Why Great Leaders Read Books

Business leaders do not often take the time to read (e)books. Are they making a mistake? Why do great leaders read books?

“Each employee is required to read one recommended book per year.” Here is what Chinese business tycoon Wang Jianlin, who leads the Dalian Wanda Group, asks his entire staff to do (The ‘Read One Book Per Year’ requirement is part of the company’s official mission statement).

While the book lover in me does not believe that reading should be mandatory, Mr. Wang’s action made me reflect on the possible leadership advantages of cultivating reading habits. Can reading – and not just expert articles and business books but also novels, narrative history and well written biographies for instance – make people better leaders?

Scientific research and experience suggest it can. Here is how.

1. Reading literary fiction improves empathy

Empathy, or the ability to step into other people’s (business partners, team member, clients) shoes and understand their feelings and perspectives, is a crucial leadership quality. Empathy, research suggests, is a something we can train. By showing genuine interest in the people we meet and work with, for instance, and be attentive listeners. Or by reading books. Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research have shown that reading, literary fiction in particular, enhances one’s ability to understand other people’s emotions. In a series of experiments, 1,000 participants were randomly assigned texts to read. The researchers then used a variety of techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with non-fiction texts. Discover more about how reading books can improve empathy.

2. Reading helps to create vision

When Jane Goodall, the 80-year young global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and the environment, spoke in Brussels in May 2014, she shared the following story:

‘I had the most amazing mother. She supported this love for animals that I had (…). She found books for me to read, about animals, because she thought ‘that will make Jane read faster.’ When I was ten years old, I found for myself a little book, called ‘Tarzan of the Apes.’ I had just enough pocket money to buy it, and I took it home with me, and took it up my favorite tree and I read it from cover to cover. Of course, I fell in love with Tarzan. This glorious lord of the jungle, of course I fell in love with him. Living with the animals… And what did Tarzan do? He married the wrong Jane! That is when I knew: I will grow up, I will go to Africa, I will live with animals and I will write books about them.’

What makes Goodall such a charismatic leader? Why do people all over the world listen to her message – ‘There is still much beauty left, but we have to get together to save it, for our children, and our children’s children’ – feel inspired by it, and decide to take action? Because she has such a strong and compelling vision. And it’s a book that helped her to create it.

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. – Haruki Murakami

3. Reading across cultures increases cross-cultural effectiveness

In our globalized economy, a leader’s ability to build successful teams and collaboration across cultures has become a crucial competency.

Reading across cultures can help you to develop your own cross-cultural leadership. By helping you to see beyond the cultural do’s and don’ts, and focus on the people behind unfamiliar habits and behavior. As Chinese writer Xue Xinran tells Westerners dealing with Chinese people: ‘Understanding the Chinese is just like how you would try to understand a tree. It is not just the leaves and the branches, your have to understand the roots as well.’

In addition, reading across cultures will likely make you question your own assumptions and business habits more. Research by Harvard Business School’s Roy Chua shows that leaders who develop this kind of ‘cultural metacognition’ build stronger trust, and increase cross-cultural effectiveness. Find more about Roy Chua’s findings here.

.4. Reading across time can put your own leadership challenges into perspective

To conclude: history is littered with business leaders who successfully led change, often in the face of obstacles at least as big as leaders face today. Reading their stories can give you fresh perspectives, and make the leadership challenges that you face look less daunting.

Some examples:

Andrew Carnegie, born poor, built a steel imperium in times of unprecedented change, and proceeded to give his fortune away.

Gerard Heineken, recently brought to life by Dutch writer Annejet van der Zijl, bought a small brewery in Amsterdam – even when he knew nothing about beer and people at the time did not like drinking it. Thanks to Heineken’s leadership, that small brewery became the Heineken company the whole world knows today.

Or read how a more recent business leader, Richard Branson, ‘survived, had fun and made a fortune doing business his way’.

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all. – Abraham Lincoln

Let me know:

If you could name one book to recommend to others, which one would it be? Share it below!

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Hanneke is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Her research focuses on how leaders build successful organizations by increasing the quality and effectiveness of people collaboration, particularly in cross-cultural environments. She has a special interest in China and East-West relations. Her work is a constant source of refinement and enrichment for the HRS alignment methodology. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

12 Comments on “Why Great Leaders Read Books

  1. Read Tai Pan by James Clavell. It will spark your insight in Chinese culture and show you a leader who knows how to benefit from this. And above all, a great story!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recommend the book “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson. It taught me about change, and that the only thing that unchanged about this world is that the world is keep changing.

    We have to adapt to the changes, embrace it and live it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The best business book I have ever read is From Good To Great by Jim Collins, if every business leader read this and put the findings into practice the business world would be a better place for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read it too and loved it: level 5 leadership explained with concrete stories and examples. In fact Collins’ reference to Lincoln as a level 5 leader made me want to get to know him (Lincoln) better and write a book about him – which I did. So thanks for sharing!


  4. My highest recommendation for business book reading this year would be David Silverstein’s One Dot, Two Dots, Get Some New Dots. David Silverstein has a great writing style and the advice he offers in this book is so valuable. I highly recommend having a read through some of the reviews on amazon and picking this one up. It had quite a huge impact on how I approach problem solving and tackling new challenges. Great book. http://www.davesdots.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just finished a book called “Conversations That Sell” by author and business woman Nancy Bleeke (http://www.conversationsthatsell.com). What I loved about this book is that it outlines modern and realistic strategies for personal sales techniques. It is so important to know your client, and know how to have a proper business conversations without coming across as “canned” or generic. This book uses real world examples to demonstrate the power of preparation and foresight when entering into a sales/business, meeting, pitch, etc. I really feel like I’ve had a shot in the arm after this read and fully plan on utilizing several of the strategies and ideas I found in this book in my business going forward. 100% recommend to all!!


  6. Pingback: If Readers are Leaders, What are Writers? « lastdayswatch

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