If You Want to Lead, Read

Every Reader May Not Be A Leader,

But, Every Leader Is Always A Reader!

Even as global literacy rates are high ( 84%), people are reading less and less deeply. The National Endowment for the Arts has found that reading has declined among every group of adult Americans, and for the first time in American history, less than half of the U.S. adult American population is reading literature. Literacy has been improving in countries like India and China, but that literacy may not translate into more or deeper reading.

This is terrible for leadership, where my experience suggests those trends are even more pronounced. Business people seem to be reading less ­ particularly material unrelated to business. But deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.

Note how many business titans are or have been avid readers. According to The New York Times, Steve Jobs had an “inexhaustible interest” in William Blake; Nike founder Phil Knight so reveres his library that in it you have to take off your shoes and bow; and Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman called poets “the original systems thinkers,” quoting freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson. In Passion & Purpose, David Gergen notes that Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein reads dozens of books each week. And history is littered not only with great leaders who were avid readers and writers (remember, Winston Churchill won his Nobel prize in Literature, not Peace), but with business leaders who believed that deep, broad reading cultivated in them the knowledge, habits, and talents to improve their organizations.

The leadership benefits of reading are wide-ranging. Evidence suggests reading can improve intelligence and lead to innovation and insight. Some studies have shown, for example, that reading makes you smarter through “a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge in addition to the abstract reasoning skills.” Reading ­ whether Wikipedia, Michael Lewis, or Aristotle ­ is one of the quickest ways to acquire and assimilate new information. Many business people claim that reading across fields is good for creativity. And leaders who can sample insights in other fields, such as sociology, the physical sciences, economics, or psychology, and apply them to their organizations are more likely to innovate and prosper.

Reading can also make you more effective in leading others. Reading increases verbal intelligence, making a leader a more adept and articulate communicator. Reading novels can improve empathy and understanding of social cues, allowing a leader to better work with and understand others ­ traits that author Anne Kreamer persuasively linked to increased organizational effectiveness, and to pay raises and promotions for the leaders who possessed these qualities. And any business person understands that heightened emotional intelligence will improve his or her leadership and management ability.

I have found, however, that the most effective leader are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities”; that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.

Finally, an active literary life can make you more personally effective by keeping you relaxed and improving health. For stressed executives, reading is the best way to relax, as reading for six minutes can reduce stress by 68%, and some studies suggest reading may even fend off Alzheimer’s, extending the longevity of the mind.

Reading more can lead to a host of benefits for business people of all stripes, and broad, deep reading can make you a better leader. So how can you get started?

Here are a few tips for a leader:

  • Join a reading group. One of my friends meets bimonthly with a group of colleagues to read classics in philosophy, fiction, history, and other areas. Find a group of friends who will do the same with you.
  • Vary your reading. If you’re a business person who typically only reads business writing, commit to reading one book every month in areas of self-development, people skills, success principles,  and, one book once a year in three areas outside your comfort zone: a novel, a book of poetry, or a nonfiction piece in science, biography, history, or the arts.
  • Apply your reading. Are you struggling with a problem at work or business? Pick up a book on self-development or psychology and see if there are ways in which you can apply the lessons from those fields to your profession.
  • Encourage others. After working on a project with colleagues, I’ll often send them a book that I think they’ll enjoy. Try it out; it might encourage discussion, cross-application of important lessons, and a proliferation of readers in your workplace.
  • Read for fun. Not all reading has to be developmental. Read to relax, escape, and put your mind at ease.

Reading has many benefits for a growing leader, but it is under-appreciated as an essential component of leadership development.

So, where have you seen reading benefit your life? What suggestions would you have for others seeking to grow their leadership through reading?

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