It has long been known that successful leaders are readers. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s vice chairman, credit their success to a significant amount of reading.
Warren Buffett says, “I just sit in my office and read all day.”
What does that mean? He estimates that he spends 80 percent of his working day reading and thinking.
“You could hardly find a partnership in which two people settle on reading more hours of the day than in ours,” Charlie Munger commented.
When asked how to get smarter, Buffett once held up stacks of paper and said he “read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”
All of us can build our knowledge but most of us won’t put in the effort.” – Shane Parrish, The Warren Buffett formula: How you can get smarter
Books are powerful tools for improving leadership ability. Humans have been recording their ideas, knowledge and wisdom in books for thousands of years. Tapping into that knowledge will help you become a successful leader.
Why Reading Has Not Improved Your Leadership Ability
Successful leaders continually invest in their personal development and one of the best ways to do this is by reading great books. You may be thinking to yourself, “I have already read many great books and they have not helped me develop my leadership ability.” The secret is in the kind of reading that develops leadership, namely proactive reading. Let me explain.
“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” – Francis Bacon
Your goal for reading determines how you read. If you are reading for entertainment, not much concentration is required. If you are reading to learn however, it requires a proactive effort. It demands time and a system for chewing and digesting a book. You must read carefully, make notes and think about how to apply what you learn to your personal and business life.
Read Each Book 3 Times
The right structure and tools will help you extract value and apply the lessons you learn to your life. The structure is simple, based on the idea that you read books cover to cover three times, each time with a different focus and goal:
- Read for Information. Your goal for the first reading is to get a holistic overview of the book, its purpose, themes, main ideas and conclusions. You can read quite quickly during this first reading mark the book up as you progress.
- Read for Understanding. Your goal for the second reading is to gain understanding. This reading is slower, more critical and thoughtful. You are critically engaging with the author’s ideas and arguments, trying to understand and evaluate the author’s arguments by asking questions and making notes.
- Read for Action. The goal of the third reading is to reflect on the author’s ideas and decide how you will apply what you have learned, how you will act on it. It may be useful to make regular notes of the key ideas on your calendar to keep the process going.
Leaders fail to get the most out of a book because they lack a system for extracting and implementing the key ideas of the content they read. Let’s explore each of the three kinds of reading in more detail.
1. First Reading – Read for Information
The first time you read through the book, your goal is to read for information. You will read the book from beginning to end, getting the author’s perspective on the topic, their arguments and supporting evidence. This will help you get an overview of the author’s contribution to the topic and how it relates to other books on the subject.
Know What to Look for When You Read
Before you sit down to read, first pause and consider what you are going to look for as you read. This will make your reading proactive and help you get the most value out of the exercise. As a start, it may be useful to look out for the following items as you read:
- Main Points: Look for the main points and key arguments put forward by the author. Each of the main points taken together make up the book’s body of knowledge. Identify and highlight these as you read.
- New Thinking and Ideas: Look for new thinking and ideas that provide a new perspective on the subject. New perspectives that challenge your existing knowledge of the topic should be the focus of your attention. Look for answers to questions like, “how are things changing?”, “what’s next?” and “what are the implications?” Lastly, look for ideas that address the central problem you are trying to solve by reading this book.
- Stories, Metaphors or Case Studies: Stories and case studies about others are powerful communication tools for leaders. Collect interesting stories, metaphors and case studies as examples to support the application of ideas. You can use these stories when communicating the ideas to others.
- Research: Look for relevant research, facts, statistics and evidence supporting the author’s key ideas and arguments.
- Techniques, Tools and Frameworks: Look for techniques, frameworks and tools you can use to diagnose a situation you are facing, to support decision making or to help you take action.
- Actions: These are the actions that you want to take based on what you are reading, such as scheduling a meeting, implement a practice or buy a book that the author has reference.
- Quotes: Lastly, you’re looking for some well-chosen quotes from the author. Quotes help you remember the ideas from the book or to share what you are reading with others.
These are just suggestions. You may have other techniques. Create your own list of key elements to help you gain clarity as you read.
Mark the Book as You Read
Marking a book means highlighting, underlining and making notes of important and interesting parts of the book as you read. Mark the items listed above, such as the main points, new thinking, stories, research and quotes. Marking forces you to read proactively.
Here are some of the most common methods:
- Use a highlighter to mark important ideas.
- Use coloured pencils to colour-code your highlights.
- Use a pen or pencil to make notes or write questions in the margin, or on the top and bottom of a page.
- Use a pen or pencil to underline or circle key sentences, words and phrases.
- Use post-it notes – they are handy to move around.
- Use index cards, notepad or a journal to make notes.
Experiment to find what works best for you.
Use Notation Wisely
“Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.” – Edgar Allen Poe
The next step is to indicate why each mark is being made. You may want to use a notation (an abbreviation) to do this in the margin of the book. As an example, I use the following notation to identify marked sections:
- I – New Thinking and Ideas
- M – Main Points
- R – Research
- S – Story, Metaphor or Case Study
- Q = Quote
- T = Technique or Framework
- A = Action item
How to Mark a Digital Book
You can use your eReader’s highlight and note taking features to mark the book. Amazon’s Kindle, for example, allows you to highlight parts of a book and to make notes.
Lastly, avoid marking large sections or too much of the book. The purpose of marking a book is to allow you to quickly locate important ideas and information. If you mark too much, you will be unable to do that when returning to the book at a later stage.
2. Second Reading – Read for Understanding
After completing your first reading of the book, highlighting important ideas and principles, the next step is to re-read the book slowly and more critically to gain deeper understanding.
Read in Short Chunks
Proactive reading requires more concentration and attention to detail. Our concentration is a limited resource and begins fading after about 30 – 45 minutes of critical reading, so it makes sense that you will absorb more information by reading in short bursts of 45 minutes, rather than hours at a time.
Engage and Question
The goal of the second reading is to read critically, questioning the content and making notes of your reaction. You are no longer a passive reader.
“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” – John Locke
Deeper understanding is found on the other side of powerful questions.
Here are a few questions to start with:
Question the author’s unique perspective
Each author approaches their topic from a unique point of view. Understanding the author’s point of view helps to ask better questions as you read.
- What are the questions you want answered as a result of reading this book?
- What is the author’s purpose for writing this book? What is this book about?
- What perspective did the author take on this topic? Why?
- What problem is the author trying to solve?
- Why does the author think this topic is important?
Question of the author’s ideas and arguments
Look for the author’s ideas, opinions and compare them with your knowledge, experiences and beliefs. Look for the author’s key arguments and supporting evidence.
- What are the author’s main ideas and opinions?
- Do you agree with the author’s idea? Do you disagree? Why?
- What supporting evidence does the author provide? Facts? Case studies? Observations?
- Is there any truth n what the author is saying?
- So what? What’s the significance of this book?
Knowing how and why you agree or disagree with the author opens the door to deeper understanding.
Question what is missing
Look for questions that the author failed to answer. Write down important questions that remain unanswered. These questions are a great source of inspiration for further reading and investigation of the topic.
- What questions did the author fail to answer?
- What issues did the author leave out of the book? Why?
- What else would I like to know on this topic?
Make Notes After Every Chapter
Making notes is the cornerstone of effective learning.
“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.” – Robert Louis Stevenson, Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson
Every time you complete a chapter, stop and make notes in your own words on what you have just read. This process maximizes your learning and provides insights into the key ideas presented in each chapter. Use the following suggestions for making notes after each chapter:
- Think about what you have just read and make notes in your own words describing the main points, arguments and key ideas from the chapter.
- Ask yourself, “What are the key insights you gained from reading the chapter?” Reflect on your summary of the main points. What are the key insights that stood out for you? Why does this matter? What are the implications?
- What are the actions you are going to do as a result of what you have read?
- After completing the notes, review the chapters and write down anything you have missed.
If the book contains complex ideas or dense material, then you may want to take notes every 10 – 15 pages rather than at the end of each chapter. The main idea is to stop reading to create a personal summary at regular intervals.
3. Third Reading – Read for Action
The goal of the third reading is to read reflectively, exploring changes you will make as a result of what you have learned. This is where you ask yourself “What does this mean for me?”
Reading benefits you if you are able to process and apply what you have read. Knowledge without application is worthless. New ideas that challenge and change your thinking and taking action is what makes you grow as a leader.
Create a Book Summary
Once your notes are complete, make a brief summary of the book. This forces you to focus on the key insights. Take your chapter notes and compile them into a book summary as follows:
- Book Title: Create a heading consisting of the book title, author and date of the review.
- Summary: Write a brief summary of the whole book in your own words, capturing the book’s purpose and overarching idea.
- Take Aways: This is an outline of the key insights from the book written in your own words,
- Action Items: These are the action items from your notes, those items you marked with an “A”.
- Quotes: This is a list of meaningful quotes taken from the book, all those places you marked in your notation as “Q”.
This short summary becomes your reference for the book that you can return to again and again. It will be especially useful during your scheduled review times when you think about application.
Schedule Time to Review
Notes contribute to your learning and understanding, but recalling and acting on knowledge when necessary is a completely different challenge.
Schedule time to review your notes on a regular basis to help you keep the ideas in your mind and track the progress of your action items. A 30–45 minute session once a month should be enough.
Complete 3 Action Items After Each Review
Learning is useful only when applied. Decide what you are going to change in your personal and work life.
During your monthly review time, identify three new items you will complete in the coming month.
Another powerful way to get value from your reading is to discuss it with others. Share ideas, thoughts, and techniques. This will help develop deeper insight and increase the retention of new ideas. The added benefit is it helps others grow and develop their leadership.
If this digestion process of reading seems like hard work, you are right, it is. Most people will not invest the time and energy required to digest a book, but successful leaders do it, motivated by a passion for learning and growth.
Many people have learned nothing new since they left university or college. Why? They are not prepared to put in the work required to continue to learn and grow.
“Those who read own the world. Those who watch television lose it.” – Werner Herzog
Learning is not easy. Wisdom is won through hard work. It is much easier to come home and relax in front of the T.V. or to waste time aimlessly browsing the internet. If you want to get smarter, read and gather information. If you want wisdom, think and apply what you have learned. Work for it!
Looking for some good leadership books? Start here.
“Go to bed smarter than when you woke up.” – Charlie Munger