10 Works of Fiction that will Make You a Better Person and a Better Leader

by Karen Sadler

Whoa! That’s a bold claim, I know. Can reading fiction really make us better people? Better leaders?

So many “Best Books of the Year” lists from successful business icons are cluttered with business and self-help titles that it’s easy for busy, driven people to let fiction fall by the wayside as they work towards self-improvement.

But as a huge bookworm myself, I know from personal experience that much of my emotional intelligence (a trait that leaders have been touting as extremely important) comes from reading. And for the past few years, science has been saying the same thing.

Here are ten of the most eye-opening and thought-provoking works of fiction I’ve read in the last few years. I know they’ve made me a better person and a better colleague.

by Kathleen Winter

This is a beautiful story set in barren Labrador in the 1960s. A baby is born with both male and female genitalia and the parents decide to raise the baby as a boy named Wayne. But the midwife (the only other person to know the truth) keeps a secret other name for Wayne – Annabel. As Wayne/Annabel grows up, they start to question who they are and where they belong. This novel is a timely and thoughtful reflection on the confines of gender and small, remote community life.

The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas

16-year-old Starr lives in two different worlds – her low-income housing development and her upper-class private school. When she witnesses her childhood friend Khalid get shot and killed by a police officer, Starr’s worlds collide as she is thrust into the media spotlight. This timely story is told so sensitively and should be added to all high school curricula.

Indian Horse
by Richard Wagamese

This novel tells the story of Saul, an Ojibway boy sent to a residential school after his family spends a few years trying to protect him from just such a fate. Saul’s only escape from the horrors of the school is his growing love of hockey. It turns out he’s a gifted player, and his talent allows him a chance at a better life. All Canadians should read this book. The racism Saul experiences in the 1970s is still alive and well today.

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a sprawling, enthralling read that follows Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerian teens who fall in love and have dreams of going abroad together. But when circumstances change, Ifemelu goes to America alone and this experience tears the two apart. Adichie follows her characters as they navigate culture shock, racism and meeting new people, and stays with them as they adjust and settle into their lives abroad. This is a beautiful story about love, race, and religion, and how where we are from informs so much about who we are. It also highlights how adaptable humans can be, and how easily we can slip into new lives.

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven is a dystopian novel about the end of one civilization (ours) and the start of another. Within weeks, the Georgia Flu wipes out 99 per cent of the world’s population. The story opens in Toronto on the night the outbreak begins. What follows is a fantastic tale that flashes back and forward through time, following many interconnected characters as they die or survive and adjust. This beautiful novel is about friendship, love, memory, art, celebrity, religion, hope versus despair, and the things that endure when civilization as we know it ceases to exist.

The Illegal
by Lawrence Hill

The plot of this novel could be ripped from today’s headlines about refugees and immigration. However, in The Illegal, the featured countries are fictional – the impoverished and tiny Zantoroland, famous only for its marathon runners, and the large, wealthy Freedom State, which is cracking down on refugees from Zantoroland. Keita Ali is a marathoner living illegally in Freedom State after fleeing from Zantoroland’s cruel dictatorship. As he tries to find his footing, he meets many interesting characters, some of whom try to help him, while others set out to have him deported. This is a powerful, yet sweet novel, that asks how a person can be illegal.

by Will Ferguson

Ferguson’s story starts with a 419 email scam. You know the one … “Dear Sir, I am a Nigerian Prince, please help …” But what happens when somebody takes the bait? This novel ties together three different stories: The Curtis family in Calgary; Winston, the Nigerian email scam artist who dreams of bigger things; and Nnamdi and Amina, an unlikely couple from two different Nigerian cultures. The threads come together eventually due to loss, greed, grief, hope and revenge, and the results are devastating.

by Zadie Smith

Smith provides us with a gritty, unflinching look at urban, multi-cultural London. The plot follows four people in their 30s living in North West London, who all grew up on the same council estate. The novel looks at their childhoods, and where they’ve ended up as adults. The book brings up questions of race, class, gender, crime, poverty, addiction, family and ancestry. Smith’s dialogue is fantastic. She writes the way people speak and you really get a feel for the NW London dialect and vocabulary. For me, the big question in the novel is nature vs. nurture. Who or what helps you succeed (or not)? Hard work? Being blessed with intelligence and/or ambition? Your background? Support (or lack thereof) from parents and friends? Luck? As you might expect, there are no easy answers.

Funny Boy
by Shyam Selvadurai

This is a touching story about Arjie, a young boy growing up in turbulent 1970s/80s Sri Lanka. Arjie is Tamil during a time when his people are being discriminated against. Through all of this, Arjie comes to the realization he is gay, living in a homophobic culture and family. As he gets older, Arjie loses his innocence, learning what it will mean to be a homosexual Tamil man. There are difficult moments in the story, especially when the cultural violence comes to a boil towards the end of the novel. But there are also sweet moments, mostly stemming from Arjie himself. He is a lovely, tender, and kind protagonist. Selvadurai provides an eye-opening snapshot of time and place while exploring discrimination, fear, and what it’s like to be ‘othered’.

by Emma Donoghue

This collection of short stories from the author of Room – all based on actual historical events – is full of strong, subversive female characters; women who generally don’t get a voice in most historical accounts of events. We also get perspectives from others on the fringe – an enslaved Black person, an animal, a child solder, a criminal. These were such rich stories, Donoghue could have easily built an entire novel around any one of them

Karen is a member of the Young Professionals Task Force for CSAE Trillium.