7 Books That Will Help Leaders Develop More Empathy

Good leaders need to practice empathy to truly succeed. In fact, empathy may be the most important leadership skill in today‘s complex, diverse, rapidly-changing world of work. Research by Catalyst found that empathy is a key driver of employee innovation, engagement, and inclusion—yet only 40% of employees report their leaders are empathetic.

Fortunately, empathy is not a fixed trait but a muscle that can be strengthened. One of the most effective empathy-building practices also happens to be a time-honored leadership habit: reading. Science confirms that immersing ourselves in the lives of others through stories, especially fiction, enhances our real-world empathy and emotional intelligence.

The Science of How Books Build Empathy

Recent research offers compelling evidence that reading, particularly reading literary fiction, is a powerful empathy workout:

  • A 2013 study published in Science found that reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction, temporarily enhances Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand others‘ mental states. The authors note that literary fiction "uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters‘ subjective experiences."

  • A 2020 meta-analysis of 65 published studies concluded that reading narratives, compared to non-narrative formats, led to statistically significant increases in empathy, likelihood to help others, and prosocial attitudes and beliefs. Effects were strongest for literary fiction.

  • Neuroscientist Gregory Burns‘ fMRI studies have shown that reading an evocative novel can create measurable changes in brain connectivity and function, heightening readers‘ sensitivity to others‘ experiences.

  • Stanford scholar Jamil Zaki argues that compelling fiction is "empathy‘s gateway drug," uniquely engaging the psychological mechanisms of empathy while disarming our defenses. "Empathy is a skill," Zaki writes, "and like any skill, it requires practice…the safe zone of fiction lets us fine-tune and apply this crucial ability."

As Emory University literature professor Laura Otis sums it up: "Fictional narratives provide safe spaces for readers to relate to characters and try out alternative identities. This process can promote empathy by challenging people‘s assumptions about others."

Top Empathy-Building Books for Leaders

While any immersive character-driven story can stretch our empathy muscles, the following 7 books are especially powerful empathy-builders for leaders:

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie‘s sweeping novel follows the divergent fates of young Nigerian lovers Ifemelu and Obinze as they navigate issues of race, identity and belonging in America and England. Witnessing Ifemelu‘s struggles as an African immigrant in the U.S.—from harrowing job interviews to humiliating hair salon visits—builds deep cross-cultural empathy. Her keen observations as a non-American Black force readers to examine their own unconscious biases and blindspots.

Key empathy lessons for leaders:

  • Seek to understand the nuanced experiences of diverse team members
  • Be mindful of how company policies/practices may inadvertently marginalize some groups
  • Acknowledge your own cultural blindspots and commit to ongoing learning

2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This inventive mystery unfolds through the eyes of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, a mathematically gifted boy on the autism spectrum. As Christopher sets out to investigate the murder of a neighbor‘s dog, his literal worldview highlights the communication gaps between neurodivergent individuals and neurotypical society. Haddon masterfully immerses us in Christopher‘s unique way of perceiving and coping, fostering empathetic understanding of neurodiverse challenges.

Key empathy lessons for leaders:

  • Recognize and value neurodivergent talents and perspectives on your team
  • Adapt communication style and environment to be more inclusive
  • Don‘t assume a "one-size-fits-all" approach to management

3. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson‘s magisterial history chronicles The Great Migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to northern and western cities from 1915-1970. Anchored by the real stories of three intrepid migrants, it viscerally conveys the courage required to escape a stifling caste system, and the harsh realities of racism they continued to face. A deeply empathetic portrayal of resilience in the face of systemic oppression.

Key empathy lessons for leaders:

  • Deepen understanding of the historical roots of present-day racial inequities
  • Admire and learn from the grit of those who have overcome barriers
  • Use your influence to dismantle oppressive systems/practices in your organization

4. What Is the What by Dave Eggers

This gripping book, based on the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, drops us into the terror and trauma of his war-torn childhood and his arduous path to refuge in America. Eggers‘ vivid storytelling puts a human face on the plight of displaced people, evoking both heartbreak and hope. An eye-opening invitation into the lives of refugees and asylees.

Key empathy lessons for leaders:

  • Challenge assumptions/stereotypes about refugees; see the human story
  • Recognize the immense resilience and untapped talent of displaced people
  • Leverage your power to support refugee education/employment initiatives

5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this YA novel centers on 16-year-old Starr Carter, who navigates between her black neighborhood and predominantly white prep school. When Starr witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed friend, she must find her voice amidst pressure from all sides. A heartbreaking yet ultimately empowering narrative that fosters empathy for the heavy burden racism places on black youth.

Key empathy lessons for leaders:

  • Understand the "double consciousness" many minorities experience in majority-white settings
  • Make space for people to process difficult experiences tied to identity
  • Take a vocal stand against prejudice and discrimination both in and outside the workplace

6. Educated by Tara Westover

Westover‘s stunning memoir recounts her unconventional upbringing in a survivalist Mormon family and her transformative journey of self-education. Denied schooling by her father, Westover secretly studies for the ACT, gains admission to Brigham Young University, and ultimately earns a PhD from Cambridge—even as she struggles to reconcile her new reality with family bonds. A testament to the power of education to expand identity and transcend limitations.

Key empathy lessons for leaders:

  • Recognize the hidden challenges first-generation/non-traditional employees may face
  • Champion learning and development opportunities for team members at all levels
  • Create a psychologically safe environment where people can grow beyond limiting beliefs

7. The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaren

This nonfiction guide offers a comprehensive map of empathy‘s many dimensions. Weaving together insights from neuroscience, social psychology, and healing traditions, McLaren explores empathy as an art that can be intentionally developed through practice. With reflective exercises and real-world examples, she illuminates how empathy helps us understand ourselves and others more fully. An essential resource for any leader committed to cultivating empathy as a professional and life skill.

Key empathy lessons for leaders:

  • Develop your empathetic presence through focused practice
  • Use perspective-taking to understand others‘ experiences and motivations
  • Engage in self-empathy to avoid empathetic distress or burnout

Putting It Into Practice

Reading about the lives of others is a powerful start—but truly growing our empathy requires commitment, courage, and real-world engagement. Consider trying some of these practices:

• Start an empathy-themed "book club" with your team or group of leaders. Not only will you gain insight from the books, you‘ll also learn from each other‘s experiences and perspectives.

• After reading an empathy-building book, challenge yourself to have a conversation with someone whose experience differs from your own. Practice the deep listening skills you‘ve gleaned.

• Keep an empathy journal as you read. Note the moments that opened your eyes or touched your heart. Reflect on assumptions challenged and lessons learned.

• Consider engaging a bibliotherapist or coach to curate reading that supports your personal empathy development goals and help you translate insights into action.

The poet George Eliot wrote "The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment."

In a world crying out for ethical, compassionate leadership, committing to that "extension of our sympathies" through stories is a noble act. By entering imaginatively into others‘ worlds, we prepare ourselves to perceive and embrace the shared humanity in our day-to-day interactions—and to lead others with head and heart aligned.

How Books Deepen Empathy: The Research

Study Key Finding
Kidd & Castano (2013) Reading literary fiction temporarily enhances Theory of Mind, the ability to understand others‘ mental states
Mumper & Gerrig (2017) Narrative reading, especially fiction, associated with increased empathy, helping, and prosocial attitudes
Mar et al. (2009) Lifetime exposure to fiction predicts self-reported empathy and social abilities
Pino & Mazza (2016) Reading fiction improves cognitive and affective empathy more than nonfiction

The research is clear: immersing ourselves in the lives and minds of fictional characters is a potent workout for our empathy muscles. But even a single compelling story can open our eyes and expand our circle of concern. As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

That‘s the power of books—they enable us to walk around in the skin of another. And in so doing, they guide us toward our highest humanity. As leaders in an increasingly divided and unjust world, we can scarcely afford not to take that empathetic journey, both on the page and in our lives.