When I was in high school, I remember my father often sharing nuggets of wisdom with people (he still does). One such pearl was a statement he would make about the importance of reading: “If you can read well, you can learn to do anything well.” He would make this comment when the conversation around the dinner table was focused on one subject or another in school, or how one of us – his children – was doing in a particular class, or what we were learning. He would say something about the value of that subject, but then he would add his statement about the value of reading.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that I grew up in a family of readers. When I was little, my father read to us every night (I can remember listening to him read the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I have since read to my own children, along with the Chronicles of Narnia books, by C.S. Lewis). As I grew older, it was not uncommon, on a quiet evening, to find us all sitting in the living room, each reading a good book. And I have continued to read as much as I can as an adult; although, to be honest, there have been periods when I found it nearly impossible to find the time to read.
As I reflect over the time that has passed since my childhood, I can identify several books and/or authors that have had a significant influence on me. The Bible would be at the top of the list; as a follower of Jesus, it has shaped my worldview (and continues to do so), and profoundly impacts how I understand and navigate the world. Reading most of Louis L’amour’s western fiction as a teenager helped to shape my independence and determination, and influenced my perceptions of the characteristics of rugged manhood. When I read Earnest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my 10th grade English class, the poem by John Donne that was referenced at the beginning of the book and from which the book gets its name struck me in a way that I have never forgotten: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this one poem helped me to understand the importance of relationship and connection, which has in turn shaped my views on leadership (I have quoted that line a number of times in conversations about leadership and organizations). I could add a number of others to this list of personally influential books, including books like The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien; Man to Man, by Charles Swindoll, All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot; and even Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Waterson, and Gary Larson’s The Far Side had an effect on my sense of humor (or, perhaps better stated, reflected my sense of humor).
When I was working toward my Ph.D. in leadership, two books in particular had an effect on me early in the program. The first was called Leadership and the New Science, by Margaret Wheatley. This book explored the scientific principles of Chaos Theory, and translated those ideas into leadership principles. The impact of this book for me was not so much the content and the leadership principles, as it was the fact that, in reading the book, I began to make connections in my own mind between truths of the Bible and effective leadership principles and practices. I don’t believe that Wheatley is a Christian author, and I’m pretty sure that was not her intent in the writing of the book, but it was a turning point in the way that I read books on leadership. The second important book for me was called The Making of a Leader: Leadership Emergence Theory, by J. Robert Clinton. This book presented a theory on the formation of leadership that, as I read, resonated deeply with me because it reflected precisely how I viewed my own development of leadership. As I read through Clinton’s stages of leadership emergence, I could look back over my life and see that I had followed the same process he was describing. In fact, the theory of leadership presented in this book became the supporting theory for my doctoral dissertation.
I continue to read regularly, and with variety. My personal habit is to be reading four or five books at any given time – typically one on leadership, one on Christianity or spiritual growth, one on history or general knowledge, a work of classic literature, and a book of enjoyable popular fiction (at the time I am writing this, I am in the process of reading The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Chabris and Simons; Disciplines of a Godly Man, by Hughes, Victory at Yorktown, by Gingrich, and Don Quixote, by Cervantes). Some books I read purely for entertainment and enjoyment, but some I read in order to intentionally learn and grow. For those books (usually the books on leadership and the books on spiritual growth) I take notes on 4” x 6” note cards, summarizing and outlining the main ideas of each chapter, and I keep those sets of note cards stored alphabetically by book title in a file box to keep them handy for reference at a later date.
You don’t have to read in the same way that I do, but you should be reading. You should read books that challenge your thinking, books that help you to learn in your particular field of work, books that help you to grow as a leader, books that broaden your general knowledge. All of these types of books shape your thought process and ideas and stretch the muscle of your brain. In the process, they can help you to become a more knowledgeable and effective leader, because you will learn. So I would challenge and encourage you to be disciplined and intentional about reading. Read for enjoyment. Read to learn. Read.