Sunday, October 17, 2010

Leaders are Readers

I received notice this week that on November 11, Leadership Network is hosting a live, online event on the topic of Leaders & Readers. Six authors will share their thoughts on the role that reading has played in their leadership experiences, drawing content from their latest books. On that day, the audience will be able to participate in the conversation through live Q&A.

Leadership Network invited me to share my thoughts on the following three questions…

1. How would you complete this sentence: “I believe that reading is valuable to leadership because…”?

2. Do leaders read differently than non-leaders? How?

3. What are 3 books that have most influenced your leadership and why?

So I have decided to take them up on it. From the time that I first began to make sense of words on a page as a pre-K, I have been fascinated with reading. The public libraries in my city and the libraries at every school I have ever attended have been among my favorite haunts (and they still are). The evolutionary process after that was powerful: I discovered bookstores, then bookstores discovered coffee, and then showed up and I could browse the bookstores without leaving my desk! My office walls are lined with books. Our study at home is lined with books. My laptop contains a couple of thousand volumes. I have pretty much been obsessed with reading most of my life. What difference has that made for me? What is the connection between my reading and the fact that I have been involved in leadership most of my life as well?

I believe that reading is valuable to leadership because a reader is often a person whose mind is working. Assuming I am reading books that challenge my thinking, that present ideas I sometimes take issue with, that introduce me to new ways of thinking, then reading is an act of mental growth. In a world that changes as rapidly as ours, leaders cannot afford to be people whose minds are stuck in a former paradigm. Leaders are people who must be able to learn their way through the changes in order to thrive. A supple, working, thinking brain is a leader’s greatest asset. The act of reading helps keep that asset sharp.

Do leaders read differently than non-leaders? That is difficult to say, since I’m not so familiar with the reading habits of non-leaders. Leaders do not so much read for entertainment, I think. The leaders with whom I associate do read voraciously. They love books and they love ideas. They read fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, theology and economics, classics and contemporary. They read to stay up and they read to stay grounded. Reading keeps leaders connected not only with the leaders of the present, but also with the leaders of the past. It is a common “complaint” heard among my peers that our conversations are too expensive – they send us to Amazon for another order as we share what we have been reading.

Which three books have most influenced my leadership (excluding the Bible, which is the easy answer)? Murray Bowen’s Family Therapy in Clinical Practice is a collection of Bowen’s essays and lectures over a couple of decades, exposing the development of his thinking about how natural systems work. This thinking, and that of many of his disciples such as Roberta Gilbert, Ron Richardson, Edwin Friedman, and Michael Kerr has informed my thinking about what it means to lead with an understanding of natural systems. Early on as a pastoral leader, I recall reading Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence and being challenged to think about what excellence should look like in congregational life and leadership. A third influence has been the works of Wendell Berry (pick one – how about his collection of essays, The Art of the Commonplace?) I was introduced to Berry by Eugene Peterson’s comment in his Under the Unpredictable Plant, in which he encouraged pastors to read Berry and substitute the word “congregation” wherever the farmer/writer/poet Wendell Berry used the words “land,” ”soil,” or “farm.” Then, Peterson said, we’d understand something about what pastoral leadership is about. That advice has been fruitful for me. That also illustrates the way that books lead to other books and writers introduce their favorites to the reader like good friends.

When I had my head buried under the covers as a preteen, reading by flashlight so my mother would not know I’d not yet gone to bed, I never expected to be a writer myself. But a few years ago I joined two friends and colleagues in a project that led to our writing The Leader’s Journey: A Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation. There have been other pieces as well. And currently I am working on a couple of projects. I do hope that my writing has the effect of helping readers become leaders and of introducing leaders to ideas that will shape their work.

Be sure to join us on November 11 for Leaders & Readers, you can register free at

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