The Greatest Shortcut for Leaders Is Reading Books
For 5,000 years, humans have been solving problems like the one you may be facing — and writing about it
Not every reader is a leader, Harry Truman once observed, but every leader is a reader. You have to be.
Being a leader means you’re going to bump into all kinds of situations you’ve never experienced before. You’re going to face problems for which there are no easy solutions. The good news is that no matter what challenge you’re facing, no matter how unique or how modern, you’re far from the first to encounter it. For roughly 5,000 years, human beings have been experiencing, solving, and, most importantly, writing books about these exact struggles.
Think about Truman, who ascended to the presidency after the shocking death of his predecessor in April 1945. Within months, he would be facing the dawn of the atomic age and a new Cold War. These were all very new problems, but Truman, who had begun his lifelong reading habit as a young boy, tapped into the lessons of history that he’d gleaned along the way.
“Our public library in Independence had about three or four thousand volumes, including the encyclopedias,” he once wrote. “Believe it or not I read ’em all… Maybe I was a damn fool, but it served me well when my terrible trial came.”
General James Mattis — an avid reader who often brought books with him to his far-flung commands in the Marines — recently wrote how unconscionable it is for a military leader to be “filling body bags” while they learn by trial and error. They owe it to their soldiers, he said, to learn as much as humanly possible from the experiences of history before trying to learn on their own. To not pick up a book is a dereliction of duty.
Thankfully, most of us will never face stakes as high as those encountered by Truman or Mattis, but the point stands. How can we possibly justify — to our employees, to our investors, to our spouses, to our friends, to our fellow citizens, or to ourselves — learning slowly, by experience or trial and error, what we can easily pick up in a book?
Wherever we are, we can read. In the corner of a quiet room. Standing in a subway car with headphones in and an…