Leaders Read Books to Keep their Edge

Christopher Witt —  January 2, 2013

Leaders Read BooksI just returned from a week in San Francisco where I visited my favorite bookstore.

City Lights is “a landmark independent bookstore and publisher that specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics.” In the past I’ve spent days in it, browsing and reading, but this time I only allowed myself an afternoon.

That afternoon reminded me not just of the joy of reading — I’m a book lover and an inveterate reader — but of its necessity.

Something in us — a skill, a propensity, a faculty? — atrophies when we substitute skimming and browsing for reading or, worse, stop reading books altogether.

Yes, it takes time to read. And, of course, no one has enough time these days. But leaders make the time to read.

Leaders who don’t read books lose their edge. After a while they stop being leaders.

There are many reasons why reading matters, but I’ll just focus on two for now.

1. Reading books makes us smarter.

The world is overwhelmingly complex. Sometimes (most of the time) we want ideas to be presented as simply and clearly as possible. We want executive summaries, highlights, and bullet points. Don’t bore us with the details or with non-essentials. Cut to the chase, please.

But the world is complex and it’s becoming more so all the time.

Reading books requires us to pay attention and to stick with (sometimes to slog through) a complex train of thought. It forces us to connect seemingly disparate ideas. It makes us look at things from several different, maybe even conflicting viewpoints. It makes our minds nimbler and subtler.

2. Reading books challenges us.

Part of the problem with being a leader is that few people challenge us.

How often do people let us know — directly or indirectly — that we’re wrong? That we haven’t thought something through sufficiently? That our reasoning is flawed or our assumptions are misguided?

Reading will do that.

Reading books exposes what we don’t know, without making us lose face or revealing our limitations to others. It makes us question why we believe or act the way we do. It reminds us that there’s at least one other person (the author) who knows more than we do, if only in one area.

It’s both bracing and humbling to have our most basic ideas, assumptions, and beliefs challenged. And reading books will do that.

What reasons for reading — in addition to pleasure — do you think are important?

Photo: Creative Commons, courtesy of Lydia Fizz

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to Leaders Read Books to Keep their Edge

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I think too many professionals get too wrapped up in their work and their own subject and even where they do read they restrict themselves to materials that are work related.

    Reading, and other interests outside the sphere of work, stimulate and broaden the mind and, overall, are beneficial to everything you do

    • Mike,

      Thanks for your comments. You raised an important issue. Like you, I believe that leaders (and everyone else, for that matter) should read widely and, even more importantly, outside or unrelated to their work.

      Of course, we need to have a deep knowledge and understanding of our field. And we benefit, both professionally and personally, from having a broader perspective.