Author and university president Steven Sample writes in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership
that what you read can be as influential as the people you surround yourself with.
Both sets of choices inform your thoughts and behavior.
But with so many options and limited time, how do you make smart choices about what to read?
For Sample, one way to measure the quality of reading material is to consider its influence over time – how relevant and widely read it is after it was first published.
Imagine different types of published reading materials existing on a continuum of durability:
On the left are the lowest quality reading materials with the shortest lifespans
Daily news articles are the most obvious example. Even a front-page story in a national news outlet, which might be read by millions of people when it’s first published, has essentially no readers 24 hours later.
Magazines, industry publications, and most newly published books are also in this category. As Sample notes, fewer than 1 in 200 of all books published in the US are still in print and being purchased 10 years after they were first released.
Near the middle
This part of the durability continuum includes influential journals and textbooks, as well as biographies, essays, and pieces of literature that are still being read 50 years or more after they were first published.
At the far right of the continuum are what Sample calls “supertexts”
These are the few dozen or so works that were published more than 400 years ago, and are still widely read today.
For Sample, the first 5 supertexts are obvious: the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon of Buddhism, and the Analects of Confucius. But supertexts also include works that aren’t religious or spiritual in nature: from Machiavelli’s The Prince to the plays of Shakespeare.
You may or may not agree that such books are great works of literature. But from the standpoint of their usefulness to you as a leader, that doesn’t matter.
They are important because they have been read by so many people over such a long period of time, and continue to exert extraordinary influence over the culture.
In an age of increasing change and turbulence, “a leader can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing at all, or changing only slowly.”
Sample offers 3 tips for developing healthy reading habits:
1. In general, spend more of your time reading materials on the right end of the continuum rather than the left.
2. Try to filter daily news through your closest advisors or friends instead of getting it directly from news outlets. This assumes your advisors and friends are a group of varied and intelligent people, whose biases you know, and who have your best interests at heart.
3. For publications related to your industry, here too you should rely on your closest advisors or lieutenants to keep you informed of important developments and stories.
A good rule of thumb for a contrarian leader is to “go where your competitors don’t go and read what they don’t read.”
Do you think Warren Buffett or Bill Gates got ahead by slavishly reading the press in their fields?