Highly successful people read books differently, says expert: An 'underused and incredibly powerful...way to develop ourselves'

Twenty20 | Galina Zhigalova

The best leadership advice you'll ever receive may already sit 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're reading differently than you, intentionally scanning every page for hidden lessons and leadership solutions, says Northwestern management professor Brooke Vuckovic.

In Vuckovic's MBA class on moral leadership, students read and analyze novels and short stories to determine how power and empathy manifest in the workplace.

"Our best leaders are looking for ways to develop themselves, and fiction represents an often underused and incredibly powerful, low cost, ongoing, pleasurable way to develop ourselves — if read correctly," Vuckovic tells CNBC Make It.

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

Ask the right questions

When you start a new novel, pause after the first chapter or so and try to describe the central characters: What forces impact them? What drives them?

By answering those questions, you develop a "crucial skill" for leaders, Vuckovic says: interpersonal awareness and empathy, which has been shown to foster welcoming and thriving workplaces.

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

Now, you're practicing self-awareness, another critical skill for successful leadership, Vuckovic says.

As you keep reading, identify any conflicts that arise. Try to succinctly describe the actual moral quandary behind them: Is it individual versus community? Loyalty versus truth-telling?

Chances are, it's a universal, relatable conflict — and you'd be well-served knowing how to solve it. Think of how you'd advise the characters in the novel: What would you tell them to do? How would you advise them to move forward?

Doing so allows you to practice analyzing — and solving — a problem without getting bogged down by real-life details, Vuckovic says. It also helps you practice approaching issues from a "neutral entry point," which is helpful when your real-life dilemmas are polarizing, she adds.

Draw workplace parallels

After analyzing the characters' conflicts, consider how the story relates to your own life's quandaries. Maybe you're considering leaving a job. Perhaps you're struggling with balancing your family and your career.

Ask yourself what the book can teach you about it, and don't panic when there's no clear answer. "A lot of times your first answer is going to be 'nothing' or 'I have no idea,'" Vuckovic says.

Her suggestion: Make it up. Invent a fictional parallel between the novel's conflicts and your own workplace dilemma. Even if it feels like a stretch, it can help you analyze a familiar problem from a new point of view.

For example, say you're concerned about juggling work and family life, and you're currently in the middle of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

The book is about the pursuit of unattainable dreams, so force a connection. When it comes to juggling work and family, maybe you're holding yourself to an impossible standard without realizing it. Could that be your metaphorical "green light?"

Again, it might feel like a stretch, but it's a helpful starting point for analyzing your own dilemmas.

"It's just a way to think creatively and differently from a different standpoint about problems that you're facing," Vuckovic says.

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