Leadership Lessons From Unlikely Authors

leadership lessons

I’m currently in the process of prepping my house to go on the market and our real estate agent has issued the edict that I have to box up some of the books in my office. So, I’ve been reluctantly working through the shelves, trying to decide which ones I can live without until we move sometime in the summer. Despite my initial resistance, the packing process has actually turned out to be a really good thing. In fact, I’ve discovered two really important things:

  1. I have a lot of books. In fact, I may have a problem. Even after donating a few to the local library, I’ve still got far too many, if I’m perfectly honest.
  2. Nearly each book on my shelf has been the source of a valuable piece of leadership insight that has helped me on my journey of continuous learning.

While I don’t know that there’s much to be gained from a critical examination of #1, I thought, perhaps sharing some of the key lessons I’ve learned – many from unexpected places – would be a fun way to procrastinate from my packing responsibilities and just might help out others on who are on their own learning journey. So, here are three insights I’ve gained on leadership from reading books that aren’t about leadership.

  1. How you treat people is far more important than the technical skills you have – In The Zero Marginal Cost Society, economist Jeremy Rifkin weaves together the threads of a diverse set of technological innovations to predict what he believes is a coming seismic shift in what drives the world economy. Along the way, Rifkin points out that technical expertise is rapidly becoming available for free via the internet. Want to know how to repair your dishwasher, YouTube can help. Need to understand complex business financials or investment strategies, check out Investopedia. And the list could go on and on. But, the one set of skills that will never become commoditized like technical expertise is how to build effective relationships. In Rifkin’s words, we seek to belong, both at work and at home. As such, leaders who will be able to excel will be those who can create an environment where everyone feels like they can belong.
  2. One of the highest callings of a leader is to help your team unlock their idealism – In 1965 Richard C. Cornuelle wrote Reclaiming the American Dream as his thesis on how to revive community-based social action. In his explanation of the driving forces behind the non-profit association, Cornuelle quotes Albert Schweitzer: “I am convinced that there is far more of an idealist will-power than ever comes to the surface of the world.” Schweitzer and Cornuelle believed that the most powerful driving force is the motivation to serve others. Great leaders, I believe, learn to tap into that individual idealism and create a direct and visible connection between work and the underlying drive to serve others – either directly through the act of work, or by situating work as an enabler for the pursuit of other passions. Though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this connection between work and service must be genuine. Your team will quickly see through inauthentic attempts to leverage their passions just to benefit the organization.
  3. Take time to “come to terms” with your staff – I first read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren as a graduate student. The text is an in-depth guide to analytical reading. In the eighth chapter of the book, the authors describe the need to come to terms with the author. That is, to ensure that as a reader you don’t just know the definition of the words being used, but understand the author’s intended meaning. Terms, they assert, do not exist in dictionaries, but only surface through communication. I can’t tell you the number of times as a leader I’ve fumbled on an important issue because I was using the same word as a colleague but with an entirely different meaning. In fact, this is one area where I still have a lot of growing to do. I’ve got to get better at really communicating with people – being committed to understanding the terms they are using and why. If you are a leader, investing the time to be sure you are communicating and not just hearing is a great way to build better relationships, become a better coach, and unlock the potential of your team or organization. If you, like me, could use a little help building listening skills, check out this great course from GovLoop here.

I think I’ve procrastinated from packing long enough now, so in a future article, I’ll share a few more of my personal takeaways from the next set of books to come off the shelves.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you – what have you learned about leadership in places where you weren’t looking for it?

This article originally appeared on GovLoop.com.

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Tim Bowden