Leaders Are Courageous Readers

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

Leaders Are Courageous Readers

There is an old saying that “leaders are readers.” 

My experience coaching leaders clearly shows that those who have the most sustainable processes, powerful strategies in play and solid engagement with colleagues are voracious readers. But what makes them standouts is not that they are readers, but what they read. Books that require thinking and engagement often also contribute to leadership depth and capacity. Most leaders have go-to resources shaped by early experience and reading. 

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In my experience, the more important books are the ones that challenge our thinking, broaden our horizons or even invite us to change direction based on a new and radically different point of view. Ideas that break a logjam are often directly oppositional to our leadership style. After all, big threats are often the result of what we do not look at or notice — or worse yet, ignore at our organization’s peril.

Janet T, one of my clients on the East Coast, is a formidable strategist. In addition to holding an MBA, she is a Six Sigma Black Belt and the newly appointed COO of a $450 million manufacturing company. But despite her best efforts, Janet found herself at a standstill when a major project hit organizational resistance and fell behind schedule and over budget.  

One of her board members suggested a book that she would likely never have chosen on her own, “The Power of Project Leadership” by Susanne Madsen. It focuses on relational and developmental issues in large complex projects. Janet struggled with an approach that was all but opposite from her linear, task- and control-focused Six-Sigma training. In the end, the sections on leading with vision and building trust were what helped Janet get the project on track and delivered on time.

Then there are the books and articles that open doors we did not even know were there. David Harrison, CEO of a large multistate retail tire and repair business (and a member of my Vistage CEO peer advisory group in Little Rock) describes picking up a book in an airport bookstore, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” David was clear that the spirituality expressed in the book included concepts that might not align strictly with his own faith practice and, in fact, examined teachings that might surprise his family. But he found wisdom and useful viewpoints that have influenced both his internal and external management style. In fact, it opened doors to new ways of thinking that have improved his leadership in very specific and measurable ways.

There is an exercise I occasionally offer to executives who get feedback about being overly invested in a single methodology or point of view. It can be both challenging and funny, but is always revealing. 

Listen to a political candidate with whom you vehemently disagree. It does not matter which side of the aisle you prefer or how far from the center you sit. The catch is, you are not allowed to react with vitriol, dissension or anger. Your task is to listen, to understand a view that is totally opposite of your own. To try to see the world through their point of view. Neither agreement nor changing your mind is required. The purpose is to develop musculature for listening, even to someone whose views you abhor.  

Don’t be discouraged if you do not make it past the one-minute mark. Take a break and some deep breaths and try again. This is not an exercise centered on changing anyone’s mind. Instead, it is practice being open to ideas, strategies or possibilities that do not originate in your worldview.

We know from research that teams able to debate and discuss multiple points of view and work their way to agreement on critical issues perform better than those that depend on a single authority for decisions. If it is true that leaders are readers, what better way to broaden your thinking and deepen your judgment than to read differing topics and viewpoints. After all, we already know what we think. Surely ours isn’t the only credible viewpoint on the planet.

I. Barry Goldberg of Little Rock is a credentialed leadership and executive coach. He trained for coaching at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership.