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What All Great Leaders Have In Common

The secret of all great leaders: ReadingAll great leaders have one thing in common: They read voraciously. Did you know that the average American only reads one book a year? Worse than this is the fact that 60% of average Americans only get through the first chapter. Contrast this with the fact that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read an average of four to five books a month. Even more impressive is that some of the most successful leaders throughout history were known to read one book every single day. Bottom line…If you’re a leader and not an avid reader, you’re wrong. In today’s post I’ll share my thoughts on the value of reading…

If the statistics in the opening paragraph didn’t convince you of the power of reading, here are a few more telling observations for your consideration – according to our surveys at N2growth, a very large common denominator shared by executives who feel that they are not achieving the level of success they feel capable of, is that many of them are “too busy to keep up with their reading.” Hmmm…. Furthermore, studies show that active readers are likely to have annual incomes more than 5 times greater than those who spend little or no time reading. Do I have your attention yet?

Up until a few years ago Rick Warren read a book every single day. Abraham Lincoln who only had one year of formal education credited his appetite for reading with his success. Teddy Roosevelt was rumored to actually read two books a day. Thomas Jefferson had one of the most exhaustive personal libraries of his time prior to donating it to the Library of Congress (which many joked Roosevelt had read). The moral of my story continues to be that in order to be a great leader, you absolutely must be a great reader.

As an advisor to CEOs, there is little doubt that I’m passionate about personal and professional development, and there is one simple reason why – it works. Great leaders are like a sponge when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge, the development of new skill sets, and the constant refinement of existing competencies. To the person, the best leaders I know are prolific readers. The most successful people I know consume written content at a pace that far exceeds that of the average person. My message today is a simple one – if you want to improve your station in life, as well as the lives around you – read more.

While there are certainly numerous ways to learn (observation, experience, classroom instruction, relational interactions, etc.), I am a huge fan of the benefits of professional development gained from good old-fashioned reading. Someone once said “you are what you read” and while I think there is far more to the equation of our individual make-up than our choice of reading material, the statistics mentioned above prove there is also an element of truth contained in the aforementioned quote.

If I told you how much time I spend reading and researching you probably wouldn’t believe me, but suffice it to say, I am a voracious reader. I will often read a book in one sitting, have more than a dozen books presently underway on my Kindle, subscribe to online clipping services, use RSS feeds to scour news groups & forums, I devour social content on blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, various iPhone apps, etc., and this is in addition to reading a variety of industry publications and periodicals.

With what I’ve noted thus far I’m always amazed at the number of executives who don’t keep up with their professional reading. To be blunt, I have little patience for those leaders who are “too busy” or “too smart” or “too important” to learn. Put simply, if you’re not learning you have no business leading. How can you possibly be expected to grow an organization if you’re not growing yourself? How can you accept the responsibility to develop a team if you’re not developing yourself?

The greatest leaders throughout history have been nothing short of relentless in their pursuit of knowledge. If you are anything less then you are not only cheating yourself, but you’re also cheating your organization.  I believe Michelangelo said it best when he uttered the words “Ancora Imparo” which when translated from the Italian means “I am still learning.” By the way, his first public use of this phrase was noted to have been on his 87th Birthday. I don’t know about you, but I’m still learning. Moreover, the day I stop reading, the day I stop learning – that’s the day I stop leading and likely the day I stop breathing.

Let me be clear that when I speak of acquiring knowledge, I’m not promoting intellectual elitism, rather I’m espousing the benefits that are derived by those who have a true and sincere passion for learning…there is a difference. Intellectual elitists are by-in-large braggarts that acquire knowledge (or feign possession thereof) for public acclaim and their own self-promotion. Learning serves little purpose for leaders if it is not actionable. If you acquire knowledge, yet choose not to use it for the benefit of others then you’re not a leader, you’re self indulgent.

In concurrence with Michelangelo’s quote above, I have never been a believer in the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  In fact quite to the contrary, I believe anyone (yes I mean anyone) can change/learn/grow/develop given one prerequisite; the desire to do so. When it comes to topic of learning, it has been my experience that there are generally three types of people: those who constantly seek to acquire knowledge, those who think they already know it all, and those who just don’t care. What distinguishes members of one group from another rarely has anything to do with intellect, wealth, social pedigree, career standing, or other like pursuits…It has everything to do with desire.

Reading should not be something that is done when you’re bored, or have nothing better to do, rather it needs to be incorporated into your daily regimen. I have personally worked with literally hundreds of C-suite executives and without question the most successful professionals are those that constantly seek out learning opportunities and who are voracious readers. They realize the importance of learning and make reading a priority. Think of the business leaders that have had the biggest positive impact in your life, and I’m sure you’ll find that these individuals were in constant search of new and better information. They use the information acquired through reading in order to inspire, motivate, and lead those around them.

The question is not if you should be reading, but rather what should you be reading? With the plethora of reading material on the market today it is not a simple thing to make sure that you’re covering all the bases in a time efficient fashion. Therefore the following tips were designed to help you get the most out of your reading while maintaining efficiency in your reading efforts:

Books: My first piece of advice is that if you don’t own a Kindle or other e-reader, go get one. It’s much easier to have your reading material in one completely portable, digitally organized reader than it is to go old school and tote your books and magazines with you.

Periodicals, Trade Publications and Industry Journals: Again, not being able to address the specific needs of each reader, you must make your own choices here as well. However being aware of industry trends, competitive positioning, who the thought leaders are, etc. are all critical to your success. Pick the top couple of publications in your industry, sector, vertical or micro-vertical and pour-over the content looking for opportunities to exploit. Most print publications now also have Internet versions, Kindle editions, or digital newsletters that can be subscribed to as well.

Digital Media: If you’re reading this post then you probably understand the value of blogs, but don’t ignore, other forms of social content like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin Groups, Forums, and News Portals. Don’t forget information that can be gleaned from services like Google Alerts and other online clipping services and aggregators. What I particularly like about this genre is that it is often “real time” information as opposed to other mediums that have a built in latency factor.  Another benefit is that much of the content produced in this medium is not from the typical industry pundits, but rather true “in the trenches” thought leaders that see things coming long before journalists report it in the news, or the so-called gurus publish it in their latest book. This medium has been my preferred reading choice for a number of years now because it is extremely productive and time effective. I subscribe to these venues because I’m able to be “pushed” content that I’ve asked for in a medium that I enjoy. If you are not a heavy consumer of online information you are truly missing the boat.

Whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, the best way to approach personal and professional development is to always stay in the learning zone. When you think you have all the answers is when you are headed straight for the proverbial brick wall. That said, most things in life happen as a result of choices we make…It is clearly within your grasp to make the choice to gain an understanding of what it is that you don’t know, and determine how you want to deal with that situation. My recommendation is simple, if you want to increase you income, your impact or your influence, then I would suggest you increase your reading.

If you have any additional tips, or want to recommend any great books, please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. Here’s an idea – just like the popular use of “what’s on your iPod” to share what music people are listening to, how about sharing what’s on your Kindle?

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    September 20, 2010 at 8:13 am

    It's important to continue to expand ones knowledge. Who would follow a person who's thoughts and skills are out dated. Continuous education- one never stops learning- is the only way to lead effectively. It fuels creativity to succeed.


      September 20, 2010 at 8:31 am

      Hi Gina:

      I liked your word picture of reading being the fuel for success. Thanks for sharing your observations Gina.

    Keith Bossey

    September 20, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Mike, great post. This is a habit my wife and I have tried to instill in our kids (so far successfully). I would just point out that until fairly recently, my choice of book had been non-fiction, primarily "business" books. Of late, I've found myself reading more fiction, in fact my list now includes many of the books I was supposed to read in H.S and college. This change in focus was purposeful. More and more of my work involves communicating through the written word and exposing myself to some of the great storytellers of our time improves my ability to make my point "stick".


      September 20, 2010 at 8:37 am

      Hi Keith:

      Thanks for your comment Keith. You made a great observation about the importance reading for our youth. Congratulations in instilling a trait in your kids that will bode well for their future.

      You also made a great catch on what it is that serves as the actual choice of reading material – something which I probably should have included in my post (perhaps another post). As you pointed out, being a one-trick pony, while better than not reading at all, is not as powerful as purposeful reading across topics. Great observations Keith…

    Scott Eblin

    September 20, 2010 at 8:26 am

    I read (key word there) once that if you're able to read and don't, you might as well be illiterate. Interesting info in your post Mike. Thanks!


      September 20, 2010 at 8:40 am

      Thanks Scott – for those of you not familiar with Scott, he is absolutely a big advocate of reading as evidenced by the 2nd edition of his book, "The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success" which is due out next month. I haven't read the book yet, but when I do I'll share my feedback with readers. Best wishes Scott…

    Dan Collins

    September 20, 2010 at 9:33 am


    Excellent post. Reading transports us to a place beyond ourselves. It can inspire, and illicit both emotional and intellectual response. Those responses may stimulate action or simply reassure us. By reading we inhabit the minds of others and in those minds we can unearth every secret, find every solution, and learn any lesson. The power of the written word to make a difference in this world by inspiring others is enormous. Take it from a guy who adopted Churchill as his father figure, for lack of one in his youth "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind." Winston Churchill . Reading certainly expands our mind. It allows us to see into the minds of others, but it does so very much more.


      September 20, 2010 at 9:40 am

      One of my favorite Churchill quotes (of which I have many). Thanks for sharing the eloquent words Dan. What are you reading? Any recommendations for our readers?

    […] What All Great Leaders Have In Common | N2Growth Blog […]

    Wally Bock

    September 20, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Great points, Mike. In addition to reading the newer things that come along, I advocate re-reading the "best books" from time to time. I've found that they teach different lessons when you hold them up against the background of your new experiences.

    Here's a link to a recent "re-reading" list. It includes books by Peter Drucker, Charles Handy, Charles Koch, Jack Welch, and Bob Sutton.


      September 20, 2010 at 9:52 am

      Thanks for sharing your reading list Wally. I'm sure our readers will find it to be of benefit. I agree that while keeping up with new releases is important, reading the classics is essential. Thanks again for sharing Wally.

    Ellen Weber

    September 20, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Interesting stats here Mike and thanks for the refreshing read on books – to a leader bookworm. In my work with the brain, I must read constantly to keep up with new research proliferated in the past few years. While I use online for just about everything, and will be facilitating a leader’s board meeting for PBS on webcam tomorrow for example, I still prefer the page to the screen when I read:-).

    Couldn’t help by note that all your examples were guys so I thought I’d also pop in a wonderful NPR post that shows why women read more than men at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?stor… and that would make another dynamic article on this topic for the leader who’s willing to take time from the book-a-day to write it. With both genders – you are helping here to rekindle the reading magic that NPR addressed:-). Great post, Mike!

    I was especially interested in your notion that those who read most, have learned to read fast. It’s true that reading must be expedient to fit into the crazy days we all engage:-). Have you also noticed that prolific readers seem to stay open to views on opposite sides of issues. When I teach MBA leadership courses I require all papers – on any leadership issues – to address key problems from opposing views. Learners are often amazed at how much they learn from reading on several sides of controversial issues. Have you found that to be true also?

    Before too long I plan to invest in a Kindle, but at the moment I am rereading the wonderful book THE BRAIN THE CHANGES ITSELF, and am making many new applications as I read. For those who read less, one strong motivator is to apply more of the ideas into innovative action plans for that day. For instance, I am traveling to Seattle to work with leaders soon, and will use several profound notions of Dr. Doidge’s applications about rigid routines that could change with a few adjustments to the brain’s plasticity.

    All to say, books are not only my teacher daily – they are also friends – who give precisely what I need most to be successful as a leader who facilitate leaders. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed your work here, so much Mike! Thanks for that reminder in your thoughtful words here!


      September 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

      Thanks for the great insights Ellen. I also appreciate the link pointing to why women read more than men (better bring your "A" game guys). Lastly, I concur that avid readers are more open-minded to hearing and discussing all sides of an issue. Thanks for sharing the wonderful observations Ellen.

    Robyn McMaster

    September 20, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Hi Mike,
    Interestingly Barak Obama is tops as a voracious reader. So much new is emerging daily in all fields and I find that a writer often sifts through much research and looks through the wisdom of recent experiences to give me a new perspective on things. Not too surprisingly, this pushes me to think of further applications. It is the pushing of my own thinking that is most valuable.
    I’m in the middle of reading "Brain Rules" by John Media. A DVD accompanies the book to give me first hand insights, about the brain, I could not receive merely by reading. As I read with practical applications in mind, I function with greater savvy as I collaborate with Dr. Ellen Weber to interact with business leaders.

    Dan Rockwell

    September 20, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Hi Mike,

    I'm a Kindle fan. I love "real" books but can't keep them all with me. I also receive books from publishers for review. However, my Kindle allows me to keep a library at hand. And the batter is like the energizer bunny.

    In addition, I'm a book lover that reads several books at once. Here's whats currently on my Kindle

    Living Organized by Felton
    When God Breaks your Heart by Underwood
    What Got you Here won't get you there by Goldsmith
    Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense … – Pfeffer & Sutton
    The Voice New Testament
    Lead Your Boss by Baldoni
    StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Rath
    Strength Based Leader by Rath
    Multipliers by Wiseman
    The Why of Work by Ulrich et all
    Getting Naked Lencioni
    Transforming Church by O'Dell
    Managing Transitions by Bridges
    Simply Effective by Ashkenas
    The War of Art by Pressfield
    The Radical Leap by Steve Farber
    Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times by Covey
    Leadership From the Inside Out by Cahsman
    Crush It by Vaynerchuck
    The Leaders we Need and What Makes us Follow by Maccoby
    The Works of John Bunyan
    Orthodoxy by Chesterton

    I agree with Wally, read and then reread.

    Love what you do Mike. Thanks for encouraging and challenging the leadership community.

    Leadership Freak,

    Dan Rockwell


      September 20, 2010 at 11:07 am

      Hi Dan:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts as well as the great list of books. I can tell from reading your blog that you're an avid reader – it clearly shows. Thanks again for stopping by Dan.

    Mark Oakes

    September 20, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Great post, Mike. As always, you're 'Spot on'

    As you know, I'm a throw-back to the ole school. I have no plans to buy a kindle or any other electronic substitute for a good book – LOL. Give me the rustle of pages, the crisp smell of the binding, a good highlighter, pad and pen and I'm a happy camper.

    I tend to digest 5 to 10 books at a time and my libraries at home and at the office are overflowing with hundreds of books [Yeah, I know… they'll all fit on a kindle :-)] My reading diet will ebb and flow relative to my interests and tend to follow themes. My current reading list includes:
    – Leading the Revolution (Gary Hamel)
    – Juice (Evan Schwartz)
    – REWORK (Jason Fried)
    – Trust Agents (Brogan)
    – Medici Effect (Johannson)
    – Delivering Happiness (Hsieh)



      September 20, 2010 at 11:12 am

      There was no doubt in my mind that you were a voracious reader, even if it's done the old fashioned way. I won't attempt to convince you of the merits of e-readers in this comment, but you know it's coming. :). Thanks for sharing the great list of books with our readers. Here's my advice – if Oakes is reading these books, then so should you be as well. Thanks Mark.

    Anthony Rose

    September 20, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Thanks for the info, I didn't know that before.
    I'm so curious it's embarrassing, when I visit a house and I pass a bookcase in the hall I cannot resist scanning their shelves to the point of rudeness to see if there's a good book in there which I haven't read yet.
    In my career as an analyst/programmer I seem to be able to solve every colleague's problem because of my style of thinking – and elegantly. Not to boast, just to confirm what you are saying.
    However, I must also add that I listen to God and my spirit more than I absorb knowledge. Information is not everything. The direction and final destination of your life also depend on revelational knowledge and insight.


      September 20, 2010 at 12:38 pm

      Hi Anthony:

      The last two sentences of your comment are spot-on. They will focus your reading efforts, lead you to the right information to absorb, and give you the discernment to apply your knowledge well. Thanks for sharing Anthony.

    James Strock

    September 20, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Terrific post, as ever!

    Among the recent additions to my Kindle library: "Serve to Lead" [shameless plug–just came out on Kindle 🙂 ] ; "A Journey: My Political Life," by Tony Blair; "Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream," by David Platt; "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen; "Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction," by Thomas K. McCraw.

    Also am in the midst of reading a terrific book in paper worth mentioning: "Lloyd George & Churchill: Rivals for Greatness," by Richard Toye. Just when one might think that there's little more to be said or thought about the two protagonists, a talented writer and historian from a new generation adds tremendous value.


      September 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm

      Hi Jim:

      Shameless plugs are allowed when they direct people to quality information as does yours. Thanks for sharing the other titles as well. I recently started Tony Blair's book so we'll have to compare notes down the road. All my best Jim.


    September 20, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    These are the books that I brought to University and books that I bring along when I travel sometimes. So here are my books
    1. Trust Agent – Chris Brogan
    2. Delivering Happiness – Tony Hsieh
    3. Maximizing Linkedin – Neal Schaffer
    4. Success Secrets Exposed – Tony.F
    5. Kaching – Joel Comm
    6. Social Media Marketing an hour a day – Dave Evens
    7. Facebook marketing an hour a day – Mark Smith
    8. Awaken The Giant Within – Anthony Robbins
    9. Engage – Brian Solis

    These are my books currently with me in University, I do have tons more at home


      September 20, 2010 at 1:13 pm

      Thanks for sharing this list Aaron – all solid recommendations. To your continued success Sir…

    Caroline Collie

    September 20, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    That was such a great and challenging post — sincerest thanks. I've been getting into classics that I am surprised I was never required to read in school or university, and I have been amazed at how much there is to learn from books that "changed the world" in their time period. They're changing my world right now!


      September 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm

      Thanks for the comment Caroline. Some of my favorite things to read are those works that were written well before our time. One mistake people tend to make is holding the belief that all the innovators and futurists can be only be found in works being published today. Modern isn't always right, and the beauty about classics is that time has testified to the validity of their work. Thanks for sharing Caroline.

    ken peters

    September 20, 2010 at 8:36 pm


    Great post, and great advice. This post is one of 16 tabs I have open on FireFox that I needed to get to and read today, so I guess I'm on the right track 🙂

    Great content makes all the difference. There is a lot of bad advice out there, particularly on the internet, but once again you have written a post that stands out and offers inspiration and sound advice. It's why I continue to come back to your blog regularly. Sometimes, the most important thing to know is when to put down what you're reading because it's not helpful.

    As you mention, key is putting into practice what you read. "It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior's life." ~ Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary of the 5th century B.C.

    Forgive a little gratuitous self-promotion but I'd like to share a link to a recent blog post of my own that I think your readers will find to be a nice companion piece to this post. Here, http://bit.ly/bqLtOg, I offer a list of 10 not-so-obvious books anyone in business can benefit from reading, and one even focuses on leadership 🙂 I hope your readers find the list intriguing.



      September 20, 2010 at 11:37 pm

      Hi Ken:

      Thanks for the kind words and for the link to your post. I agree with your statement that "Sometimes, the most important thing to know is when to put down what you're reading because it's not helpful." Too many people waste far too much time on works of little value. Thanks for the keen insights Ken.


    September 20, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    Love the blog and totally agree that "leaders are readers." Also agree that when we stop learning we stop growing. This only leads to stagnant leadership and maintenance mentality (write a blog on this Mike).

    I read at least 1-2 books a week. I am currently moving away from text books to digital books. I purchased my IPAD in August and plan on activating my Kindle very soon.

    I am currently reading:
    Can America Survive – John Haggai
    Developing the Leader Within – John Maxwell
    Church Unique – Will Mancini
    Sun Stand Still – Steve Furtick
    Love the Life You Live – Les Parrott

    Looking to Purchase:
    Reality Based Leadership – Cy Wakeman
    Just Courage – Haugen
    Five Rules to Live By – David Ulrich

    Favorite Books:
    Love the Life Your Live – Les Parrot
    Point of No Return – Rick Renner
    Unstoppable – Erwin McManus


      September 20, 2010 at 11:41 pm

      Hi Tom:

      Thanks for the editorial suggestion as well as for sharing your reading list. I can personally vouch for most of the books on your list as being well worth the time to read. I'm not the least bit surprised that you read 1-2 books per week. Keep up the great work Tom, and thanks again for stopping by.

    Avil Beckford

    September 22, 2010 at 8:19 am


    This is definitely a post that I wish I'd written. Reading is a topic that's dear to my heart, and one that I often cover on The Invisible Mentor blog. The Samsung Economic Research Institute (http://is.gd/fn2gv) conducted a study and the results match up with yours in terms of the number of books CEOs read each month. A few years ago New York Times writer Harriet Rubin wrote a great article, CEO Libraries Reveal Keys to Success http://is.gd/fn1jz.

    Gene Waddell, an Archivist at the College of Charleston created a two part document titled, "Using Rare Books to Inspire Learning," which has an impressive list of books http://is.gd/fn1R9, http://is.gd/fn1XI.

    Happy Reading!

    Avil Beckford


      September 22, 2010 at 2:20 pm

      Thanks for the links to other sources which support the need for leaders to be readers. Best wishes Avil…

      garry garner

      January 6, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Mike, I’m retired from the US Marines/Army. I just also retired medically from NC Department of public safety. To make a long story short I was a slow reader in school and the end result I fell further and further in school barely graduating in the bottom of my class. Upon entering the Marine Corp I was living in the barracks across from the base library and read my first book. I’m now 57 and have read thousands of books and a voracious reader to this day. I owe all my success to becoming a voracious reader. reading always Garry Garner



    September 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    This is somewhat surprising and quite contrary to the CEOs I know. They haven't read a book in years. Some magazines – yes, but mostly glance through the pictures. All they read is commercial offers, proposals, etc.. Maybe it's the scale – they aren't the leaders of huge companies. 50+ employees tops..


      September 22, 2010 at 2:24 pm

      A sad commentary, which doesn't bode well for those CEOs you know. A leader serious about their duties, obligations and responsibilities should be a committed reader regardless of the size of their organization. I hope the CEOs you know have a change of heart for the sake of those who have entrusted themselves to their care. Thanks for stopping by Slava.


    February 8, 2011 at 5:02 am

    I was a little floored by the first paragraph but going back and looking at previous venues of employment I can only think of 1-2 C-level individuals I would consider to be readers. That personal experience fully supports the statistics you’ve stated.

    I personally have roughly 8 books open on my Kindle at any given time and intentionally take time to read at least an hour each evening – aside from any reading I may do during the day as I am constantly on a computer. Right now, I’m in school as well as a mom so my reading time is somewhat limited but I have already completed 6 books this year.

    While I agree that reading and learning more about your own chosen career path and expounding your knowledge in other areas, I’m curious where “fun” reading fits in. I personally can sit and read all day long on a particular work-related subject but if I don’t take some time for pleasure reading or change up the topic a bit it can make me feel a little burnt out.

      Mike Myatt

      February 8, 2011 at 6:12 am

      Thanks for the comment Jenn. With regard to your question about fun reading, all reading is fun for me. That said, I have a category on my Kindle labeled “personal” which is consists of largely of fiction titles that I read for fun. Thanks for stopping by Jenn.


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    January 31, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Found this gem of an article while preparing for my email campagin. Thank you for challenging me to step up my own personal reading game.

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