Tom Peters tells a story of being at a dinner party with one of the top ten finance people in the world, who at one point remarked, “Do you know what the biggest problem is with big-company CEOs? They don’t read enough.” I’d go further to say it’s not just CEOs: most of the leaders I’ve met over the course of my career would benefit from reading more.
Reading may be one of the most under appreciated tools for continuing your leadership development. It is one of the quickest ways to acquire and assimilate information. It is a mode of development that is available 24 hours a day. You can do it virtually anywhere. It can be done in small increments or for large blocks of time. It is scalable, flexible, and on-demand. That’s why virtually all of the development plans I create for my clients include some form of reading, and why one of the most frequent pieces of advice I give to leaders—especially to those just starting out—is to build your leadership library.
Reading opens you up to new ideas, new ways of looking at the world, and new ways of operating. According to author John Coleman, “deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.” His article for Harvard Business Review does an excellent job of outlining the benefits of reading, which include:
- Making you smarter, by activating new areas of the brain
- Building vocabulary, making you a more effective communicator
- Building empathy, helping the reader “better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness”
- Reducing stress – even six minutes of reading “can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two thirds”
- Stimulating creativity
- Cross-pollinating your thinking - leaders who can sample ideas from other fields and apply them to their own are more likely to innovate and prosper
Despite all these advantages, one of the most common justifications I hear from executives for not incorporating more reading into their development is that it takes too much time. I encourage these executives to shift their thinking from viewing reading as another activity to add into an already busy day to viewing reading as central to their leadership and development. Leaders who make their growth and renewal a priority send a powerful message to their teams about its importance and their support of continuous learning. Giving books as gifts, debriefing those books, and including book recommendations in development plans are all simple, cost-effective ways to further employees’ development. But all require leaders who are active readers themselves.
Another “lack of time” justification is that reading books simply takes too long. However, the length of time it takes depends greatly on your reading habits. To accelerate reading, leaders need to approach reading differently, especially for non-fiction books. Peter Bregman recently wrote in Forbes about learning to read a book a week. As I said above, I rarely read a book cover to cover, so his approach resonates for me. He encourages leaders to take a more active, targeted approach to understanding non-fiction books, with an eye toward what they can readily apply. First review the table of contents, next read the introduction and the conclusion to gain a good overview of the topic, then skim each chapter, taking notes and reading more deeply only where compelled to. Whereas reading an entire book can take 6-8 hours, this approach cuts that time significantly to 1-2 hours, and also improves application and retention.
Finally, leaders are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of books available. To streamline selection, look to your network for recommendations. Ask others what they’re reading or which books had the biggest influence on them as a leader. It is an excellent conversation starter, and one I’ve actually started to incorporate into my podcast. For the past eight months, I’ve been asking the leaders I talk with to share one or two books they’d recommend every leader have in their library. Their recommendations are fascinating, and are well worth a listen for anyone wanting to build their leadership library. I’ll be continuing to ask the question, and to share the answers several times a year.
In my office, I’m surrounded by over 700 books. While I haven’t read them all cover-to-cover, I’ve learned something from each of them that I’ve been able apply to my work. My library is a source of constant inspiration, and is one of the first places I turn when contemplating a new challenge. Simply browsing the titles starts the ideas flowing. Today’s technology makes those ideas even more readily available, delivering new titles with the touch of a button. There is a sea of information quite literally at your fingertips. Dive in.
photo credit: Death to the Stock Photo