Need to lead? Need to read

I am writing a book.

As part of writing this book I am speaking to successful leaders of all kinds. Some lead large corporates, some lead start-ups, some lead opinion, some lead government policy, some lead charities. All are very different and each has their own approach to leadership. However, as you’d expect there are some recurring themes.

One recurring theme is their inquisitiveness, their total commitment to continued learning and their interest in the views and opinions of others. I found surprising their interest in me; how they questioned me, keen to listen and learn as well as to impart their own point of view. And a surprisingly high proportion of them read widely.

Many people feel they simply can’t find time to read in a ridiculously busy life. But it’s vital that people do, especially if they want to lead at speed.
Chris Anderson, the head of Ted has written a book and says ‘I believe in books. I do not see a talk as a substitute for books. I see it as an alternative to watching kittens‘.

This week I interviewed an incredibly ambitious start-up founder. Her office was a library and she said that she read 3-4 books a week. Her story is not atypical. Mark Zuckerberg ran a Year of Books from his personal Facebook account. Bill Gate’s well documented love of books supports the ‘learners are earners’ phrase.

The most innovative and creative thinkers find stimulation in an inquisitive, curious approach. It’s an approach we champion at Caffeine, using stories from elsewhere to provoke sharper thinking. Reading sharpens your mind.

Last week I heard Germaine Greer speak. She is a powerful speaker and has a fantastically sharp intellect – which feels even more refreshing from a 77-year-old. I was surprised at how many things she said that I disagreed with (as I am a feminist) but the great thing was that she acknowledged that she might not be right and that we might not agree with her. When questioned by a member of the audience about one particular point of view she said, charmingly ‘I welcome the fact you disagree. I am not trying to say I’m definitely right. I’m trying to make sure you think – I want you to really think‘.

Reading makes me think. It’s also one of my favourite forms of relaxation – it’s my meditation. I am a bookaholic. Book clubs have connected me to interesting people when I’ve lived overseas and books on my phone alleviate travel boredom and stimulate my brain and creativity.
So it was interesting to read this article by David Spiegel about the challenge of a faster world in reducing people’s appetite for reading books. If that is true it’s a shame, if only because it means people won’t buy my book when it’s out later this year.

Stories can be consumed in many ways and people need to find forms that suit them. You can download chapters of books in instalments, read short sharp blogs, visit sites like Medium and Pulse, listen to podcasts on your commute, follow people on LinkedIn who rant and chat…however you best consume ‘thinking’ please keep doing it. Because our world is changing so fast and the ideas and the technology are developing at a vertiginous rate.

If we want to lead interesting lives and interesting business, we need what I think of as ‘Leadership peripheral vision’ – i.e. we need to not just be looking ahead but aware of what is around. A thirst for knowledge and a lust for reading develops that, like nothing else.
EM Forster, one of my favourite writers said ‘Only Connect‘. That’s what reading does.

We read to know we are not alone, we read to encourage our ability to empathise with others, we read to develop our language and our creativity, our arguments, our understanding, to connect up ideas from different areas and create a brave new beautiful world (that other people will want to read about).

If you want to lead, you need to read.

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It’s perhaps overlooked that Kermit is a businessman – or businessfrog. He leads a team which is as about as diverse as you could imagine. What’s more, he’s constantly fighting crises on every front, to keep the business going. There’s a lot we can learn this Christmas from…

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