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Why Leaders Need to Read (and How to Build a Reading Habit)

Jared Atchison
Jared Atchison

The great leaders of the world are known to be avid readers. Let's explore why reading supports leadership and how to become a prolific reader.

Leadership is a complex role that involves technical knowledge, people skills, and skills you can't plan for as situations arise. Leadership is largely a mental role that needs constant exercise to stay effective, which is why reading is a key habit for all leaders. 

President Harry S. Truman said, "Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers." History and present times also show us that the top leaders who innovate and influence the world are also people who read. Bill Gates reads 50 books a year. Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Cuban, Warren Buffet and many other leaders all swear by reading – for reasons that we'll explore in greater depth. 

Reasons why leaders need to read

Reading offers real benefits that have been proven through research and studies. Here are the reasons why, based on common sense and research, reading makes for better leadership. 

1. Connect dots to drive innovation.

Steve Jobs is credited with saying, "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while."

What this means is that to be creative and innovative, you need to have diverse "dots" of knowledge. Innovation is essentially connecting these dots in a way that hasn't been done before. 

Reading gives leaders knowledge or the dots they need to come up with new ideas and approaches to make their businesses better. If you want to boost your creativity, it's important to read as many different types of books and literature as possible.

2. Build on other people's experiences.

No business leader can gain all the experience and comprehension they need for fulfillment and success in one lifetime. Reading allows you to look into the minds of leaders who came before you and to learn from their mistakes without experiencing all those events yourself. 

It's a powerful way to gain a lifetime's worth of knowledge in a short time, especially since there are so many books written by highly experienced businesspeople, professionals and others who have decades of knowledge in their field. The depth of the information you get can expand your understanding of other people, businesses and a great deal more. 

3. Develop empathy. 

Leadership is necessarily a people-management function. When you're dealing with others, empathy can go a long way in building trust and gaining cooperation. Studies show that people who read the most fiction have better social cognition than those who read less. 

Reading helps you enter the mental states of others and view life from different perspectives. People who read also show better empathy, even when accounting for age, intelligence, personality and other factors. 

Bill Gates has said, "Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read. Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career and in the work that I do now with my foundation."

There's no avoiding it: Reading makes you better at understanding and connecting with others, and it also makes you more altruistic. These are difficult yet essential skills for a leader to successfully manage others. When you can engage better with your team and employees, you'll see better work performance and improved growth in your organization. 

How to build a reading habit

Developing a reading habit takes time and effort, just like any other worthwhile goal you may have. However, you can make your reading habit easier to build by following a few helpful tips. Let's explore what they are. 

1. Set an easy goal.

If you don't have the habit of reading from childhood, it can be difficult to start at an older age. Don't get caught up in the idea that you should read a book a week the way many prominent businesspeople do. Start by reading a single page or even just exploring book summaries to test the waters. When you have an easy goal, you'll feel satisfaction from completing it and the desire to repeat it as a rewarding activity. 

2. Track your reading.

Tracking the books you've read can give you the feeling of accomplishment and the desire to read more. Use Goodreads to list the books you've covered. You can also add the date of completion and leave a review to share your thoughts. This site also sends you recommendations for similar books, so you'll always have something new to read. 

3. Invest in an e-reader.

The more convenient it is to build a new habit, the more likely you are to do it. An e-reader like Kindle or Nook can transform your reading. They are easily portable, so you can read during your commute or breaks. You can also store thousands of books on them, giving you boundless options and plenty of great books to look forward to. The portability and storage can make the difference between reading regularly and reading only sporadically throughout the year. 

4. Try audiobooks.

Audiobooks are also excellent for "reading." Listening to audiobooks makes great use of your time when you commute (especially if you have to drive rather than riding on public transit) or do work that does not need a great deal of attention. 

Some 1 in 5 Americans listens to audiobooks. Around 40% of Americans listen to podcasts, with 15% of them listening to a podcast at least once a week, and 22% of people listen to audio content in their cars. 

Platforms like Audible, Scribd and Storytel have mobile apps that make it easy to access a large number of audiobooks. This is an excellent way to consume books while carrying out other necessary tasks. 

5. Plan your time for reading.

Roughly 27% of people head to social media right when they wake up. Instead of doing this, you could make it a regular practice to start your day by reading a certain number of pages from a book. 

It's important to plan your time for reading. There are two main approaches you can use: 

  • Block out a specific amount of time for reading. Choose a part of the day you're comfortable with. It could as soon as you wake, during your afternoon break, or part of your evening routine.

  • Make reading your go-to activity in between other activities. In the way we pick up our mobile phones when we're bored or have a short break, it's a good idea to go to your book instead, whether it's an audiobook, an e-book or a physical copy

These are a few helpful ways to develop reading into a long-term habit. It's a great idea to look up James Clear's book (and its corresponding website) Atomic Habits. His suggestions to make your reading rewarding or to sandwich the activity between others you usually do are all great tips for boosting your reading habits. 

Reading your way to better leadership

Building a reading habit is essential for leaders. Reading keeps you up to date on the latest information and lets you tap into knowledge from the best in the world. 

The words and advice from people who are experts in their field will also help you develop confidence and mental fortitude. These are both valuable abilities that help you manage the uncertainties that are inevitable in business, especially now that the world is dealing with the impact of a pandemic. You'll need resources to deal with the pandemic as well as wider knowledge to manage people and your environment.

By reading, you're certain to build the mindset you need to lead people through critical times and grow your business. 

Image Credit: BongkarnThanyakij / Getty Images
Jared Atchison
Jared Atchison Member
Co-Founder of WPForms, one of the largest WordPress contact form plugins in the market. I have been programming for over a decade and enjoy creating plugins that help people create powerful web designs without touching code.