There is no doubt that empathy, commonly tied to the emotional quotient or “EQ” score of the individual, is a key factor in leadership success. Empathy is tied to the ability of a leader to successfully moderate behaviors and relationships, and is even correlated to an understanding of bioethics and some definitions of morality*. However, there is a persistent myth that EQ is a fixed attribute that is hardwired into a person’s brain and can only be modified through careful focus and training directed at its improvement. This is, on its face, garbage because of a volume of research between 2011 and the present that associate the reading of fictional material with better performance in many empathy-related performance areas.
The basic idea is that readers who are able to put themselves in the place of the characters in the story are better able to adjust their perspective to understand the real world issues of those around us. When we read fiction, particularly fiction with believable and engaging characters that have human flaws and emotional baggage, we are essentially practicing our skills of deep interpersonal relationship building in a safe and very engaging venue: our own mind.
Why is this a big deal?
I believe incorporating reading of fiction into our lives in a very deliberate way is a critical idea because we fall short in this area as we become distracted by other things. We might agree that it is generally true that reading and keeping up with current research is important to leaders. However, the constant digestion of nonfiction material to obtain data and information may be supplanting our need to improve our understanding of the lives of others.
Some may jump to the conclusion that watching movies or television gives the same benefit with less of a commitment of mind and time, but this is not generally true. The reason is that movies and television do not focus or even, in most cases, allow the consumer to understand what the character is really thinking or feeling — we are generally just along for the ride as we passively watch the events unfold from our side of the fourth wall. Books and audiobooks, however, frequently narrate the thoughts and feelings of one or more of the subjects in a way that allows us to see the situation from their perspective, which is the key benefit we are trying to get as it relates to improving our EQ.
Where to begin?
If you really have no idea of where to start, I recommend beginning with some of the adult classics with rich characters that aren’t too long to read or listen to over a week of commuting. Volumes written in a genre that you are curious about or already understand fairly well — I’m partial to military-based science fiction centered around special operations teams — then you already have a bit of buy-in to the subject and the happenings of the characters. From there, figure out what you might enjoy that would give you a decidedly different perspective and characters that see things a different way. From the perspective of training our EQ, we need some diversity of characters and situations, so we will have to make sure not to wind up in a closed-loop or an echo chamber. If you hate fighting, find a book where the central character is a fighter of some kind; you get the picture.
At the end of the day, training our EQ requires time, and given that most good libraries have books for free (even audiobooks), the resources required beyond time are minimal. Fortunately, it is okay to enjoy this training as well, and to read stories and characters that you enjoy, so it may enrich your life far beyond your EQ.