Why our leaders should read less

It’s not how much we read but how we incorporate it

Have you ever had that situation where your boss comes into the office having just read THAT book and wanting to change everything? Have you been recommended a book by a leader only to find out that it contradicts the way they behave? That’s happened to me a few times. I remember a former boss buying a copy of Radical Candor for every manager in their team. Reading that book was like looking into opposite world when compared to the way they handled feedback. Sadly, they’d created a culture where feedback wasn’t welcome and no one was able to put theory into action and tell them this.

The problem we have today is that there is an increasing body of truly excellent writing on leadership, culture and technical teams. We are surrounded by an embarrassment of riches. I am going to put it to you that we’re good at reading and repeating the soundbites from this literature and not actually any good at putting things into practice. I also freely acknowledge that I’m writing about you reading less while hoping that you’re going to read this. Ah well…

Schopenhauer wrote: “For it is only when we gain our knowledge in this way that it enters as an integral part, a living member, into the whole system of our thought; that it stands in complete and firm relation with what we know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of our own way of thinking; that it comes exactly at the right time, just as we felt the necessity for it; that it stands fast and cannot be forgotten. This is the perfect application, nay, the interpretation, of Goethe’s advice to earn our inheritance for ourselves so that we may really possess it.”. This sums things up for me. In order for reading we need a process for incorporating this information into our own model of the world. A friend of mine told me how he told his father in law about the book he was reading on French history and how he was excited to add this to his working model of the world. He has the enviable ability to consume in bulk and also retain knowledge.

So what do the rest of us do? What was the last excellent book you read? Have you really taken the lessons from that into your daily life? Where does it leave us?

Sadly, what happens is we recall the soundbites that make us appear clever and the buzzwords and little else. We have no method for deliberately making use of this learning and so the time we spent learning is a pleasant aside that doesn’t bring anything more than superficial value. Allowing us to pretend to the genius of others and justify our own actions without ever having to truly go through meaningful personal change. As leaders we harm our credibility by claiming some body of wisdom that we’re not acting on.

We find ourselves with a generation of leaders that sound so polished that it’s easy to believe in them. Their words echo those in those giants whose shoulders they are failing to stand on. Action frequently fails to follow words. So the next time you read that book — be deliberate about how you apply it. If it’s that good you should be reading it multiple times — each time reinforcing and enhancing the insight you saw there.

After all, knowledge isn’t yours until you’ve made it part of yourself. Here’s my advice — read the last book which blew your mind again and ask yourself if you’ve truly taken it into your world view. If not then maybe read fewer things more times and take the opportunity to truly own the genius of the people around us.

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.