“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” –Fran Lebowitz
It seems….that to a much greater extent than we want to recognize, we really are what we read. For many people, reading is unheard of, for others reading is simply a form of entertainment…yet—for some of us, reading is a way to gain perspective and stimulate original thinking. In that case, what we read matters greatly. I’m still re-digging through The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample…and really liking what Steve has to say in his contrarian view of leadership and reading.
Suppose a leader could choose between reading the New York Times on a particular day or Machiavelli’s masterpiece The Prince. Conventional wisdom would favor the Times— it’s current, and Machiavelli’s work is old, non-current, and irrelevant. Contrarian wisdom would argue the opposite—that we can miss a day, or even several month’s worth of daily newspapers without much loss, but to miss a chance to read or re-read Machiavelli could be a major loss for both the leader and our followers.
Think of it this way—if we could make a list of all the texts in the whole world that are 400 or more years old and still widely read—how many would we come up with? We might debate which specific titles should be included, but it’s certain that the list would be very small. Of all the hundreds of thousands of books, essays, poems, etc. that have been written over the last 400+ years, maybe a couple dozen are still widely read. And those books have had a major influence on every part of our culture.
In these tumultuous times it often appears that everything is changing, and changing at an increasingly rapid rate. In such an environment, we as leaders can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing at all, or are only changing slowly. And nothing can help us do that better than developing a close relationship with a few of the classic texts that have stood the test of time.
The key contribution of the classic texts is not a set of timeless truths about leadership, but rather some timeless truths about human nature. One of the great fallacies of our age is the belief that we are different from our ancient forebears, that we have somehow outgrown the practices and problems of centuries past—that we are somehow smarter than history. What nonsense… We are just as human, and no more human, than the characters of the Old Testament or the people of 16th century Florence.
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” ― Aldous Huxley
Beyond the classic texts, which a contrarian leader should read and re-read as often as possible, and newspapers, which should be limited, what about the thousands of other publications that are competing for our attention? The problem is our lack of time; most leaders don’t complain about having too much time or too few things to read–we complain about having No Time To Think (NT3).
One approach Sample mentions is to think of all reading material as a continuum, from the most ephemeral on the left (newspapers) to the most enduring on the right (classic texts). From a contrarian standpoint–the most important material is on the right. Steve’s advice is to spend less time on the left and more on the right. And don’t just read the material in our field; a good rule for a contrarian leader is to go where competitors don’t go and read what they don’t read.
For the contrarian leader, one truly original idea is worth a hundred regurgitations
of conventional wisdom. And the chances are high that that one original idea will be stimulated by something we read or hear from outside our established field. Sample devotes 30 minutes per day to reading—10 minutes for newspapers and trade publications, and twenty minutes for books, where he focuses on quality books that have stood the test of time from a wide variety of fields. If he has to cut the time on a given day, he makes my cuts on the left side of the continuum.
….just a couple of parting thoughts/quotes….
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” ― Dr. Seuss
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ― Ray Bradbury
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson