Why reading is vital for better leadership

August 17, 2012

Darryl Cooke

I was told of a recent debate in a German business magazine that contrasted the abilities of German, US and British business leaders. The general consensus was that British leaders were not as well educated as their overseas counterparts. Certainly most German business leaders have a doctorate and are likely to have been in full time education for longer than their UK equivalents. It is also the case that a career in industry in Germany is seen as the preferred option for graduates whereas in the UK, the professions or financial services are thought to be the better option. In the US there is a culture of continuing education in business. It is no coincidence that almost all business literature emanates from the US, along with a proliferation of business speakers and most of the CEO support organisations. The best MBA courses are in the US and are revered and comprise mainly of US graduates, while in the UK they are not held in the same regard and the majority of places are filled by overseas graduates.

If this is correct, we are placing ourselves at a severe disadvantage. Thomas Carlyle wrote ‘All that mankind has done, thought or been is lying in magic preservation in the pages of books‘. There is often a prevailing attitude that books can’t teach you business, leadership or management skills or how to innovate or self discipline or time management or people skills or how to set KPI’s or write business plans. A prevailing attitude that you have to have been there and done it and not read about it. What nonsense. Business is just a set of skills like any other discipline. Somewhere someone has done what you are doing. Why deny yourself the benefit of their experience? It’s foolish to be cynical of such knowledge. It’s wise to learn about it, challenge it and practice it.

Most successful leaders have been avid readers. Steve Jobs, Nike founder, Phil Knight (who it is said so reveres his library that you have to take off your shoes and bow when you enter), Carlyle Group founder, David Rubenstein, who it is said reads dozens of books each week and Winston Churchill who won his Nobel prize in literature not peace .

Often people will say that they don’t have enough time to read. Again nonsense. It’s not about time, it’s about priorities and if it is going to improve your leadership skills then read and read, learn and practice. I have advised over a hundred business leaders on buying their businesses, often backed by private equity. Over the last few years I have taken time out after the transaction to ensure that they get the support they need to achieve their ambitions. That can be using a business mentor, joining a CEO support network or a recommended reading list. The ones who go on to over achieve are usually the ones who embrace this continuing development wholeheartedly. Why wouldn’t you ? It’s not school. There is nothing to be gained by being cynical about what others experiences can teach you.

Reading brings so many benefits such as direct experiences from others, and innovation (a client refers to his R & D department as ‘rob and duplicate‘). There is a business book for everything you want to do. Books such as Jim Collins ‘Good to Great‘ and ‘Best to Better‘ lead the way in showing why great companies became what they are. Why wouldn’t you want to know that? But reading widely will also bring so many other rewards and skills. Evidence suggests that it improves intelligence and can lead to innovation and insight. It gives you a wider vocabulary, abstract reasoning skills, empathy to others. If you can sample insights into other fields such as sociology or psychology or economics and apply them to your business then your organisation is more likely to innovate and prosper. It will also make you more effective in leading others. It increases verbal intelligence making you a better communicator. No longer can business leaders tell their employees what to do but they must win their hearts and minds. That can only happen with good communication. It also heightens emotional intelligence and reduces stress levels. Do I need to go on?

I can occasionally accept that the Germans can beat us at football, but it irks when I hear them boast that they are better business leaders. Then again, that’s down to us. Education doesn’t stop at the school gates.

By Darryl Cooke

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