Leaders are readers

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

‘Not all readers are leaders,’ said American President Harry Truman, ‘but all leaders are readers.’

Truman, who never went to college, is a great example of a self-taught consequential leader. Able to read Thucydides and Cicero in the original Latin, Truman was apparently so up-to-speed that he once even corrected a Chief Justice of the United States.

Painted as a buffoon by the so-called intellectuals of his day, Truman’s supposedly poor decisions – to fight in Korea and pursue a strategy of containment against the Soviet Union – have since been vindicated by history. Because Truman could look further back, some say, he could see further forward. But he could only ‘look further back’ because he was a great reader.

The point of Truman’s story is to show not just the value of reading but how central reading is to leadership, especially at the highest and most critical levels. George W. Bush famously competed in reading battles against his top adviser Karl Rove, where the President read well over 50 books a year – from writers like Albert Camus and Abraham Lincoln to topics like the Soviet Union to the Spanish Civil War.

Bush, I believe, is the Truman of our time – a leader who, through his own efforts at reading and self-education, made the tough but ultimately right decisions of his day.

Away from the realm of American Presidents you find other leaders making the same effort at constant self-education and reading. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is apparently surrounded by stacks of books and constantly reading. Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein apparently ‘reads dozens of books each week.’ The great Winston Churchill won his Nobel Prize for literature and not peace.

You also hear of busy leaders finding time to read at any chance they get – Rupert Murdoch devouring Nick Cater’s The Lucky Culture on a plane trip or Australia’s former chief public servant Peter Shergold doing the same with James Button’s Speechless.

The benefits of reading are obvious – it helps to build verbal range, assimilate new information, reduce stress and even leads to better emotional intelligence.

Another benefit is that anyone can do it. I read around 80 books a year mainly because it’s the easiest and most immediate way to develop my knowledge. As the former slave and great American educator Booker T Washington asked: ‘Do you love learning enough to walk ten miles to borrow a book you cannot afford to buy? And having no money for books, will you borrow the texts and memorise your lessons?’. Serious readers answer yes to these questions. In 2015, with our unprecedented access to books, there’s little excuse not to read.

But apparently we’re doing it less. And the consequences are unfolding in a number of ways. The historian Niall Ferguson, for example, when speaking to post-GFC financial leaders, asks for a show of hands on who has read The Monetary History of the United States and Golden Fetters. Only one in a hundred hands appear, he says, despite these books being classic texts on financial crises and economic depressions – topics that financial experts should have some historical knowledge on. ‘The only history they know,’ suggests Ferguson, ‘is the history of their own careers.’

Decision makers, of course, must know the consequences of their actions, especially at critical times like responding to financial downturns and other crises. Historically, there are no shortage of poor decisions that have been aided by ignorance. Imagine, for example, if Truman did not make his tough but resolute decisions – there’s a good chance there would be no South Korea. Imagine the carnage that could’ve been spared if Hitler’s early territorial expansion wasn’t appeased by war weary allies. Or that getting the government to heavily intervene in the economy during financial crises is a good idea despite it actually prolonging the Great Depression. ‘Those who cannot remember the past,’ said George Santayana, ‘are condemned to repeat it.’

For me reading gives a perspective on history, reveals insight on human nature and helps to dissolve ignorance. It also shows that most bright new ideas have, especially in the world of government, been tried before. This is particularly important in the political arena where young people constantly fall for ‘hope and change’ without appreciating the grain of human nature, ideas like self-interest and the unique Western inheritance of personal liberty, scientific expertise, political democracy, and free markets.

This is not to say that reform is pointless, or to fall for the foolish notion that everything has been invented, but recall the timeless value of reading summed up by another American President: ‘Men die; devices change; success and fame run their course. But within the walls of the smallest library lie the treasures, the wisdom, and the wonder of man’s greatest adventures on earth.’

So how do you read more? Obviously find books you enjoy. But I’d say that it’s important to take the time to read things other than the fiction of JRR Tolkien, Stephen King or JK Rowling. ‘Biographies of great, but especially of good men,’ said Samuel Smiles in the late 1800s, ‘are nevertheless most instructive and useful, as helps, guides, and incentives to others.’

Good advice. But I only got it by reading.