Summer is Perfect Time to Hone a Key Leadership Habit: Reading

Summer is Perfect Time to Hone a Key Leadership Habit: ReadingIf you’re of a certain age, you may remember the ad campaign Reading is FUNdamental that the nation’s largest non-profit children’s literacy organization used for years to educate parents that reading is a key skill for school success, and to convince kids reading could be fun.

Today, the benefits of “voluntary reading” for children are well documented. It’s positively correlated with better grades, vocabulary growth, verbal fluency, increased general knowledge, and even the development of broader ideas of personal identity. Of course, many of those same benefits accrue to adult readers too and research shows that active adult readers tend to have higher incomes and that many executives who feel they have plateaued in their careers also report being too busy to read.

With vacation season upon us, this may be the opening you need to dig into a good book and grow.

Reading and your brain

Of course, you can read the latest business tome to increase knowledge in your field or gain inspiration from those who have overcome obstacles. But perhaps even more exciting is that any type of reading affects your brain in positive ways. Reading fiction has been shown to improve leadership skills by building empathy and better understanding of others.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley, has shared research that shows the deep power of fiction to help people open their minds to new perspectives. Reading about the experiences of fictional characters can help us take in new ideas with less defensiveness than being confronted with data that challenges entrenched perspectives.

Interestingly, your brain doesn’t make a strong distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it, so you gain a sort of virtual reality immersion reading about choices and challenges someone else has faced. Clara Richardson-Olguin was an attorney in the Dominican Republic before she moved to the U.S. to pursue a successful career in music. She then became an entrepreneur, founding a thriving flooring business with her husband and attending the Monica Motivates Global Supplier Diversity Conference (GSDC). She is inspired by stories of women overcoming challenging odds and fighting for what they believe in.

“A book that impacted my life was In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, that shares the stories of four young Dominican women from a pious Catholic family who were assassinated after visiting their husbands who had been jailed as suspected rebel leaders, the butterflies,” she shares. “They were strong women and they died for love of their nation, their people, and justice. I am a very sensitive woman, but I consider myself marked by stories like this, of young women fighting for what they believe.”

Stress reduction

In addition to serving as inspiration, reading can also help you let go of worries for a while. Former University of Sussex Professor David Lewis, Ph.D., found that, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world . . .” Such experiences have also been linked to improved mood by connecting readers to people who have experienced similar struggles or even more challenging situations than they are facing.

Farah Allen, Founder and CEO of The Labz, turns to the Startup Therapy podcast not only for practical advice for entrepreneurs, but for insights on dealing with the emotional ups and downs of leading her own business. “Startup Therapy addresses issues like expectations verses reality and helps me appreciate that I, like other founders, am making the best decisions I can with the limited information available to me in the moment. It exposes me to new perspectives, opens my mind to new possibilities and addresses many of the day-to-day issues of being the CEO of a startup,” Allen says.

While listening to e-books or a podcast creates a different experience for your brain than a physical book, research suggests your brain adapts quickly to hearing a book, instead of reading one.

Reading to lead

There’s an oft-quoted (unverified) stat that Fortune 500 CEOs read an average of four to five books a month. Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, Berkshire Hathaway Founder Warren Buffet and President Barack Obama are well known as voracious readers. Gates can read a shocking 150 pages per hour. Buffet has said he spends 80% of his day reading. And Obama even managed to read every evening before going to bed in the White House.

But it would be hard to argue that anyone has done more for reading than television host, producer, author, actress and CEO Oprah Winfrey who turned her passion for reading into Oprah’s Book Club and is often credited with reigniting the nation’s interest in books.

It makes sense that leaders prioritize reading because it’s connected to the development of so many characteristics associated with effective leadership, including emotional intelligence and the ability to understand the mental states of others, a critical skill for navigating complex social relationships, leading others and being responsive to stakeholders.

Many of the books that have meant the most to me are those that have transported me outside my own bubble to challenge preconceived ideas, expose me to wholly new ways of thinking and, sometimes, to simply lose myself in the wonder and inspiration of someone else’s story. They have included Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins, Educated by Tara Westover and The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

If you carve out some downtime this summer, consider picking up a book to exercise your brain and grow as a leader by expanding your ability to understand and empathize with others.