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An Unexpected Tool of Great Leaders: Art

Startup veterans argue founders need to wrap their minds around human motivation and group dynamics. Neuroscientists have an easy suggestion of how to accomplish this.
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Many entrepreneurs start their own thing in part because they want to escape the politics of bigger organizations. Their small business are meant to be just that--small, nimble, human, focused on the mission, and not messy interpersonal interdynamics.

But that golden dream is almost always a fairytale, according to seasoned startup operator and venture capitalist Mark Suster. In a recent post on the politics of startups he warns would-be founders that no matter how small or how mission-driven, most startups are rocked with the same sort of rivalries and human frailties as all other group ventures. Ignore that reality and you limit your ability to lead your company as well as you could.

"Trust me--ignore startup politics at your peril," he writes. "You need to understand power, ownership, leadership, performance, relationships, motivations, alcoholism, depression, resentment, jealousy, scorn. They all exist and ignoring them is like ignoring human norms."

The Science of the Page Turner

So say you swallow a little bit of your hopeful naivete and agree with Suster, how can you train yourself for the jealousies and double crosses that inevitably crop up when groups of humans spend time in close proximity?

Recent neurological research offers a simple but perhaps still surprising suggestion--read a novel.

The studies out of Emory University found that “being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading,” according to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.

And don’t worry, you don’t have to dust off your copy of Proust or the complete works of Shakespeare to activate your brain (though other studies have shown quality literature has it’s own benefits). The study participants were given a recent thriller titled Pompeii to read before being put in an MRI scanner that could peer into the effects of reading on their brains. The scientists found increased connectivity in a section of the brain called the left temporal cortex. The effects persisted for at least five days after the study subjects finished the book.

So what do the changes actually mean? “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” neuroscientist and lead author of the study Professor Gregory Berns told the Telegraph. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Working Out Your Empathy Muscles

Translate that from science speak and into everyday language and it seems that curling up with a good read can actually boost your sense of empathy--also known as your ability to understand and deal with other people’s perspectives, foibles and emotions. Just the ability Suster seems to think successful startup founders need to exercise.

Want confirmation before you start loading up your Amazon.com cart? Other studies have also shown reading novels can boost social skills, or if you’re less of a literature fan and more interested in fine art, fear not. Visiting museums has also been found to increase critical thinking, empathy and tolerance. What’s the bottom line? Studying business and technology trends and best practises, of course, has it’s place, but owners and executives should consider making room in their lives for art as well.

Do you make the time to enjoy novels and art?

 

Last updated: Jan 6, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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