Forbes - Leadership

A Navy Admiral Who Reads 100 Books A Year Reveals The Essence Of Leadership

In my career as a communication specialist working with CEOs and successful entrepreneurs around the world, I’ve reached one firm conclusion: great leaders read far, far more books than the average person. 

For example, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis reads at least 100 books a year, nearly ten times the number of books the average American adult reads in the same period. “I can tell you with direct knowledge that by the time someone has ascended to four-star rank as a full general or admiral, they are profoundly deep readers,” he says.  

I caught up with Stavridis upon the release of his New York Times bestselling novel, 2034. Novelist is just his latest title. Stavridis has commanded destroyers in combat, served as a four-star admiral and the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. These days he’s an executive at the Carlyle Group and Chief International Security Analyst for NBC News. 

Stavridis doesn’t expect other leaders to read two to three books a week or to amass a library of 4,000 books like his collection. But he does urge aspiring leaders in any profession to read far more books—fiction and nonfiction— than others in their field.

According to Stavridis, there are three big reasons why the best leaders are voracious readers. 

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1. Books are simulators for the mind.

Stavridis says that books function as mental simulators, placing you in the middle of events the book’s characters face. So as you read about characters in a novel or real-life heroes in non-fiction books, you should ask yourself, What would I have done in that situation?

A little over two decades ago, Stavridis prepared himself to take command of a Navy destroyer by reading the classic sea novels of Patrick O’Brian, beginning with Master and Commander. He was also inspired by Steven Pressfield’s epic novel, Gates of Fire, about the Spartans who make the ultimate commitment to fight and to die at the battle of Thermopylae.

“When reading that book, you can put yourself in their shoes, understand their motivations, and ask yourself, would I have had the courage, and the commitment, and the honor to undertake that mission?”

2. Books offer perspective. 

Successful leaders have a different perspective than others. Leaders who read history books or historical novels can apply the lessons of the past to navigate contemporary events. 

“Books provide the chance to experience an enormous variety of life experiences without leaving home or school,” says Stavridis. “How else can a young aspiring leader learn how Ernest Shackleton managed to save his entire crew after his ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice and destroyed in Antarctica in 1915?

As I think back on my lifetime of reading, many of the people I admire most deeply are known to me only through books—either by them or about them.”

3. Books improve writing and communication skills.

According to Stavridis, “Good leaders must be good communicators, and the hard work of writing is best sharpened on the whetstone of reading.”

In my own experience, CEOs and leaders who stand out as public speakers draw stories, quotes, and examples from the many books they’ve read. Although I read at least 50 books a year, these CEOs almost always teach me about books that have yet to cross my radar.

Simply put, people who read a wide range of books in both fiction and nonfiction categories have a broader, more interesting variety of stories from which to pull. “The essence of leadership is the ability to communicate and inspire and to do that, you have to be a good speaker and a good writer,” says Stavridis. 

The single best way to learn and grow as a leader is through reading, adds the admiral. By adding more books to your daily routine, you’ll stand out as a person others want to follow.

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