The most common New Year’s resolution is to “exercise more.” That’s followed by the second most common resolution—to lose weight. Reading more books doesn’t crack the top 10. But for leaders, maybe it should top the list.
After reading more than 75 nonfiction books in 2017, many written by CEOs, I was struck by how many leaders credit another book for their success. For example, in Hit Refresh, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella writes about leading the transition from a Windows-centric company to one that’s at the forefront of artificial intelligence and cloud computing. Nadella says one book in particular changed his life and his career. His wife had handed him a copy of Stanford professor’s Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. “She [Dweck] divides the world between learners and non-learners, demonstrating that a fixed mindset will limit you and a growth mindset can move you forward,” Nadella writes. Nadella has transformed Microsoft from a “know-it-all” to a “learn-it-all” culture which, he says, has made all the difference.
In the forward to Nadella’s book, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, makes a statement that’s clearly inspired by Gates’ favorite book, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Gates writes, “We should all be optimistic about what’s to come. The world is getting better, and progress is coming faster than ever.” In May, 2017, Gates posted the book’s cover on Twitter and recommended it to college graduates, saying it’s “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” Pinker is a progress advocate who offers mountains of evidence to show that violence around the world has steadily decreased throughout history. Gates has stated that the book changed the strategy behind his philanthropy. He now looks at the world more optimistically, studying the positive trends and figuring out how to extend those trends.
For Nadella and Gates, books give them a new way of looking at the world, which is why Gates is proud to say he reads about a book a week. For other leaders, books inspire them to reach for the stars, literally.
In Endurance, astronaut Scott Kelly, revealed that he had graduated from high school in the bottom half of his class [in retrospect, Kelly says school was difficult because of undiagnosed ADHD]. One day while wandering the bookstore in the only college that had accepted him, he stumbled upon The Right Stuff, Tom Wolf’s famous book about Navy test pilots. It captured Kelly’s imagination. “It wasn’t just an exciting adventure story. This was something more like a life plan.” Kelly read the book cover to cover and when he closed it, he was “a different person.” Kelly committed himself to do what it takes to follow in the path of the heroic pilots whose stories he had just read.
Kelly’s transformation wouldn’t surprise Harvard literature professor, Martin Puchner. In The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization, Puchner traces the history of literature in the rise and fall of empires and nations. “Literature isn’t just for book lovers. Ever since it emerged four thousand years ago, it shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth,” he writes.
Puchner tells the story of Alexander the Great who carried an important object on his military campaigns, a copy of Homer’s epic, The Iliad. “It was the story through which he [Alexander] saw his campaign and life, a foundational text that captured the mind of a prince who would go on conquer the world.” According to Puchner, “Alexander the Great is well-known as a larger-than-life king. It turns out that he was also a larger-than-life reader.”
There’s certainly nothing wrong with making a resolution to live healthier in 2018, but if you’d like to really stand out as a leader, make a commitment to reading a new book every week or two (even one book a month will make you an above-average reader). Where to look for ideas? The weekend editions of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are great places to start. Both publications have extensive book sections that are a pleasure to read, and enlightening, too.
I hope you will also continue to follow my column. I highlight the most valuable lessons from new business books and often include original insights from my conversations with the authors. Leaders might be readers, but great leaders are voracious readers.