Nothing is more important in today’s fast changing world for a leader than to continue to learn. A common trait of effective leaders is that they continually learn. A large part of that learning involves constant reading.
Harriet Rubin, in the New York Times, wrote an article on how much many CEO’s read and how important it is to their thinking process. However it might be instructive on how two of America’s greatest Presidents used reading. James Strock has written on both of these great presidents and their reading styles, though different, is instructive.
Lincoln’s Approach: Deep Reading and Reflection
Abraham Lincoln was famous for being an avid reader from an early age. As a very poor boy who never attended more than two years of formal education he could not afford to buy a book but borrowed them from family and friends. Although Lincoln was a devoted reader he did not read great quantities of books. It has been estimated that he read no more than 300 books in his entire life. In his day books were relatively expensive and rare.
Lincoln devoured books not in quantity but in-depth. He frequently re-read books dozens of times until he knew them forward and backward. He was well-known for being able to quote large passages from the Holy Bible and Shakespeare. His favorite play was Macbeth which he could recite from memory. During his law practice many of the books he read were on the law. In the White House he read extensively on Naval Strategy and Military Strategy to prepare himself as commander-in-chief.
Lincoln’s deep study of books meant he understood them better than many others. He continually reread a book until he understood every nuance of it. His reading also helped him hone his writing such that he became one of the most effective political writers of the 19th century.
Theodore Roosevelt: Wide Reading for Stimulation, Creativity
Theodore Roosevelt on the other hand read tremendous quantities of books in many different fields. He typically read a book a day, even while in the White House. He likely read thousands of books in his life. Despite devouring so many books he had a deep understanding of their content. He turned many heads in the White House when experts of every type would visit. He could converse with naval historians, biologists, historians and many others at their level, often quoting back to them their own writings or discussing the latest books of the day. He also read books in a number of languages including English, French and German.
Roosevelt was quite likely the most well-read president ever although Thomas Jefferson would come in a close second. Jefferson also could hold his own in conversations with experts from many fields. John Kennedy was once quoted as remarking during a Nobel Prize winners dinner at the White House that the last time so much intellect dined in the White House was when Jefferson dined there alone.
Reading Still Matters for 21st Century Leaders
If it was important for Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt to read deeply and broadly it is even more critical for today’s leaders to read and learn extensively because today’s world is changing faster than these leaders could even have imagined.
Estimates of the doubling of information and knowledge in the world range from every 5 to every 21 years. It is more likely that the lower number is the more accurate. While it is impossible to be the kind of generalist expert that Thomas Jefferson was today it is possible to keep up with the major trends and changes in a field or two important to a leader’s emphasis. The leader who keeps abreast of these changes has a definite advantage over those who do not.
Even if keeping up with change were not important it is vital to be a lifelong learner to expand one’s capabilities and understanding. A leader must cultivate this understanding in order to effectively lead others. Few people are interested in following someone who is ignorant or who refuses to learn.
If you want to be an effective leader you must be a lifelong learner. There is no shortcut to this. Whether in business, government, or private institutions, leadership demands that people keep up with change and deepen their understanding of the world as well as their field of expertise. Leaders who continue to learn not only understand how to most effectively serve others but also how to make the leadership decisions that will lead their organizations to success.
Daniel R Murphy has studied what makes people successful for over 30 years.
Daniel R Murphy | Leadership Requires Lifelong Learning