What All Great Leaders Have In Common

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

The secret of all great leaders: ReadingAll great leaders have one thing in common: They read voraciously. Did you know that the average American only reads one book a year? Worse than this is the fact that 60% of average Americans only get through the first chapter. Contrast this with the fact that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read an average of four to five books a month. Even more impressive is that some of the most successful leaders throughout history were known to read one book every single day. Bottom line…If you’re a leader and not an avid reader, you’re wrong. In today’s post I’ll share my thoughts on the value of reading…

If the statistics in the opening paragraph didn’t convince you of the power of reading, here are a few more telling observations for your consideration – according to our surveys at N2growth, a very large common denominator shared by executives who feel that they are not achieving the level of success they feel capable of, is that many of them are “too busy to keep up with their reading.” Hmmm…. Furthermore, studies show that active readers are likely to have annual incomes more than 5 times greater than those who spend little or no time reading. Do I have your attention yet?

Up until a few years ago Rick Warren read a book every single day. Abraham Lincoln who only had one year of formal education credited his appetite for reading with his success. Teddy Roosevelt was rumored to actually read two books a day. Thomas Jefferson had one of the most exhaustive personal libraries of his time prior to donating it to the Library of Congress (which many joked Roosevelt had read). The moral of my story continues to be that in order to be a great leader, you absolutely must be a great reader. 

As an advisor to CEOs, there is little doubt that I’m passionate about personal and professional development, and there is one simple reason why – it works. Great leaders are like a sponge when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge, the development of new skill sets, and the constant refinement of existing competencies. To the person, the best leaders I know are prolific readers. The most successful people I know consume written content at a pace that far exceeds that of the average person. My message today is a simple one – if you want to improve your station in life, as well as the lives around you – read more.

While there are certainly numerous ways to learn (observation, experience, classroom instruction, relational interactions, etc.), I am a huge fan of the benefits of professional development gained from good old-fashioned reading. Someone once said “you are what you read” and while I think there is far more to the equation of our individual make-up than our choice of reading material, the statistics mentioned above prove there is also an element of truth contained in the aforementioned quote.

If I told you how much time I spend reading and researching you probably wouldn’t believe me, but suffice it to say, I am a voracious reader. I will often read a book in one sitting, have more than a dozen books presently underway on my Kindle, subscribe to online clipping services, use RSS feeds to scour news groups & forums, I devour social content on blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, various iPhone apps, etc., and this is in addition to reading a variety of industry publications and periodicals.

With what I’ve noted thus far I’m always amazed at the number of executives who don’t keep up with their professional reading. To be blunt, I have little patience for those leaders who are “too busy” or “too smart” or “too important” to learn. Put simply, if you’re not learning you have no business leading. How can you possibly be expected to grow an organization if you’re not growing yourself? How can you accept the responsibility to develop a team if you’re not developing yourself?

The greatest leaders throughout history have been nothing short of relentless in their pursuit of knowledge. If you are anything less then you are not only cheating yourself, but you’re also cheating your organization.  I believe Michelangelo said it best when he uttered the words “Ancora Imparo” which when translated from the Italian means “I am still learning.” By the way, his first public use of this phrase was noted to have been on his 87th Birthday. I don’t know about you, but I’m still learning. Moreover, the day I stop reading, the day I stop learning – that’s the day I stop leading and likely the day I stop breathing. 

Let me be clear that when I speak of acquiring knowledge, I’m not promoting intellectual elitism, rather I’m espousing the benefits that are derived by those who have a true and sincere passion for learning…there is a difference. Intellectual elitists are by-in-large braggarts that acquire knowledge (or feign possession thereof) for public acclaim and their own self-promotion. Learning serves little purpose for leaders if it is not actionable. If you acquire knowledge, yet choose not to use it for the benefit of others then you’re not a leader, you’re self indulgent. 

In concurrence with Michelangelo’s quote above, I have never been a believer in the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  In fact quite to the contrary, I believe anyone (yes I mean anyone) can change/learn/grow/develop given one prerequisite; the desire to do so. When it comes to topic of learning, it has been my experience that there are generally three types of people: those who constantly seek to acquire knowledge, those who think they already know it all, and those who just don’t care. What distinguishes members of one group from another rarely has anything to do with intellect, wealth, social pedigree, career standing, or other like pursuits…It has everything to do with desire.

Reading should not be something that is done when you’re bored, or have nothing better to do, rather it needs to be incorporated into your daily regimen. I have personally worked with literally hundreds of C-suite executives and without question the most successful professionals are those that constantly seek out learning opportunities and who are voracious readers. They realize the importance of learning and make reading a priority. Think of the business leaders that have had the biggest positive impact in your life, and I’m sure you’ll find that these individuals were in constant search of new and better information. They use the information acquired through reading in order to inspire, motivate, and lead those around them.

The question is not if you should be reading, but rather what should you be reading? With the plethora of reading material on the market today it is not a simple thing to make sure that you’re covering all the bases in a time efficient fashion. Therefore the following tips were designed to help you get the most out of your reading while maintaining efficiency in your reading efforts:

Books: My first piece of advice is that if you don’t own a Kindle or other e-reader, go get one. It’s much easier to have your reading material in one completely portable, digitally organized reader than it is to go old school and tote your books and magazines with you. 

Periodicals, Trade Publications and Industry Journals: Again, not being able to address the specific needs of each reader, you must make your own choices here as well. However being aware of industry trends, competitive positioning, who the thought leaders are, etc. are all critical to your success. Pick the top couple of publications in your industry, sector, vertical or micro-vertical and pour-over the content looking for opportunities to exploit. Most print publications now also have Internet versions, Kindle editions, or digital newsletters that can be subscribed to as well.

Digital Media: If you’re reading this post then you probably understand the value of blogs, but don’t ignore, other forms of social content like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin Groups, Forums, and News Portals. Don’t forget information that can be gleaned from services like Google Alerts and other online clipping services and aggregators. What I particularly like about this genre is that it is often “real time” information as opposed to other mediums that have a built in latency factor.  Another benefit is that much of the content produced in this medium is not from the typical industry pundits, but rather true “in the trenches” thought leaders that see things coming long before journalists report it in the news, or the so-called gurus publish it in their latest book. This medium has been my preferred reading choice for a number of years now because it is extremely productive and time effective. I subscribe to these venues because I’m able to be “pushed” content that I’ve asked for in a medium that I enjoy. If you are not a heavy consumer of online information you are truly missing the boat.

Whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, the best way to approach personal and professional development is to always stay in the learning zone. When you think you have all the answers is when you are headed straight for the proverbial brick wall. That said, most things in life happen as a result of choices we make…It is clearly within your grasp to make the choice to gain an understanding of what it is that you don’t know, and determine how you want to deal with that situation. My recommendation is simple, if you want to increase you income, your impact or your influence, then I would suggest you increase your reading. 

If you have any additional tips, or want to recommend any great books, please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. Here’s an idea – just like the popular use of “what’s on your iPod” to share what music people are listening to, how about sharing what’s on your Kindle?