Business books may be able to explain why it’s important to leverage diverse perspectives, but they tend to be too model-driven to adequately reflect the complexities of the real world. For those insights, especially if you’re in a management position, reach for works of fiction.
I read and recommend fiction when challenging issues arise. Great fiction challenges me with its multifaceted characters in the context of different cultures, identities, conflicts and time periods; this complexity is what many leaders need most to alter their point of view in positive ways.
As a professor of leadership, here are seven literary gems from a diverse set of authors that I’ve read and enjoyed. They make for compelling summer reading and offer some surprising leadership lessons:
1. ‘The Moor’s Account’
This historical novel recounts the experiences of the first Black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave renamed Estebanico.
The imagined memoir presents European imperialism from the viewpoint of an unlikely narrator, and reminds me of a critical lesson: All leaders must seek a broad array of perspectives, especially those which society traditionally has devalued, to achieve a more complete picture of reality for their decision-making.
2. ‘To Live’
Originally banned in China but later named one of that nation’s most influential books, “To Live” tells the life journey of Fugui, who squanders his fortune and becomes a humble peasant farmer, while being swept up into the arc of China’s history — from civil war to the Cultural Revolution.
The power of this story stopped me in my tracks, and I immediately suggested it to friends and family. It offers a universal lesson that wealth and status can be easily lost.
It’s also a reminder to always consider what others, including colleagues, may have gone (or are going) through — and how it’s probably more than they let on.
3. ‘Moth Smoke’
This is the debut novel from Mohsin Hamid of Pakistan, who went on to write the internationally acclaimed bestsellers “Exit West” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The action-packed tale follows the misfortunes of Daru, whose life plummets after he’s fired from his banking job.
I make a habit of reading novels that offer an intimate sense of place. I savored how this one delivered a glimpse of modern-day Pakistan through a sharp, at times witty, cautionary tale with a protagonist who specialized in poor decisions and rationalizations.
A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2018, “Less” is one of my pleasure reads. It follows Arthur, as he tries to outrun his breakup with his boyfriend by traveling the world. As is often the case, he soon finds his problems follow.
This satirical novel is high in entertainment value, but also reminds me about the folly of looking outside ourselves to escape dissatisfaction in our careers or personal lives. In many ways, it’s a candid lesson that’s helpful in both leadership and mentorship.
5. ‘The Intuitionist’
From Black American novelist Colson Whitehead, “The Intuitionalist” offers fresh inroads into frank conversations about race in the workplace and in society.
When Lily, the first Black female Intuitionist, is accused of committing a gross error, how will the truth be revealed? I found a call to action here: to move from simply understanding the benefits of diversity to championing the individuals who hold diverse perspectives.
Otherwise, they, too, are at risk of becoming entangled, or taken down, in organizational politics.
This epic story of a Korean family in Japan explores love, loyalty and building success amid deeply entrenched and generational racism.
At a time of greater conversation about race and social justice, this novel gave me a view of racism from a completely different system, providing parallels and insights into my own.
7. ‘Klara and the Sun’
Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book tells the story of Klara, an extraordinary “artificial friend,” and offers an intriguing look at the potential for human-A.I. relationships and the ethical implications.
As a mother, I found meaning in its poignant exploration of the choices that parents make. It also includes one of my favorite themes from the various works of Ishiguro: Selfless devotion may allow us to achieve occupational excellence, but it may also leave us disappointed, so we must choose our loyalties wisely.
Brooke Vuckovic is a professor of leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is also the faculty director of coaching for Zell Fellows, Kellogg’s venture accelerator program. Outside of the Kellogg, Brooke has provided highly-personalized coaching and support to top-level executives for nearly two decades. Follow her on LinkedIn.