How Successful People Read Books: Northwestern Expert Brock Vukovich

The best leadership advice you receive may already be on your bookshelf – once you learn to read like a leader.

From Bill Gates to Barack Obama, successful leaders are often diligent readers. And there’s a good chance they’ll read differently than you, purposely scanning every page for hidden lessons and leadership solutions, says Northwestern University management professor Brock Vukovich.

In Vukovich’s MBA class on ethical leadership, students read and analyze novels and short stories to determine how strength and empathy emerge in the workplace.

“Our best leaders look for ways to develop themselves, and fiction often represents an underutilized, incredibly powerful, low-cost, ongoing, and fun way to develop ourselves — if read right,” Vukovich tells CNBC Make It.

Here’s her advice for reading books like highly successful people.

Ask the right questions

when you start A new novel, stop after the first chapter or so and try to describe the central characters: what forces affect them? What drives them?

By answering these questions, you develop a “critical skill” for leaders, Vukovich says: personal awareness and empathy, which has been shown to foster welcoming and thriving workplaces.

Next, think about which character or story elements you relate to the most. What do you have in common? Why do you find this particular character so attractive? Do you have the same strengths or drawbacks?

Now, you’re practicing self-awareness, which is another important skill for successful leadership, says Vukovich.

As you continue reading, identify any conflicts that may arise. Try to briefly describe the actual moral dilemma behind it: is it individual versus community? Loyalty versus telling the truth?

Chances are, it’s a global conflict to be counted on — and you’ll be well served by knowing how to solve it. Think about the way you give advice to characters in a novel: What would you ask them to do? How would you advise them to move forward?

Doing this, Vukovich says, allows you to practice problem analysis and problem solving without bogging down real-life minutiae. It also helps you practice approaching problems from a “neutral point of entry,” she adds, which is helpful when real-life dilemmas are polarizing.

Draw parallels in the workplace

After analyzing the characters’ struggles, think about how the story relates to the predicaments of your life. You might be thinking of quitting a job. Perhaps you are struggling to balance your family and career.

Ask yourself what the book can teach you about him, and don’t get upset when there isn’t a clear answer. “A lot of times your first answer is ‘nothing’ or ‘I have no idea,'” says Vukovich.

Her suggestion: make it. Create an imaginative comparison between the conflicts of the novel and your workplace dilemma. Even if it seems like a stretch, it can help you analyze a familiar problem from a new point of view.

For example, let’s say you’re worried about juggling work and family life, and you’re currently in the middle of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book “The Great Gatsby.”

The book is about the pursuit of unattainable dreams, so force the connection. When it comes to juggling work and family, you may be setting yourself to an impossible level without even realizing it. Could this be your metaphorical “green light”?

Again, it may seem like a stretch, but it’s a useful starting point for analyzing your own dilemmas.

“It’s just a way to think creatively and differently from a different point of view about the problems you’re facing,” says Vukovich.

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