In our busy and highly connected world, it is becoming less and less frequent for professionals to make time for reading that is not work-related. Sure, you might read the Wall Street Journal, keep up with management and training blogs and read the occasional business book, but when was the last time you picked up a novel simply because it sounded interesting?
This month, John Coleman wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review about why this trend is bad for developing valuable leadership skills:
Even as global literacy rates are high (84%), people are reading less and less deeply. The National Endowment for the Arts (PDF) has found that “[r]eading has declined among every group of adult Americans,” and for the first time in American history, “less than half of the U.S. adult American population is reading literature.” Literacy has been improving in countries like India and China, but that literacy may not translate into more or deeper reading.
This is terrible for leadership, where my experience suggests those trends are even more pronounced. Business people seem to be reading less — particularly material unrelated to business. But deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.
Reading is the easiest way to expand your perspective outside of your own immediate experiences. You can certainly learn a lot from non-fiction business or management and training books, but fiction offers diverse and thought-provoking characters and ideas that help you see the world differently. Reading novels cultivates new interests and knowledge, and it also strengthens leadership skills.
Note how many business titans are or have been avid readers. According to The New York Times, Steve Jobs had an “inexhaustible interest” in William Blake; Nike founder Phil Knight so reveres his library that in it you have to take off your shoes and bow; and Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman called poets “the original systems thinkers,” quoting freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson.
3 Ways to Expand Your Reading Horizons
1. Explore the classics.
Challenge yourself to read some (or all if you’re feeling ambitious) of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. You may not feel ready to tackle Ulysses quite yet, but you can start with The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, The Age of Innocence or To the Lighthouse.
2. Dust off your library card.
Remember the local public library, that place where you can borrow thousands of wonderful books for free? In the age of the Internet, we tend to forget that such a valuable resource is just down the street. Go browse through the new releases, the mysteries or even the children’s section. Ask the librarians what they recommend (they always know the best-kept secrets).
3. Join Goodreads.com
Goodreads is the tech-savvy approach to finding new books that strike your fancy. Join the social network for free, follow friends’ reviews and recommendations and keep a queue of books you want to read.
What are your favorite novels? Do you think they’ve helped improve your leadership skills or personal effectiveness?