The surprising power of reading to broaden your thinking


Here’s a blog post to take your mind away (at least temporarily) from the US presidential election and COVID 😉

Many years ago, as an 18-year-old freshman at Lawrence University, a liberal arts college in northeastern Wisconsin, I learned an invaluable lesson in my required Freshman Studies class. We were assigned to read everything from Plato’s Republic to Shakespeare’s plays, an experience that has served me well for more than four decades: the importance of reading widely in order to see the world in multiple dimensions. I have continued this practice throughout my career.

As you know, I currently teach values-based leadership and courses on running a global company at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. One of my four values-based principles is having a ”balanced perspective,” which can only be achieved by seeking to understand multiple opinions and points of view. When we read broadly, across a range of genres and topics, we guard against the “confirmation bias” (deciphering or recalling information in a way that it confirms or supports our existing beliefs or values) of our own echo chambers. Research shows that we naturally gravitate toward certain websites and content, which algorithms detect and then serve up more of the same to us. That furthers our confirmation bias.

“Life is much simpler when you only understand your side of the story,” my grandfather would tell me with a great deal of irony. So how do we protect ourselves from only knowing our side of the story?

Books that are outside our familiar sphere, especially those with ideas that confront and challenge us, open our minds to see and understand how others experience the world. This is the essence of empathy, which author and emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman views as a key leadership skill. Empathy is also a top trait that employers look for in young professionals to help encourage a more diverse and inclusive workplace in which every perspective and experience is valued. Surprisingly, perhaps, research has shown that one of the best ways to develop empathy is by reading literary fiction, which can help us see complexity and ambiguity.

As the world evolves quickly in response to COVID-19, with economic uncertainty and widespread calls for the business community to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, professionals need more critical thinking, problem solving, and greater agility. There is no shortage of excellent books that specifically address these topics, as well as biographies that not only inspire but also show how others overcame obstacles and rose to the challenges of their times.

That’s why, particularly for those interested in business and perhaps in becoming a leader one day, it’s essential to have a broad understanding of history, political science, biographies, philosophy, and religion.

History and political science help us understand the past and its continued influence on the present and the future. Biographies shed light on notable individuals and how they helped shape the world. Philosophy and religion speak to people’s understanding of themselves, their morals and values, and how they should treat others.

We all need to expand our thinking—or, as I like to tell my students, we need to go from the roots to the trees to the forest. So here are 13 recommendations from my personal bookshelf:

Authentic Leadership by Bill George

There is a need for authentic leaders of mission-driven companies to create lasting value. As you begin your career, this book provides a great foundation about the importance of being true to yourself so you can lead yourself and others authentically. This is an essential lesson to learn as early as possible, and it serves everyone throughout their career.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

This is an inspiring classic that defines timeless values and principles. I take this book every year to a silent retreat I attend so that I can reflect on the seven habits and how I incorporate them into all aspects of my life. By reading this book (and I recommend you do so multiple times) you can grasp the importance of slowing down to figure out what really matters.

The Right – And Wrong – Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade by Carter Cast

This book shows how self-awareness and agility can help avoid career derailment. I recommend its wise advice on preventing career catastrophe and also what to do when derailment happens. As you start out, this book could not only help you get your career on track, but also keep it there.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

In this book, Kendi challenges readers to move beyond the false neutrality of seeing themselves as “not racist” to becoming advocates for racial equality as “antiracists.” This book is paramount, now more than ever, as we actively combat racism in all aspects of our society. This book shows how, by your attitude and actions, you can make a measurable difference immediately in helping improve diversity and inclusion.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I highly recommend this book for the way it chronicles how Abraham Lincoln brought his former opponents together as cabinet advisors during one of the most pivotal moments in U.S. history. Lincoln is an amazing example of a leader with the true self-confidence who gathered a team of people with widely differing views. As you move ahead in your career, it is critical to recruit and develop a diverse team so you can understand multiple perspectives—rather than only your own.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

This is the best-selling biography of the enigmatic first U.S. Treasury Secretary (and inspiration of the Broadway smash musical) who championed ideals that became part of America’s legacy. I loved learning what it took for 13 separate colonies to come together as the United States, which speaks to me during this time of national polarity. You will learn the importance of taking the initiative to make sure, as the Hamilton lyrics tell us, that you’re not “throwin’ away” your shot.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

Larson portrays Winston Churchill’s courage and leadership during World War II and the Blitz, as he taught the people of Great Britain “the art of being fearless.” As a young leader, you can learn the importance of not becoming overwhelmed—no matter how big the challenges—so you can remain clear-headed and make good decisions.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

This book examines why some civilizations survived and others were conquered throughout human history, and how geography shaped history. The better you understand history, the better you will understand its implications for the future.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

What’s not to love about Einstein! This book is based on newly released personal letters with revealing insights into the creativity and personality of the world’s best-known genius. Einstein was not only brilliant, but also had a human side, including a great sense of humor. As a young professional, you’ll see the importance of being relatable so you can lead others—and they will want to follow you.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’m a diehard fan who has been to more than 20 of Bruce Springsteen’s concerts. In this autobiography of the rock ‘n roll legend, you’ll find a great example of a self-reflective person who never forgot where he came from. It’s a reminder that, just as Springsteen is more than his music, you are more than just your job.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

This is another book I take on my silent retreat every year to reflect on and reinforce my faith. Whether you consider yourself religious, spiritual, or neither, it is important to reflect on what you believe, what you value, and what really matters.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Frankel writes about his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps and searching for purpose in life. This book had an enormous impact on me. It helped me grasp the importance of living every day and trying to make a difference in the world, no matter what your circumstances.

The History of Philosophy by A.C. Grayling

This one is always on my desk. It’s an authoritative and accessible volume of both eastern and western philosophies. In reading about philosophy over the millennia, I’ve realized that many of the critical concepts discussed by Socrates (the “unexamined life” is not worth living) and Plato (the nature of happiness), dating back to around 500-400 B.C., remain just as important today.

Good luck—and happy reading!

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