Being a leader is tough. On a daily basis you face all sorts of unexpected problems that no one trained you for.
How do you balance the demands of your business and family? How do you persuade your allies to believe in your mission? How do you deal with anger, frustration and pain? How do you attract financial support or deal with a difficult patron?
Sometime in the last 5,000 years somebody probably went through a similar problem. Chances are good that someone else deftly handled a management problem similar to the ones you face everyday and wrote down the wisdom gained after successfully navigating those waters.
That’s the wonderful thing about great books: They provide access to the wisdom from the vast human experience of the past and business leaders can turn to that knowledge for guidance.
In other words, you can read to lead.
Some managers pick up the popular books sold at the airport rather than reading what can really push them to another level: the classics, biographies, the underground bibles and books containing wisdom passed through the ages. Try reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations instead of Outliers or Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over instead of Lean In.
Here are some strategies to take your reading to another level:
1. Find the time. Make reading a priority, just like eating three meals a day, working out and spending time with the family. It should be part of the job, part of life, not an extra.
Carry a book at all times. There will be constant opportunities to crack it open, for example, when traveling or in the waiting room. Don’t let anyone say reading is not important work because it is.
Being in a position of leadership means you can set your schedule. Do you really need to sit in on that conference call? What about that TV show you watch but don’t really like? Replace these activities with something that's a better use of your time: reading books that make you better.
2. Read books beyond your level. Reading to lead requires treating your brain like the muscle it is and tackling subjects with the most tension and weight. Push ahead into subjects you’re not familiar with and wrestle with them. Shy away from the easy read.
Use tricks to quickly get up to speed and attack tough books: Ruin the ending. I almost always go straight to Wikipedia and spoil the ending. Who cares? Your aim as a reader is to understand why something happened. The what is secondary.
This frees you up to focus on (a) what it means (b) and if you agree with it. Reading the first 50 pages of the book shouldn’t be a discovery process. Figure out if the author is right and how you can benefit from it.
With every book I read, I try to find my next one in its footnotes or bibliography. This is how you build a knowledge base in a subject and trace a subject back to its core. Just keep a running list through Amazon’s Wish List service (here's mine).
3. Don't read like you're in school. You longer have to memorize facts just to show you actually did the reading. Remembering the countries that participated in a certain battle isn't as important as the lessons the generals learned. So forget everything but that message and how to apply it to your life. Dates, names, pronunciations only matter in how they provide context for the lesson at hand. They carry little value otherwise.
4. Look things up. If you’re properly pushing yourself, you’re going to come across concepts or words you’re not familiar with. Don’t pretend to understand. Use a reference tool. I like to use my Dictionary.com or Wikipedia app on my iPhone to look stuff up. With military history, a sense of the battlefield or the countries involved is often necessary. Wikipedia is a great place to grab maps and to help understand the terrain.
5. Take notes. On the right side of the page, I tag the pages I have highlighted with important passages on. On the top of the page, I mark if there is a concept I need to research or a book suggested. Tape is cheap but the time it will take you to otherwise flip back through the book to track something down is not.
Before you close the book, go back through and reread all the marked passages. This puts them back in your memory and let’s you walk away knowing the crucial hits of the author’s message. With these flagpoles you will be able to go back through and remember the details if necessary, like knowing the chord structure of a song.
In Old School, Tobias Wolff talked about how he used to retype the works of classic authors when he felt uninspired just to feel what it was like to have that profoundness flow out of his fingertips. That is why I keep my version of a commonplace book, a central file for quotes, anecdotes, observations and information encountered. I’ve been compiling it for almost four years and have nearly 15,000 words typed. Not only will it inspire you, but this process will help you remember the key ideas. As Raymond Chandler once said, “When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.”
6. Keep an anti-library. In the The Black Swan Nicholas Nassim Taleb wrote that only an amateur walks into someone’s library and says “Have you really read all these books?” A good library is filled with unread books, an “anti-library.”
Don't think of reading as a contest to fill up a library or office to show friends or peers how smart you are. Stash an anti-library at all times of books you have yet to read, a constant reminder of how much you have to learn.
7. Connect, apply and use what you read. Many merely put a book back on the shelf after finishing it and move on to the next important task. Yet Plutarch said, “I did not so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience of things.”
Use what you read to experiment with your work and business. Try out a great quote at a meeting or a memo. This not only forces you to recall it but also adds meaning and context to whatever you're working on.
Articulate and analyze what you're reading. It’s the only way to take the sparks of thought in your brain and turn them into a coherent understanding that can be applied to other things.
Analogous thinking, when thinking from one domain is applied to another, is incredibly powerful. It’s how the real creative breakthroughs happen. But it requires having an interest in something and the initiative to try to translate it.
As Seneca said, “What we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application -- not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech -- and learn them so well that words become works.”
Some our greatest leaders practiced similar strategies in their quest to read to lead.
Frederick the Great was said to ride with the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags because they could “sustain you in misfortune.”
Reading to lead can help you make the creative breakthroughs you seek or the solution to a dispute at work.