Read a lot: forget most of it

02nd May 2011 | Posted in Books, How to be a Leader

This post is one in a series where I’m going to take each of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at Montainge’s answer to the question ‘how to live’ and re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’. If that baffles you (and if you haven’t read the rest of the series, why wouldn’t it?), you can read my explanation here. You can find earlier posts in the series under the ‘How to be a leader’ category in the navigation bar to the left.

4. Q: How to be a leader? A: Read a lot: forget most of it

If Montaigne’s early years were remarkable, his post-school education was completely conventional. He went away to University, possibly in Paris, and studied law: a pursuit entirely in keeping with his father’s ambitions for him. Tokyo-Japan-Babies-held-b-001His intelligence and ability with Latin probably placed this well within his capabilities and there is plenty of evidence that his wandering mind was less than fully engaged. At school he read illicit Ovid under the bed-sheets, a sort of Latin Harry Potter whose fantasy world captivated his imagination and the appeal of the story-tellers over the dull but worthy continued through his life. The man whose library contained more than a thousand books at his death consistently showed a preference for the reflective over the dogmatic: Plutarch over Cicero, Lucretius over Horace, and he also cultivated the sort of Renaissance cool to wear his learning lightly. In a time of violent religious conflict there may well have been some camouflage in his slightly vague manner but he always claimed to be forgetful. He was often slow to offer opinions in discussion and his views in the essays are regularly followed with a metaphorical shrug: ‘..but then, what do I know?’. This Medieval ‘meh’ is at odds with what we also see; a legal reformer, an adept politician and truly original thinker. Although his early career after University has flash points of anger and impulsiveness he writes in favour of slowness, of coming to opinions over time rather than under pressure. He regularly makes the distinction between reading an author and accepting them. In a way which was not typical of his time he was a critical thinker unearthing shiny ideas that appealed rather than swallowing whole texts unchallenged.

Books have always been important to me and, like Montaigne, my tastes have never been exclusive. I remember sitting on my bedroom windowsill to read comic books in the dim glow of streetlight long after my parents thought I was asleep: a habit which probably wrecked my eyesight but which also meant I arrived at my first school fully able to read and write. I remember my mother taking advantage of an absence to cull the mass of detective novels stacked around my teenaged bedroom. (‘They make dust’ she said, in a way that only a mother could). My untutored magpie eye took me on a meandering course. I read Camus and Dostoevsky when I was thirteen but my wife had to bully me into Austen and Dickens in my thirties. Experience has made me more discriminating but with four readers in our house it’s an annual event to prune a year’s reading. My children have a lovely sideways look when I tell them that too many books make dust.

My youthful relationship with books also had a reverence attached. To my mind the magic of print on page lent a kind of truth to the author’s thoughts which their work didn’t always justify. Allen Lane invented the paperback to throw away after reading but this idea was sacrilege to me. The problem with this went beyond housekeeping and into a connection with the ideas. If someone had thought about it, researched it, written it and persuaded Penguin to publish it, it must be worthwhile, right? Even if I didn’t agree with an author, there must be sufficient merit in the thought that keeping it nearby was the least that I could do.

This unexamined acceptance was fine with fiction but became a problem when I first bumped into management training and watched my fellow trainees fall into two camps. In one, ideas were sought almost indiscriminately and followed like fashion. Unfortunately, keeping all those theories to hand was often a recipe for confusion, not action, and they gave a clear impression of talking a better game than they played. In the other camp, ideas were irrelevant, or at least unimportant and I was interested that they seemed to be more successful. While the readers were reading, the guys on the sports field were out there winning the game. For them, management education was another notch on the bed post; ‘doing’ was their god and new ideas an unnecessary indulgence. For those keen on ideas, too many people and writers were trying to sell their own version of the truth. No sooner had McGregor told them one thing than Herzberg told them another. Trying to bring them all into play was an activity for the training room, not the trading floor.

As a young manager I struggled to balance my attraction to the change energy of new ideas with the certainty that JFDI was often the best answer. Sitting Pedlar, Burgogyne and Boydel’s questionnaire for managerial self-development I found the boy from the windowsill had become the manager that didn’t read at work. While the linguistics scholars are clear that reading and thinking are closely linked, it wasn’t always clear to me that thinking at work was required and useful reading obviously needed different answers, at least for me. I needed an approach which allowed me to make it useful rather than an exercise in naval-gazing.

What broke the mysticism of books for me was a speed reading course on my MBA. ‘Find the idea, not the words’, I was told. ‘Ignore the bits that aren’t relevant to why you’re reading this’.If the diagrams tell you the story, don’t worry with the other chapters’. By concentrating on the utility of a book rather than it’s bookishness what I learned went beyond the process of absorbing lots (and lots) of writing in a short period of time and into a philosophy of reading remarkably close to Montaigne’s. Reading for business is a verb, not a noun. It’s the action of joining all the best ideas you can find for a situation and adding whatever creativity of your own you can. Lingering over a well turned phrase is a pleasure for the weekend with a glass of wine; researching how to solve an organisation’s challenges is a different task: one that requires you to know a lot of things and use only the good ones. Carrying the sixties Soviet idea of ‘one best way’ into understanding how to do stuff as a leader is a recipe for madness but if my experience has taught me not to trust single sources it has also taught me that plenty of people at the top of organisations still do. A mentor taught me that a glance at the CEO’s bookcase was a necessary step on first meeting. Too much Jim Collins (or anyone else) is trouble; not because he’s wrong but because slavishly following any single author’s thinking is just plain daft when faced with the complexity of most organisations. Even those executives too busy JFDI-ing to read for themselves use their consultants as an outsourced reader and do no better in finding specific answers to their organisation’s problems rather than generalised answers exaggerating what has worked elsewhere.

So to the aspiring leader, I say: thinking is part of your job, so reading should be too. Just don’t believe everything you read. Keep the worthwhile stuff and tailor your strategies to where you are, not to what was written long ago and far away. Like Montaigne, read a lot and forget most of it.

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