Leaders Are Readers

When I went to grade school in the ‘70s, the curriculum was still based on “The 3 R’s” of Readin’, wRitin’ and ‘Rithmatic.” These cornerstone fundamentals of education were not my favorite and of the three, I gravitated the most to reading. Like so many others, I enjoyed the adventure of new places, people and ideas unfolding before me page after page. That was much more attractive than figuring out multiplication tables!

Today I find reading an essential discovery tool for my work as a consultant, coach and trainer. However, it’s the power of story that is the real gift of reading and the occasional movie or documentary – and speaking of documentaries, my wife and I recently watched the 2010’s “Wasteland” together. The documentary has been described on theater websites such as Moviefone as follows:

“Located just outside Rio de Janeiro, Jardim Gramacho, Brazil, is the world’s largest garbage landfill. Modern artist Vik Muniz works with the so-called catadores, the men and women who pick through the refuse, to create art out of recycled materials. Muniz selects six of the garbage pickers to pose as subjects in a series of photographs mimicking famous paintings. In his desire to assist the catadores and change their lives, Muniz finds himself changed as well.”

We learned that the class system in Brazil is significant. Muniz suggests that people in higher classes truly believe they are better than those in lower classes. The garbage pickers are considered one of the lowest classes of the Brazilian society, with only prostitutes and thieves being lower.

A small but significant detail in the film that struck me was that one of the most prized items the pickers would find in the garbage heaps was books. Occasionally they would find intact books among the garbage, and instead of being sold with the recyclables that paid their wages, these books were retained, cleaned and dried to become part of the collection in their self-made library.

They valued these books and the ability to read. They taught one another to read, they read to one another, and they read independently. They read to learn. They read as a way to express some independence. They read to grow as people and to escape their very challenging realities. They read to virtually travel, to understand foreign perspectives, and to challenge their current ways of thinking. This defines the pickers as high-class in my book … no pun intended.

Our clients often ask for a recommended reading list of leadership, organizational effectiveness and personal development books, and we are quick to answer with long lists of well written books, white papers and the occasional TED Talk or other video or documentary. I would add “Wasteland” to that list.

As leadership and executive coaches, we believe leaders are readers – and here’s why:

Unlike the pickers of the Brazilian landfill, and despite most of our ample means and experience in traveling, reading provides exposure to new ways of thinking, cultures and ideas like no other media can. In fact, what Mark Twain said about travel – “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime” – clearly also applies to reading.

Another great benefit of reading, especially for leaders, is that language and vocabulary are enhanced and improved. The spoken word, literacy, and the understanding of concepts through language and vocabulary are all exercised and improved through reading, equipping us to be more agile and effective communicators.

Consider the literacy model known as the ladder of abstraction, u. The ladder of abstraction is a model to describe structure or a hierarchy of language. Simply explained, lower rungs on the ladder are more commonly understood while higher rungs may be more sophisticated or elite. Be thoughtful of the audience you wish to connect to and speak or write from their rung, not a higher one to seem more impressive or intelligent, effectively losing some of your connection. Also be mindful of not over-simplifying your language too. Match the rung and you’ll connect more and better!

We are fortunate in the U.S. compared to some people and cultures elsewhere in the world, where reading materials are highly censored and scrutinized to the point of being unavailable or illegal. Exercise that freedom by reading diverse and even controversial materials. Challenge your own biases by reading materials you would otherwise judge negatively, and you will develop greater self-awareness as an individual and as a leader of others.

Leaders are influencers. The more tools and approaches we have to authentically utilize make us, as leaders, potentially more influential to larger and more diverse populations. Ultimately, reading is especially important for leaders because leaders are people who have a desire to influence others to purposeful action. Reading increases our capacity and ability to influence more effectively. Reading will only enhance every leader’s ability!

A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

Mark Twain


This Viewpoint originally appeared in the Central New York Business Journal on August 24, 2020.

Bill Berthel is a partner with Emergent, L.L.C., a provider of executive coaching and leadership training, based in Syracuse. Contact him at Bill@GetEmergent.com