• Raghu Raman

On the Importance of Reading for Leaders


A great way to leverage the time the lockdown has imposed on us is to rekindle the habit of reading. While some of us may already be voracious readers, many would probably want to read more than we currently do.


How many books does one have to read to be called a voracious reader? Well, there is no magic number, but here are some indications of a voracious reader. Firstly, they are always reading. Sometimes more than one book at a time. Many readers read 3–4 books of different genres simultaneously. They utilize every bit of spare time to dive into their book (not their phone). Waiting in a queue, commuting, lunch breaks are all reading opportunities for these people. They have a book with them all the time and own several books, many yet to be read. And if they can’t afford them, they are active members of libraries.


But anyone who says ‘I don’t have time to read’ is definitely not a voracious reader. And usually also a suboptimal leader. If Warren Buffet, Elon Musk and Bill Gates can find the time to read voraciously, anyone who doesn’t have the time to read, is making a choice not to.


This blog series hopes to get you on the journey to being an avid reader.


What kind of reading — is reading?

In an age of social media, everyone is ‘reading’ all the time. Or at least staring at their phones, getting tickled by new posts, tweets or messages every few seconds. The ‘fear of missing out’ is a powerful addiction that keeps us hooked to our smartphones. I don’t mean that kind of reading. I mean the more in-depth reading, that immerses us into a subject or an experience, that teaches us, kindles our emotions, inspires us and is a beacon in our leadership journey.


Why should we read?

Good question. Especially since we do a lot of reading anyway. Websites, Twitter, Facebook and dozens of news portals. But those are ‘shallow’ reading. They address one contemporary topic, giving instant information about it. For instance, social media feeds these days are dominated by the Coronavirus. A few days ago, it was about the protests against the Citizen Amendment Bill. What was it before that? You struggle to remember! That’s shallow reading. Topical, dealing with an immediate issue and very temporal.


In-depth reading, on the other hand, is akin to something that we did in school or college. Where we learnt a ‘subject’ deep enough not just to remember it, but also leverage that knowledge for something far more meaningful than just staying updated. There are many other reasons to read, as well.


First, it gives leaders of all ages, especially the younger ones, an incredible opportunity to learn from the experience of others. No matter what situation or difficulty in life we are facing, there are dozens of leaders who have walked that path before. Reading stories of those leaders is like getting personal mentorship from them. Whether they are accounts of political or military leaders or accounts of exploration and adventure or even personal memoirs of leaders written from their point of view, it is only reading that allows us to learn from experiences of others, without having to pay the same price.


Second, reading is a method of introspection. When we read biographies of say Nelson Mandela or Steve jobs, there will be many moments, when we will wonder ‘what would I have done if I was faced with a similar situation’. Indeed, those readings may form the basis of our decision making in the future. They will shape our leadership styles and character. After all, we are the result of who we come in contact with — physically or virtually. Reading allows us to choose role models and learn from them what to do. And in some cases, what not to do.


Thirdly, reading is also the best way to become a better communicator. A leader must have an arsenal of stories, frameworks and anecdotes to be able to communicate with her team verbally and in writing. The ability to express thoughts clearly and succinctly is one of the most powerful tools in a leader’s repertoire — and also an indication of superior intelligence. That is why precis writing is considered so important. A leader who can summarize a complicated situation is not only intelligent but also usually very successful. Besides, how can one be a good leader if she can’t communicate her leadership quotient to her followers, peers and superiors?


Fourth, reading expands the mind, literally. Here’s why. The phrase “the book was better than the movie” has an underlying reason. Reading the author’s narrative triggers the active theatre of the mind, which is always more powerful than the passive depiction of the movie. For instance, read the following paragraph slowly.


“I hadn’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friend’s boat that ventured into the outer harbour, and I could see it off into the distance, past the inner ring, shrouded in the summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky”


Now try to visualize the image of the island from a distance while sitting on a boat and the description of the island. Make that picture in the “theatre of your mind.”


That was the opening sentence from Dennis Lehane’s bestselling novel “Shutter Island” made into a movie by the same name, by Martin Scorsese starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley.


The movie ‘spelt out’ the scene, so the brain passively absorbed Scorsese’s vision of the island, but when we have to imagine the scene, our brain has to work much harder. It has to reach back into own memories of an island, a boat, summer haze and a careless smudge of paint against the sky. Synapses in the brain fire exponentially more while constructing a scene than being spoonfed the scene ‘painted’ by someone else. The image made in the brain is genuinely ours, built by the synaptic action of our mind. That is the power of reading. It literally expands the brain and its intelligence.


Reading also enables us to come to speed with new domains and learn the ropes very quickly. Suppose you are going to intern with a conglomerate— say Reliance Industries. If you read three books — “The Prize”, “Here Comes Everybody” and “The End of Online Shopping” you would understand the Oil and Gas business, the power of ‘networks’ and online retail. You will know the concepts, the jargon and the fundamentals of the business of Reliance Industries. Matter of fact you would probably belong to less than 1% of the interns who know this and hit the ground running!

Next up — Fiction or Non-Fiction; What’s the Difference
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