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 audiobook on. In the evening while winding the kids down for bed. While we lay in our own beds before turning out the light.
These moments should not be seen as competing with or conflicting with work. Instead, they should be seen as moments that facilitate our most important and meaningful work. Reading makes you better as a professional, as a person, as a parent. Being busy at work or at home isn’t a good reason not to read—it’s an argument for why you should.
Another good reason to pick up a book: There are meditative, spiritual benefits to the act of reading itself. A study in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that the mental process of imagining scenes while reading can help you develop greater empathy.
But not all reading is created equal. Good leaders have a ceaseless appetite for learning, for self-improvement, for wisdom, for books that improve you as a human being. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius prized the ability to “read attentively” — mostly philosophy texts — and used what he learned to reign masterfully over his domain. Malcolm X was transformed into a Civil Rights leader by the books he read during his time in prison, making his way through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Essays of Schopenhauer, and Basic Writings of Kant, among others. When he was asked where he graduated from college, he would simply answer, “Books.”
Oprah Winfrey has called books her “pass to personal freedom,” showing her from an early age that there was a world beyond her family’s home in Mississippi. As an adult, she has said, reading The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav “saved and changed the trajectory of my living.”
And finally, how you read matters. Are you taking notes? Are you integrating what you read? You’re not just filling shelves on the wall. You’re trying to learn so that you can lead.
Knowing that I will only read a finite amount of books in my life helped motivate a question I have asked many times now: “What books have changed your life?” It would be a shame to go through life thinking that Ayn Rand is the world’s greatest author or thinking all novels were as bad as 50 Shades of Grey, all because I never bothered to inquire about anything better. By asking people I admire for their recommendations, I have discovered countless books worthy of the “focus of my energy,’” as the Greek philosopher Epictetus put it. (In fact, that’s exactly how I found Epictetus in the first place!)
We should all direct the focus of our energy on books that will stay with us after we put them down. For example, we can read, in Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-Chan, the memoir of a precious young child’s untraditional early education, the power of a good teacher and understanding parents, and then encourage our own kids in the same way.
We can read, in Ben Franklin’s autobiography and in Walter Isaacson's biography of him, the story of Franklin pridefully walking down a hall and bumping his head. “Stoop, young man,” his mentor tells him, “and don’t be distracted by pride in this life, and you will save yourself many such bumps on the head.” And then we can try to save ourselves similar bumps.
We can read the story Seneca tells in On Tranquility of the Mind about Julius Canus, a philosopher who was unfairly sentenced to death, casually playing a board game as he awaited his execution. When the time came, he stood up, counted the pieces left on the board, turned to the executioner and said, “You will testify that I was one piece ahead,” and then went off to his death. We, the reader, might write “badass last words” in the margins, and then remind ourselves in the future to try to find humor in even the darkest and worst of situations.
No one, H.L. Mencken said, “gets anywhere in this world in any really and endurable manner without some recourse to books.” That’s right. It’s a long road.
But reading is also a shortcut. A way to get where you want to get without having to learn by painful trial and error. As leaders, what we’re reading is leading us — and saving us.