I Don't Read: On Leadership and Curiosity

“I don’t read.” I hear leaders confess this quite often in my coaching and training work with them. With the publication of the new book Fire and Fury this week about the Trump White House, an allegation has been made repeatedly and consistently that President Trump does not like to read. This is likely overstated, but there are a shocking number of leaders of governments and industry who also find it difficult to read. This may be due to perceived constraints on their time, or due to a restlessness that jokingly is characterized as ADD but more likely is a symptom of their type A personality and behaviors. Who has time to read when there are wins to achieve and countless to do lists to accomplish?

Several people in my life lead organizations, from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies, and they often confess to me that they have not read one book in a year. I fly often for business, so I sit in the areas of the plane where business leaders sit when I’m lucky to get my upgrade. I observe what they do when they fly, and most of them work or watch movies. My observation is that less than 1 out of 10 are reading a journal or book. In my coaching practice with managers at 2MBoldn and at Better Manager, I have found that most leaders report scheduling zero hours in their calendar for taking time to think or read. Call me a nerd, but I humorously recall a quote from Jim Rohn: “Poor people have big screen televisions. Rich people have big libraries.”

Now granted, I believe learning occurs at all times and through many channels. Several executive friends do “read” but they listen to books on Audio while they fly or work out, and this is just as valuable as reading a visual book for these auditory learners. I suppose that movies on the plane or at home can inspire new thoughts, but nothing can substitute for focused time with a book or journal that helps one to understand new industry trends, to think outside the box by learning about the future or other industries, and to more deeply understand the humans and organizations we lead. Conferences, training, master mind groups and peer conversations are other helpful resources.

Does reading matter for leaders? It does if you want to ascend to higher levels of leadership. Leadership studies have shown repeatedly that mastery of trends external and internal to the industry and organization is critical for leaders in this age when innovation is the key to an organization’s success, and where the ability to be ahead of the competition is critical to beating them in the marketplace. This matters more and more as one climbs the organizational ladder because vision and strategy become the core skills and requirements for executive leaders. The time to demonstrate this knowledge and to have a point of view about it is early in your career. 

Curiosity is one of the qualities that separates good from great at promotion time. Curiosity is a driving desire to know and understand more. This curiosity begins in humility and flourishes with growth mindsets. You have to believe there is more to learn than you know, and that you are capable of learning it.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Nov. – Dec. 2017, called “Turning Potential to Success”, authors Fernandez-Araoz, Andrew Roscoe and Kentaro Aramaki write:

Having compared our 30 years’ worth of executives’ baseline scores [on competencies] with information about their eventual career growth, we can tell that there are patterns in how individuals translate to the mastery of leadership competencies. Curiosity is significantly correlated with all of them.

How does an organization assess curiosity? Curious leaders block their schedule to think. Curious leaders quote research or make book recommendations. Curious leaders reference what they are learning in their conversations. Curious leaders innovate. Curious leaders are a sponge for new thoughts and new ideas, and these often come from some form of reading. Dr. Seuss said it best, “The more you read, the more you will know. The more you know, the more places you will go.”


Here are a few commonly asked questions about reading:

Why should I read rather than get things done? Ask yourself what will happen if you don’t make time to read. There always will be urgent tasks. The key to becoming highly effective is to create more space for the Q2 Important tasks like reading that will develop the leadership skills and innovative thoughts that are most valued by companies today.

How do I find time to read? First, schedule it as you do all other important activities. I coached a start-up leader this year who struggled to read, but he knew it was important. He started his new habit by scheduling 15 minutes per week on Friday afternoons when things tend to be quieter in the office. He is now up to 30 minutes per week. By the end of the year, he will have spent 24 more hours reading than he did in 2017. Put it on your calendar, and start small.

Because I am traveling consultant, I schedule reading by blocks of travel time, not according to dates or time on my calendar. There are days that I barely read (I always read the Axios reports for my industry and politics, which I highly recommend because they can be digested in less than 5 minutes per morning). However, I read when I fly. I’m very disciplined about this habit, not even violating this agreement with myself when I have an urgent presentation or meeting. I can read two to six books per month when I follow this simple habit. I look forward to this reading and reflection time, so I make sure that I schedule tasks so that this time is available for me to read on the plane without guilt or anxiety. Others have found that listening to books on Audible.com, Kindle or iTunes while they fly, workout at the gym, or commute to work are doable ways for them to accomplish their reading goals.

What should I read? Goodreads and Amazon are great resources for suggestions that others have found helpful. I also read the New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal reviews for suggestions. If you want to grow your leadership knowledge, I recommend that you begin with my list of my top 20 recommended leadership books. Every business leader should be reading some version of either The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, or Financial Times daily at a minimum.

I am a business leader. Should I read fiction and novels? Absolutely. Well-written novels teach leaders how to tell a powerful story that resonates with people, and storytelling is one of the core skills of modern leaders. Beyond this, novels help us to empathize with the emotions, hardships and experiences of being human, and it is humans that we lead and hope to inspire.

Can’t I just read Tweets, listen to Podcasts and look at Google Headlines? Sure, but you’ll just be learning what is happening today. Reading, and reading full articles or books, takes us deeper and further into the future. Reading helps us develop our character and enriches our mind. It does not just inform us of trivia and data but opens us to new possibilities.

If you have been one of those, “I don’t read” people, the new year gives you a new opportunity to begin an habit that will shape your character, catapult your career and deepen your insights. Start with just 5 minutes per day, and you can say in 2018, “I read.”

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