Great Leaders Read Fiction

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.
Octavia Butler – Parable of the Sower

“Great leaders are Made not Born”

The thousands of books and articles published on the subject of leadership effectively illustrate how difficult it is to define the often paradoxical qualities of a great leader.

The Centre for Creative Leadership has found the Core Leadership Skills to be:
Self awareness, Communication, Influence, Learning agility, Integrity, Gratitude, Empathy, Courage, Respect and an Ability to delegate.

Great leaders are also expected to have vision, be humble, virtuous, inspirational, charismatic, intelligent, just, generous and compassionate.

Great leaders must know how to Unite all participants in a team to achieve a common goal, and they must know how & when to Praise, Encourage & Admonish.

Great leaders must develop Trusting Relationships by
Sharing Responsibility & Sharing Accolades.

Great leaders must know when to take the Role of the Hero and when to take the Role of the Sage.
Great leaders must be able to accommodate a variety of Perspectives and balance a range of Outcomes.

Great leaders must be Mentors who listen to their team members, can recognize and nurture the Potential in individuals, and can Inspire & Motivate individuals to achieve that potential within the goals of the team.

David Foster Wallace says:
“A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get up to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

How does fiction help us decide
what type of leader we want or want to be, and
How does fiction help us to differentiate Great Leaders
from Tyrants and Charlatans?

Reading fiction activates our Default Mode Network – the regions of the brain associated with all the activities that Make Us Who We Are as Individuals and as Members of Society.

The Default Mode Network is responsible for:

  • Personal Narrative – developing our Self Knowledge, understanding our Strengths and Weaknesses, and our Personal Traits and Emotions,
  • Theory of Mind – necessary for Empathy and Moral Reasoning, interpreting Social and Cultural Information, and embracing Diversity,
  • Memories (forming and recalling), comprehending Narratives and Imagining the Future,
  • Insight & Intuition, Spontaneous Thought, AHA Moments & Snap Decisions, Creative Problem Solving, Lateral & Logical Thinking,
  • Vicarious Learning, Simulations & Predictions, learning from the experiences and observations of Wise, Courageous & Intelligent Strangers.

Reading Fiction nurtures our Core Confidence – an amalgam of Hope, Efficacy, Resilience & Optimism – and helps us to adopt a Growth Mindset which in turn boosts our Core Confidence in a positive feedback loop.

  • Hope is fostered by Stories that help us identify our Values, visualize our Goals, & imagine multiple Pathways toward those goals.
    Hope also helps us to overcome setbacks and detours.  
  • Efficacy influences the Goals we choose and the confidence to attempt new skills.
    Efficacy is developed primarily through mastery but also Vicariously.
    With Efficacy we understand and accept that outcomes develop over time.
  • Resilience determines how we respond to the pain of failure, experience loss or distress.
    Resilient individuals take Responsibility for their Own Wellbeing and they make Positive & Personal Connections, Accept & Give Help, and model Love, Trust, Support & Respect.
  • Optimism is rejuvenated by Stories that help us Combat Negative Influences, Clarify our Focus and present Alternative Ideas.

Leadership is a social process.
The list of what makes a good leader could include every positive human quality.
And every leader brings their own leadership style to the role so there are many different styles of leadership.
But serious literature tells us that Leaders should first Understand Themselves if they want to succeed.

David Foster Wallace said,
“The word leader itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all. A real leader is somebody who … is able to inspire people … [and] get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality … but we always know it when we see it, even as kids.” …
“A leader’s real authority is a power you voluntarily give [them] and you grant this authority not with resentment or resignation, but happily; it feels right.”

Indeed, it is often easier to identify poor leadership than to recognise a Great Leader for, as Lao Tzu says,
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

But while we may not be able to isolate the Qualities of a Great Leader, there is plenty of evidence to support the comment by Val McDermid, speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2020, that Great Leaders Read Fiction


Anhalt, E. (2017, October 16). Ancient Greek wisdom for today’s leadership crisis. The Conversation.

Nevin, M. (2017, October 8). Why Leaders Should Read Fiction. Linkedin.Com.

Popova, M. (2014, February 17). David Foster Wallace on Leadership, Illustrated and Read by Debbie Millman. Brain Pickings.

Popova, M. (2020, August 23). Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders. Brain Pickings.

Shinagel, M. (2013, March 7). The Paradox of Leadership. Blog.Dce.Harvard.Edu.

What Are the Characteristics of a Good Leader? (2019, January 14). Center for Creative Leadership.

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