People frequently discredit Steve Jobs for lacking emotional intelligence. His callous approach with subordinates and occasionally explosive temperament are often attributed to a lack of empathic ability. In reality, however, Jobs' prickly persona may have been stubbornness and determination. Perhaps Jobs possessed tremendous emotional intelligence. He knew what people wanted and he delivered on that desire, leading a technical revolution that gave us handheld devices more powerful than the Apollo mission computers.
Professional success and leadership development depend on one's capacity for empathy and curiosity. Up to now, little has been understood about how to hone these essential skills. But that is changing with emerging research and the growing recognition that reading great works in the humanities can promote one's ability to imagine and understand things from someone else's perspective and, in turn, to grow in one's career and personal life.
Business executives, in a recent survey, rated empathy and intellectual curiosity as among the five most important skills for success in a digitized and global economy, in which many of our business partners are never in our physical presence. In order to serve the needs of clients and colleagues around the world, we must be adept at understanding their feelings, thoughts, and points of view. Empathy is the sine qua none of the social and emotional intelligence that successful business leaders deploy in complex roles and interactions with people of diverse personalities and cultural backgrounds.
Scientists are studying what strategies might help people to build these skills. Theory of Mind is the capacity to understand that other human beings have mental states distinct from their own. The term also refers to the growing area of cognitive science which studies how people 1) conceptualize what others think and feel; 2) form hypotheses about why others act as they do; 3) appreciate complex emotional and behavioral dynamics in groups. Recent empirical studies examine strategies that might help people to develop such Theory of Mind assets.
A seminal study published in 2013 suggested that rigorous reading of high-quality "literary fiction" enhances Theory of Mind skills. As opposed to "popular fiction," literary fiction (Shakespeare and the like) rigorously presents complex, nuanced characters that challenge and refine the reader's capacity for empathic curiosity. On empirical measures used in this study, high-quality literary fiction was superior to both popular fiction and non-fiction for developing the reader's Theory of Mind. The investigators noted that great literary fiction can "unsettle readers' expectations and challenge their thinking" and, in so doing, "uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters' subjective experiences."
Literary fiction is just one type of humanities text that is relevant to empathy development in the business world. Certain works of poetry and philosophy are other examples. A recent BBC article described poetry as the "super secret weapon" of CEOs such as Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard. Bogle stated that regularly reading renowned poems (such as Ozymandias by Percy Bysche Shelley) enhanced his empathy, introspection, and humility. Reflecting regularly on Shelley's depiction in Ozymandias of the "colossal wreck" of an Egyptian pharaoh's decaying statue, Bogle reminded himself to "play down the arrogance...nothing lasts forever." He now views poetry as a major driving force in his creation of a fund with $3.3 trillion under management, clients in over 80 countries, and the industry's lowest average fees.
A recent article in The Economist entitled Philosopher kings similarly described the potential benefits to business leaders of reading the great texts of Western and Eastern philosophy. The article advocated for "inward-bound courses" that expose executives to the "big ideas" of philosophy and guide them to apply those ideas in everyday life. "You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides's hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts," the author says. "You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to 'culture consultants'."
That being said, reading great works of literature and philosophy is not easy. The texts can be dense and challenging. Some individuals, especially those with educational backgrounds in the humanities, are comfortable reading and reflecting on their own. But for many, the learning experience may be enhanced by structured programs that include readings, seminars, dialogues, and coaching. Some companies have started to invite professors and academic leaders to meeting or retreats to facilitate these discussions, while other companies utilize specially trained executive coaches that focus on operationalizing philosophical ideas in the workplace. When taught well, these inward-bound courses are enjoyable and engaging. And, as new empirical research suggests, they are evidence-based tools for promoting empathy, curiosity, and emotional intelligence.
One coaching client, a senior vice president of a major corporation, made excellent use of reading relevant passages from The Prince by Machiavelli. This client struggled to manage his outbursts of anger toward an employee (but not a direct report) whose performance reflected poorly on the client and his team. Ideas he developed from reading and discussing Machiavelli helped him to use a more subtle communication style and political action "behind the scenes" to move the underperformer into a role that was better suited to her strengths - and less harmful to the client, his team, and the company as a whole.
The implications of these ideas, and the opportunities they present for the business world, are profound. Reading and discussing great humanities texts can guide and encourage people to think in a more disciplined fashion about human experience and interaction. They provoke curiosity and empathic imagination by challenging business leaders to reflect on how the experience of others - including characters such as Hamlet and Socrates - relate to challenges they are facing in business and personal life. (Jobs' favorite was said to be King Lear). Reflecting curiously and open-mindedly on the timeless, practical wisdom presented in humanities texts can be one of the most powerful engines for personal and economic growth in the 21st century. Just ask Siri.