Reading Leaders' Minds
Wednesday 27th January 2010 - 8:30pm - 10:00pm
Reading Leaders Minds
While the canon of management literature grows by some 11,000 books a year, leaders have little time to read many books, and their values tend to be forged in childhood and early adulthood.
Children’s books, fiction, “supertexts” that inform the foundations for cultural and social norms – such as the Bible, Koran, the works of Confucius and classic works of philosophy – biographies and poetry provide grounding for leaders and a moral compass when faced with complex decisions.
The day-to-day life of 21st century leaders is dominated by a stream of information coming from all directions – the media, the Internet, knowledge created by their own organizations and others in the business world. It is a fragmented landscape that provides few handholds for those whose values are not well established on solid ground. As a result, leaders with the strongest sense of self are those who, earlier in their lives, were able to immerse themselves in books which speak elemental truths about the human condition. It is rare that a book will fundamentally change a leader’s values framework, but they do provide the opportunity to learn from situations beyond their direct experience, to grow and to cultivate wisdom.
There is no single reading list, no simple way of reading leaders minds. One leader claimed that his entire values framework was forged by science fiction – every hard decision made had been guided by an imaginary friend created by Jules Verne or Carl Sagan.
When Margaret Thatcher was once asked which book had had the most influence on her, she replied The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, by Beatrix Potter, a morality tale about the evils of debt. Yurtle the Turtle, other works by Dr Seuss, and books such as Silly Chicken, by Pakistani author Rukhsana Khan, were cited as brilliant ways to open discussions with children about issues as broad as democracy, racism and cultural identity.
Classics were mentioned as fundamental building blocks for good character, with a classic defined as a book that can be read and reread through different phases of one’s life, revealing different meanings. Classics of business literature that were mentioned include Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species.
There was hope for modern management literature with new titles such as Stephen Green’s Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World, and Matthew Bishop’s Philanthrocapitalism. But most panellists were of the opinion that many of the management books that appear each year will remain unread on bookshelves – less is more in many cases.
One panellist said that he had diligently studied the backlist of Desert Island Discs, a radio show in the United Kingdom that asks its notable guests which books and records they would take if they were to be abandoned on a desert island. No common threads were found, but most business leaders did mention books of poetry. Picking up on the “less is more” theme, poetry was cited as the fine art of saying important things in a brief and condensed way.
Historically, there are many examples of great leaders clinging to fiction as a source of comfort and inspiration. Abraham Lincoln was criticized for reading novels in the heat of the civil war, but said it was the only thing that kept him sane. Nelson Mandela famously read John Steinbeck while imprisoned on Robben Island. A number of leaders at the Casablanca conference in 1943 were reading the novels of Jane Austin. And one quite random historical fact emerged: both President Eisenhower and Ludwig Wittgenstein died clutching a copy of Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Gray, a Western novel featuring cowboys and Indians.
Other influential fiction mentioned included Frank Kafka’s The Trial, a tale of a banker who realizes that, above all, if something had to be achieved it was necessary to get rid of any thoughts of guilt right from the beginning. And, more recently, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which provides invaluable insight for Western minds into the tensions within the Islamic world.
Books that speak to the current dilemmas being faced by leaders in Davos include The Corrosion of Character, an investigation by sociologist Richard Sennett into the removal of narrative from people’s lives; Errata: An examined life, by George Steiner, particularly chapter eight, which examines the problems of the elite; and, John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, stories of eight unsung heroes of American history.
Biographies, particularly of great leaders, can be inspiring, especially autobiographies by those who had risen to the highest office and had survived. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography was cited by several panellists as influential.
Literature shapes one’s view of the world and provides insights into the human condition beyond direct experience. It offers a touch point with people of different cultures, backgrounds and viewpoints. It provides a way to shake up thinking, address challenges and forge durable values to guide leaders through the complexities of the 21st century.
Stuart Brooks, Special Adviser, Chevron Corporation, United Kingdom
Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary, World Council of Churches (WCC), Switzerland
Stefan von Holtzbrinck, President and Chief Executive Officer, Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, Germany
Max Levchin, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Slide, USA; Technology Pioneer
Andrew Likierman, Dean, London Business School, United Kingdom
Kyle Zimmer, Co-Founder and President, First Book, USA; Social Entrepreneur; Global Agenda Council on Social Entrepreneurship
Indira V. Samarasekera, President, University of Alberta, Canada
This summary was prepared by Mike Hanley. The views expressed are those of certain participants in the discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants or of the World Economic Forum.
Copyright 2010 World Economic Forum
No part of this material may be copied, photocopied or duplicated in any form by any means or redistributed without the prior written consent of the World Economic Forum.
Wednesday 27 January
Indira V. Samarasekera
President, University of Alberta, Canada
BSc, University of Ceylon; MSc, University of California; PhD in Materials Engineering, University o...
President and Chief Executive Officer, First Book, USA
Graduate, National Law Center, George Washington University. Former: Lawyer, representing wide clien...
Stefan von Holtzbrinck
Chief Executive Officer, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, Germany
Studies in Law and German Literature; PhD in Media Law, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. Pos...
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, HVF, USA
Co-Founder, PayPal and Yelp. CEO, Affirm, a next generation financial services company offering cons...
Olav Fykse Tveit
General Secretary, World Council of Churches (WCC), Switzerland
Doctorate in Theology, NST-MF. 2001-02, Secretary, Church of Norway Commission on Church-State Relat...
Dean, London Business School, United Kingdom
Formerly: Non-Executive Director, Barclays Bank; Non-Executive Director, Bank of England; President,...
Special Adviser, Chevron, United Kingdom
Studies at Cambridge University. Formerly, with UK Diplomatic Service in Brazil, Portugal, Russia, S...