This is Part 4 of an eight-part series addressing the value of reading for leaders’ personal and professional development. You can begin the series with Part I: Introduction HERE.
If you’re like me when I started my professional reading program, I consumed volumes of nonfiction, without even a thought about fiction. When considering fiction books, I think of fantasy series like Harry Potter or Hunger Games; not necessarily books that contribute to leader development (though Angry Staff Officer makes a good argument in writing the many leadership lessons of Star Wars).
There are obvious reasons to read certain nonfiction such as biographies and history, which certainly equip us with knowledge and skills of past events. However, I have recently learned the immense value that fiction can bring to my professional and personal development.
Now, there are two “types” of fiction relevant for professional development and I think it is necessary to address both: historical fiction and science fiction.
The top reasons I encourage readers, especially military professionals, to incorporate historical fiction into their reading programs are:
- The stories inspire us. Fiction tells a story, and there is much literature on the value of leaders using storytelling to compel action.
- They help us better understand the human condition. We are complex and often (unintentionally) contradictory as humans, and our reactions to experiences are often just that. Fiction reflects such complexities that we struggle with in reality. Fiction helps us make sense of our experiences and helps us react to them as well.
- Experience versus “truth.” Historical nonfiction aims to capture the truth of war, and thus the macro-view, which often includes strategy, policy, and the facts. The “micro-view” of an individual experience of war, which we see in fiction, is not necessarily considered the truth of war, but merely the truth of that particular experience. It is important to get both perceptions of war (or historical event).
- Fiction orients toward the experience of war. Fiction often is not interested in the “higher realities” of war (strategy, policy, and the meaning of the facts for those of us not present during it). Rather, fiction aims to share the “existential reality” of one’s experience. As Christopher Coker referenced Ernest Hemingway in his book, Men at War, fiction shares a reality “where each man knows there is only himself and five other men, and before him all the great unknown.” Fiction addresses the essence, experience, and tragedies of war – something military professionals must be able to deal with in reality.
Often associated with “nerdiness,” science fiction tends to deal in the unimaginable future of crazy technology, aliens, intergalactic wars, and how humans deal with this new and complex world introduced in the story. I believe that the best argument for reading science fiction for professional development comes from chapter 8 of P. W. Singer’s book, Wired for War. In it he makes some insightful claims:
- Science fiction forces us to wrestle with the effects that science and technology has on society. The stories are not just about the technologies, but what people do with it and how they deal with the fallout that emerges from it, often offering thought-provoking questions in addition to the jaw-dropping technology effects.
- It is not making predictions about the future, but about playing with the possibilities and asking the “what if” question. Does the idea of 12-year-old children commanding thousands of spacecraft in a war against an alien race, as seen in Ender’s Game, seem like a likely prediction? Of course not. But it is fascinating to consider the question of “what if” and maybe even “why that way?”
- My favorite quote from Singer’s chapter on this topic and what I view as the best argumentative statement to challenge you to read science fiction is: “if you don’t read science fiction, you’re not qualified to talk about the future.”
Ultimately, fiction tells a story about character under stress, in which the reader can relate to and glean real-life lessons from. It creates lessons that apply to our lives, but are not bound by actual historical events, real-life technologies, or the restrictions of how life is today.
My Top Fiction Books to Start
Once an Eagle, by Anton Myrer. Lessons I gleaned: leadership legacy, duty, and transformational vs. transactional leadership in action.
Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, by Steven Pressfield. Lessons I gleaned: duty, military discipline, and the camaraderie and self-sacrifice experienced in the military community.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Lessons I gleaned: an amazing story of one’s growth from individual, to follower, to leader, to leader developer. Ender wrestles with the morality of their war and ultimately gains a respectable love for and desire to understand his enemy, unmatched in anything I’ve seen before.
Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, by P. W. Singer & August Cole. Lessons I gleaned: an idea of what the future of military conflict can look like and a possible future to help me “make sense of our world” today.
The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Lessons I gleaned: the value of stories to cope with war, the emotional complexities of war, and an appreciation for the torn heart of a Soldier. Though argued both as fiction and nonfiction based on the interpretation of the “truthiness” to O’Brien’s stories, his book is officially classified as fiction. Regardless, I highly recommend this book to every military professional to lead them to reflect on the experience of war and making sense of it through stories.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Lessons I gleaned: the insanity (and hilarity) of war and an insight to the “survivalist” attitude of Soldiers today (merely trying to get by and survive their service when not necessarily inspired toward a commitment to their mission).
Find Out More
You can find out more about reading fiction for professional development via these resources:
- “From the Green Notebook” blog posts about fiction here, here, and here. This blog has done much writing to further the inclusion of fiction for military professional development reading.
- Fast Co.’s article on “The Best Business Book You’ll Read All Year Will Be A Novel”
- For the well-read fictionist, you can check out Men At War: What Fiction Tells Us About Conflict, From The Iliad to Catch-22, by Christopher Coker. It is a comprehensive analysis of 25 famous and classic fictional characters and their impact on our understanding of war, which spans over 3000 years of history.
Next week, I discuss on how you can best expand your reading program by leveraging other platforms, such as audiobooks.
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