25 Jul 2015 17:03 IST

A good reader makes a good leader

One defining trait of a good leader, is that he reads voraciously

Professionals, climbing steadily up the corporate ladder, aspire to be good leaders. In fact, everyone aims to be a good leader. And reading is a defining trait, an underpinning characteristic, that a good leader possesses.

Inspirational leadership is the holy grail of any management practitioner. Leadership development is a multi-million dollar industry globally; there are a number of management programmes offered by different institutions on leadership development. Is leadership innate or can it be cultivated? What is the secret ingredient in the recipe of strong leadership? Critical traits like intelligence, knowledge, decision making, innovation, people skills and so on make for a good leader. However, the one universal trait of a great leader, that cuts across geographies and cultures, is the habit of reading.

Vital for leadership

Several studies have proved that reading can make one a better leader, as it is a way of gaining and assimilating knowledge. Verbal intelligence, so vital for leadership, is purely by virtue of extensive reading.

Leaders come from all walks of life and with different personalities. Some, born with the proverbial silver spoon, may feel the need to contribute to society and emerge as leaders. There are leaders who are born in abject poverty and by dint of hard work, rise to great heights. And there are the individuals who are blessed with privileged education, qualifying as leaders. We have also seen many self-taught great leaders — Jawaharlal Nehru and Abraham Lincoln are two good examples of leaders hailing from contrasting backgrounds.

Then there are leaders endowed with the charisma and an impressive, imposing personality. On the other hand, we have seen leaders like Mother Theresa, a diminutive nun from Albania who was able to offer solace to thousands of people and effectively lead with moral authority, compassion and humility.

Who read what

Many successful leaders have repeatedly spoken about the impact of books in their field of work. Some leaders acknowledge books as their best friend and companion during times of trials and tribulations. Napoleon Bonaparte was a voracious reader who employed a personal librarian and carried his favourite books to battlefields. He routinely took time off empire building to lose himself in a good book.

Vladimir Lenin the founder of Soviet Union is another historical figure who was a man of letters and known for his erudition and reading. American comedian, Groucho Marx, known for his sharp wit, said he owed all his knowledge to the television — every time someone switched on the television, he moved to another room to read a book!

What do leaders read?

Reading, as a habit, is varied. We presume that being leaders, such individuals must be reading books only on literature, history, politics or management. Agreed, these subjects could be of great pertinence to leaders — Winston Churchill’s great love for history made him comment that people who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. In the world of business and commerce, Warren Buffet the legendary investor, the Oracle of Omaha, reads six newspapers every day. Bill Gates, the software mogul, acknowledged reading The Economist Magazine cover to cover. Mark Zuckerberg has come up with a challenge for 2015 — he plans to read a new book every other week with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, history and technology. Zuckerberg mentioned “The end of power” as the first book he read in 2015. This book since went on to feature in the best seller list worldwide. But this is not all that they read.

I had an opportunity to interact with a senior business leader, who is the executive board member of a transnational company. His division is responsible for revenues in excess of €2.75 billion annually. With our common reading interest, it was natural that our discussions gravitated towards books. This business leader reads for pleasure, and as a rule, avoids reading anything remotely connected to business. He reads novels; Booker Prize winning authors are a must-read for him.

I have also known senior industry figures who like to read science fiction and medical thrillers, because such eclectic reading provides them with different perspectives, and promotes creativity, thus avoiding fatal group thinking.

Light reading (the fiction variety) is also known to cultivate social skills, excellent communication, emotional intelligence and balanced temperament. Without exception, all job interviews feature the mandatory question in the aspirations and interest section of the interview: Do you read?

Be an effective writer

Good reading habits are also foundational for effective writing. Every great author is, primarily, a keen reader. Good reading and writing are most essential for effective communication and eventual success in all spheres of life.

To sum up, cultivating good reading habits early in life is very important. People do start reading books at a later stage in life too, primarily due to peer pressure. As a habit, it is quite contrived and not sustainable. That said, there are people who realize the need to read deeply and get down to building reading as a focused habit.

Reading provides us lifelong joy. Thanks to science and technology we have unprecedented access to a wide range of subjects at the touch of a button. This is a far cry from the pre-Gutenberg era. It’s up to us to enjoy and gain from the world of books. Who knows, many of us could even emerge as successful and wise leaders!

So, if you are not already into it, start now. Read for learning, for growth, for development or for fun! As you read, so shall you grow…