste of time, but one can learn much about the human experience through literature. Personally, I love the power of emotion that comes through fiction. As Richard Flanagan points out in his gripping novel, The  Narrow Road to the Deep North, “A good book…leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.” Not only has reading fiction taught me how to tell great stories, which is at the heart of being a public speaker,  but it also opens a window to see things from a different perspective. I’ve found that reading fiction allows my mind to wander beyond what’s possible today, which leads to innovation and new insights. 

One of the greatest benefits of reading fiction is how it often moves us to empathize with characters that we usually would not encounter in our everyday lives. One of my favorite series is the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. The books depict life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, a 30 year saga of Captain Jack Aubrey, from shipmate to Commander. I’ve read all 21 books twice, and some might question whether reading those 14,000+ pages was a judicial use of my time. Quite simply, I would not be the leader I am without having enveloped myself in the leadership conundrums and challenges that my friend Jack found himself in. I have tried to model myself into the bold, decisive and empowering leader that O’Brian created. Many times when faced with a tough decision I literally will ask myself, ‘what would Jack do?’  More than any non-fiction leadership book, these stories put me in the middle of a complex case study, surrounded by realistic personalities, making emotional and gut wrenching decisions. 

As an international leader, cross cultural communication is central to my leadership. Reading great fiction authors doesn’t just introduce me to a national context or explain a culture’s norms and customs, it envelops me into the soul of a people. When I read Orhan Pamuk I feel as if I have lived a portion of my life in Turkey. I travel across Sri Lanka and feel the ethnic tension through the pages of Ondaatje‘s books or the beauty of Gibran’s Lebanon, or the mystical mind of Rushdie’s India. 

Great literature teaches us to keep our audience in mind and to express ideas in a variety of ways that will suit that audience best. The power of story and narrative is more memorable and sticky than any principle I’ve read.

In order to communicate the heart of your organization, ministry, or team, you have to be a good storyteller. Even though the stories you tell will be different from the stories you read, there are still characteristics and techniques of fictional and narrative storytelling that are crucial to captivate your audience. To really become a better storyteller, you have to experience the best stories yourself.

If you’ve never been much of a fiction reader, I encourage you to give it a chance! You have to find the books that are right for you, but thankfully there are endless incredible novels to choose from. 

What is your favorite fiction and why?

Posted by

Rob Hoskins is the president of OneHope. Since taking leadership of OneHope in 2004, he has continued to advance the vision of God’s Word. Every Child. by partnering with local churches to help reach more than 1.8 BILLION children and youth worldwide with a contextualized presentation of God’s Word.

6 thoughts on “Should Leaders Read Fiction?

  1. Loved this post, Rob. I think fiction can be more “true” than any non-fiction book.

    Dostoevsky is brilliant. He brings so much psychology and theology into his work beyond just being a great storyteller. The chapter called The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov still gives me chills.

    Steinbeck is another favorite of mine. Specifically, the idea of ‘timshel’ (thou mayest) in East of Eden had me looking at the story of Cain and Abel in an entirely new light.

  2. Dear Rob, you directly hit Myanmar conservative church’s culture. Many think that reading a fiction for a pastor or church’s leader is sinful. It is expected that a pastor or church’s leader should read the Bible, the scripture related book, and Christian literature. Non-Christian literature books are regarded as unholy books. On the one hand, excellent literatures and writing books available in the country are not related with Christianity at all. For this reason, i stopped reading fictions and many myanmar excellent writing novels and fictions for the past 25 years. Now, I am released from the bondage. I will read again and develop my literature knowledge and writing skills.
    Thank you for writing this article for me and many myanmar Christian leaders.

  3. Great post Rob. Based on your recommendation 20 years ago I read O’Brian’s first Aubrey/Maturin novel Master and Commander. Then all 21 novels in the series. Then all 21 second time. Now I’m listening to them all in Patrick Tull’s excellent reading (audio book) as I drive or exercise. Three times! I hope I live long enough to enjoy them a forth!! I’ve learned more about leadership and friendship from Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin than anywhere else (except the Bible). Who could not say the same about Lewis’s space trilogy, his Till We Have Faces, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? Fiction enters us into reality from a different direction and engages our mind on a different level. What were the parables if not fiction? Fiction is invaluable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.