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Reading books

BRIAN NIXON looks at the connection between leadership and reading…

ASSIST News Service

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” This quote by Harry Truman has been used by many to advocate the importance of reading to leadership – in any given field. Pastor and author, Warren Wiersbe, summarised it in On Being a Leader for God as, “readers are leaders”. But the question is – is it true? Are leaders readers?

Whether or not we can validate that great leaders in the past were voracious readers (think of Queen Elizabeth I of England or King Charlemagne of Europe), we do know that many modern leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr, were readers. And though I’m sure there are some fine leaders who aren’t consistent readers, we do know that reading provides many important benefits for the brain.

Reading books


“[D]o yourself a favor – if you’re a leader or not, find a quality book and read it. You’re health, headship, and happiness may depend on it. And if all else fails, it will, as one library website stated, ‘Seriously damage your ignorance’.”

Research points to the power of reading. According to an article in Cambridge Medicine, research shows that “the kind of ‘deep reading’ that can sometimes happen when we lose ourselves in a book can actually make new neural pathways in our brains”. Reading also helps with attention span, mental decline, memory, stress, sleep, depression, and a host of other benefits. Without a doubt reading is good for your health.

But does it make you a good leader? One way to tell would be to compare the benefits of reading to qualities of leadership. And to find the best qualities of leadership one must turn to groups that specialise in leaders, such as Forbes and Entrepreneur.

According to Entrepreneur, qualities such as focus, confidence, transparency, integrity, inspiration, passion, patience, innovation, open-mindedness, and authenticity help define a great leader. And Forbes lists honesty, delegating, communication, confidence, attitude, creativity, and commitment as some of the characteristics. And in an article by Anne Latham for Forbes, she narrows the qualities down to three: respect, self-awareness, and clarity.

It’d take a brain scientist to correlate the two fields, comparing the benefits of reading to leadership. Luckily some have done this. In an article for Harvard Business Review, John Coleman states, “Reading can also make you more effective in leading others. Reading increases verbal intelligence (PDF), making a leader a more adept and articulate communicator. Reading novels can improve empathy and understanding of social cues, allowing a leader to better work with and understand others – traits that author Anne Kreamer persuasively linked to increased organizational effectiveness, and to pay raises and promotions for the leaders who possessed these qualities. And any business person understands that heightened emotional intelligence will improve his or her leadership and management ability”.

Leadership aside, there’s research that shows reading can make you happier as well. In an article for The New Yorker, Ceridwen Dovey writes, “For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons” – neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else – the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of MRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.”

Dovey continues, “Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar – that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published in Sciencefound that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans only start to develop around the age of four.”

These are fascinating facts and revealing research into the influence reading has on an individual. So it appears that there is weight behind the statement that “leaders are readers.”

Because of this, do yourself a favor – if you’re a leader or not, find a quality book and read it. You’re health, headship, and happiness may depend on it. And if all else fails, it will, as one library website stated, “Seriously damage your ignorance.”



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