Want To Be A Great Leader? Start Reading

The global literacy rate is high at 84 per cent, but people are reading less frequently and less deeply. This is especially true when it comes to literature. It's bad news for leadership, where my experience suggests those trends are even more pronounced. Deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyse insight, innovation, empathy and personal effectiveness.

Image via Amy Johansson/Shutterstock.

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 organisations.

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 organisations are more likely to innovate and prosper.

Reading can also make you more effective in leading others. Reading increases verbal intelligence [PDF], 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 organisational effectiveness, 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.

Finally, an active literary life can make you more personally effective by keeping you relaxed and improving health. Reading is a great way to relax, as reading for six minutes can reduce stress by 68 per cent, 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 people of all stripes. So how can you get started? Here are a few tips:

  • 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 this 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 to your work. Are you struggling with a problem at work? Pick up a book on neuroscience 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, but it is underappreciated 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 through reading?

For Those Who Want to Lead, Read [Harvard Business Review]

John Coleman is a co-author of the new HBR Press book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwcoleman.


    I've always subscibed to this train of thought. If I'm not reading a different novel a week, I'm not a happy boy....

    "The global literacy rate is high at 84 per cent," - but this doesn't mean that those people can a) understand everything they read, and b) write in their language correctly. The latter is the bigger of the two problems, with lower standards of education leading to lower quality of writing. For example, I read Australian, American and English newspapers and blogs online, and find increasingly that many writers, some of them professionals, cannot construct a simple sentence properly. They can't spell, and don't know how to use grammar correctly. They make basic elementary mistakes that 10 years ago would have been corrected by an editor or proof reader.

    I encourage people to learn their language well. Learn how it works, learn how to use it to help you get what you want, and of course learn it so that you can communicate well. With so many online tools there is no excuse for ignorance. You don't need to go out and buy a dictionary or thesaurus, and you don't need lessons to learn good grammar.

    English is an extraordinarily powerful language, as evidenced by the enormous amount of excellent literature. Don't ruin it like the Americans.

    How have we ruined the Americans? :-)

    Hello there, Stockholm city library! :)

      I've borrowed a few books from there myself!

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