How Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Leader with Melanie Bell

How Reading Fiction Can Make You A More Effective Leader

On this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit podcast, we explore a unique perspective on leadership with Melanie Bell, the founder of Leaders Who Fiction. Melanie shares how reading fiction can make you a better leader, offering a compelling reason to pick up a good book. Don’t miss this episode if you’re ready to explore a new dimension of leadership development!

Meet Melanie Bell, Co-Founder of Strategic Piece

Melanie Bell earned a BA in international development from McGill University in Montreal and an MBA from Rice University in Houston. She is the co-founder of Strategic Piece, a company that helps B2B businesses generate revenue growth by bringing together their marketing, sales, and service teams around an information-driven customer experience. However, Melanie also founded Leaders Who Fiction, an online book club and community for people who want to improve their leadership skills by reading fiction.   

Melanie wants to give leaders permission to read fiction again! Her mission is to help people develop leadership skills by reading fiction and participating in intellectual business-oriented conversations centered around a selected novel. 

She explains her passion project, saying, “So, in essence, it’s a monthly online book club. We meet over Zoom once a month, and we’ve all read the same book. And so we all get on Zoom and, for an hour, discuss the book like a traditional book club would. We’ve all read the book, though with a slightly different perspective, which is being really intentional about picking out the leadership themes and lessons from what we’ve been reading.”

Why Should Leaders Read More Fiction? 

Melanie explains the benefits of reading, saying, “ I think a lot of people are reading business books or getting podcasts and having a lot of content downloaded that way. And I feel like there’s a time and a place for business books. I always feel bad when I sound like I’m knocking them and like, they’re not important, but do I think that there’s a purpose for them. 

But what I really love about fiction is that when we read from a neuroscience perspective, our brains switch into simulation mode. And so, in a novel, we’re actually walking around in a protagonist’s shoes. So whoever that main character is, we’re really, our mind has gone into this very immersive environment and walking around in this totally other wor different world. So it’s really good from a mental health perspective to unplug and, and you know, put your, transport yourself into another time and place. 

But the other great thing is you’re also fiction writers are really trying to explore the gray area and moral dilemmas and ethical dilemmas, whereas a lot of times in business books, cases, case studies that will, will get broken down and everything’s very black and white. So it tends to be pretty obvious what somebody should do in a given scenario. And so I just think that there are a lot of benefits in terms of that simulation in terms of building empathy.”

The Hidden Benefits of Reading Fiction

Later in the episode, Melanie and Jenn delve into some of the lesser-known benefits of reading, including: 

  • Stress Management—A 2009 study from Mindlab International at the University of Sussex found that reading reduced stress levels by 68%. That made it more effective than other soothing activities like taking a walk or listening to music.
  • Increased Attention Span – Blocking out time for undistracted reading will improve your ability to focus for longer periods of time. 
  • Strengthens Empathy – Reading fiction allows you to put yourself in another person’s shoes, whether they are similar or different to your own experience. This develops empathy, a key leadership skill. 
  • Improves Strategic Thinking – As readers navigate a book’s plot twists and turns, they engage intellectually with the story, imagining what they might do next or how they might solve this problem. This is similar to role-playing and gives leaders practice thinking strategically.
  • Builds Communication Skills – Reading also strengthens communication skills by improving vocabulary, grammar and writing skills.  

How to Make Reading a Leadership Habit

Later in the episode, Jenn and Melanie discuss people’s struggles with finding time for reading or with their attention spans. 

Melanie shares, “I mean, putting my marketing hat on right now, it’s like every piece of content people want is shorter and shorter. And we have shorter attention spans, and we kind of need to start countering that so that we can keep our focus and really engage in deep thought work, for example. Reading novels definitely helps. So, you can sit down and read for six minutes, and that’s okay, but at the same time, maybe you sit down and read for a longer stint and work on your focus skills too.”

Jenn agrees, “I think that’s true. My partner talked about how he loves TikTok, and in the same token, he also said that he thinks that TikTok is making his attention span worse, but yet he keeps picking up TikTok <laugh>, and I keep telling him to read a book <laugh>.  So know that, of course, technology is going to affect our brains. So, maybe you do need to get back into the habit of reading, and maybe it starts with two minutes, and then you get to six minutes. But at least you’re starting to build the habit.”

Where to Find More From Melanie Bell

Be sure to listen to the full episode to get Melanie’s reading recommendations, and learn more about what’s happening next with Leaders Who Fiction!

To find out more about Melanie Bell:

Connect on LinkedIn 

Visit Leaders Who Fiction