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A Little Czekhov for Better Leadership?

Hi, I trust you and yours are well.

Thank you always for reading my books and free bi-monthly broadcasts, and using my tools and strategies for winning in a VUCA world with freedom, power and peace of mind.*

*You probably know by now: VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Perhaps you also know the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times 😉

Today I have something fascinating for you: Researchers at the New School for Social Research in New York City have found that if you read literary fiction for a few minutes every day, you will be better prepared for difficult negotiations, blind dates or interviews.

Come again? How on earth can novels help you with business?

But before your eyes glaze over, let me tell you how the experiment went. The New School researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano recruited people ranging in age from 18 to 75 for each of five experiments. The subjects were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes.

Some read excerpts from award-winning literary fiction by Don DeLillo or Wendell Berry. Others were given bestsellers like a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science fiction.

In one experiment, some participants read nonfiction excerpts, for example from “How the Potato Changed the World” or “Bamboo Steps Up.”

“This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel “The Round House” was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”

“Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries,” she added.

After reading the excerpt—or in some cases after reading nothing—the participants took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario.

In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” subjects did just that: they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed.

Is the woman with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful? Is the man whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive? Is she interested or irritated, flirtatious or hostile? Is he fantasizing or guilty, dominant or horrified?

The researchers—Emanuele Castano, a psychology professor, and David Comer Kidd, a doctoral candidate—found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction.

This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much.

Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers—and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.

So is it time to add a little high-brow culture to your daily leadership regimen? The research says yes: A daily dose of literature builds social skills, empathy and emotional intelligence.

I can back that up with my own life experience. Decades ago, from age 17 to 22, I worked as an actor and (for two productions) director at the theater in Basel, Switzerland.

You read correctly: I was on stage and led others to be on stage. The money was not great, but the training was.

Much later in life, when I was in the hot seat of leadership, I came to think of those five years as the perfect leadership education. I had learned public speaking, being authentic and staying yourself while people watch you, the art of improvisation, adapting under uncertainty, teamwork, and empathizing with a character—a terminally ill patient with a brain tumor, a suicidal student, a doctor, a worker, a murderer.

In one role I played a teenager who killed himself, in another a young man ravaged by a brain tumor, in another an orphan fighting against his despotic legal guardian. Standing in the shoes of these characters gave me a deeper sense of what it means to be human.

Is the same true for reading literature? Does it help you see more clearly and read between the lines in complex human systems?

The idea that what we read might influence our social and emotional skills is not new. Previous studies have correlated various types of reading with empathy and sensitivity. More recently, scientists have used emotional intelligence perception tests to study, for example, children with autism.

What is remarkable about the research by Comer Kidd and Castano (published in Science) is the fact that they got their results after just a few minutes of reading fiction.

“It’s a really important result,” said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research, to The New York Times.

“That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”

Action. Just for the fun of it, select a literary fiction book you’ve meant to read for some time. (By the way, these books are often free on the Internet: For example, I downloaded Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot for free.) Schedule 10 minutes a day in your calendar. (In most calendars, such as Google or Mac calendar, you can schedule a daily event.) Then post below what you find. I look forward to reading you. For further details or questions, please email me at




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