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By Timothy Askew; reprinted from Inc. with the kind permission of Timothy Askew.

Here’s a novel idea.  If you want to improve your efficacy as an empathetic leader of your company, read more literary fiction.

Such is the implication of a study that came out of an article in Science a couple of years ago.  The piece was published by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, out of New York’s New School For Social Research.  Without going into meticulous detail, their study compared control groups which read different types of books for three to five minutes:  popular fiction, non-fiction, and literary fiction found that people performed much better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence after reading literary fiction.  These are the very values increasingly esteemed in business leaders.

Louise Erdrich, whose novel The Round House was used in one of the Kidd and Castano experiments, says, “This is why I love science.  [The researchers] found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”  After reading (or in some cases reading nothing) the subjects of the study took computerized tests that measured ability to take in and understand emotions or predict a person’s point of view in a particular scenario.  The readers of good literature exceeded in the tests of general empathic perception.

Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, of Cambridge University, says he would have expected that reading generally would make people more empathetic and insightful, “but to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from other forms of reading is remarkable.”

To my mind, there are practical take-aways for the entrepreneur here.  Before any of us enter a meeting–whether it be with our board, a prospect, or an investor–activating our passion, human wisdom, and metaphorical intuition is as helpful as our data-driven presentation of facts.  This is what people respond to.  This is what quickens the heartbeat of our communicants and enlivens their warmth and human responsiveness.

Not just literature but all of the liberal arts are crucial for developing skills of empathy.  This is not much emphasized in the increasingly technical, data-centric way much of present business pedagogy is oriented.  I would say that in the long-term, a broad education in thinking and the cumulative wisdom of the ages buttresses skills of resourceful human resiliency and flexibility that supports an increasingly vital intuitive entrepreneurial nimbleness, supporting good understanding of the long-term strategic forest, as well as near-term technical trees.  In addition to understanding the emotional nuance of our colleagues, they assist us in seeing historical patterns and intuitively adjusting to the quick-moving future.  It helps us to hear and truly understand other people’s stories and tell our own stories in an accessible manner.  (For more on this see my Inc. Magazine post The Coming Era of Empathetic Entrepreneurship)

Brene Brown, Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, says, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”  Yes.

TimAskew_15538Tim Askew is the owner of sales firm Corporate Rain International and a member of the Inc. Business Owners Council. He has several advanced degrees, and has been a tennis pro, actor, opera singer, Broadway producer, dishwasher, bartender, minister, and college assistant dean. Askew is the author of the new book The Poetry of Small Business (available on Amazon).  @TimothyAskew