Dr. Al Mohler is one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. He was a PhD student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary while I was pursing my Master’s degree there in the early 1980’s. Within a decade, he had returned to Southern as President, celebrating his 20th anniversary next year.
Dr. Mohler released a book this year entitled The Conviction to Lead. It contains 25 principles for leadership that matters. One of those principles is that “Leaders are Readers.”
The following is a compilation of the powerful truths of that statement, as taken from his book. I thought they were an appropriate inclusion in Reading Week 2012.
When you find a leader, you have found a reader. The reason for this is simple—there is no substitute for effective reading when it comes to developing and maintaining the intelligence necessary to lead. In all likelihood, your desk has a stack of books, magazines, and journals waiting to be read, and your briefcase is filled with reading materials. Leadership requires a constant flow of intelligence, ideas, and information. There is no way to gain the basics of leadership without reading.
Leading by conviction demands an even deeper commitment to reading and the mental disciplines that effective reading establishes. Why? Because convictions require continual mental activity. The leader is constantly analyzing, considering, defining, and confirming the convictions that will rule his leadership.
Leaders know that reading is essential, as it is the most important means of developing and deepening understanding. That is why leaders learn to set aside a significant amount of time for reading. We simply cannot lead without a constant flow of intellectual activity in our minds, and there is no substitute for reading when it comes to producing this flow.
The careful reader is not reading merely to receive data. The leader learns to invest deeply in reading as a discipline for critical thinking.
How to Read
You are already a reader, but how can you hone that skill to your greatest benefit? Reading is like any other skill—most people are satisfied to operate at a low-level. For some, the skill of reading seems to come naturally, while others have to work hard to develop it. The key is to keep improving over a lifetime.
Your first concern is to read for understanding. If you don’t, reading will add little to your life and leadership abilities. Before you start to read a book, ask certain questions about it:
- What kind of book is it?
- How dense is the content?
- What do you need to know about the author?
- What is the purpose and subject matter of the book?
- How did it end up on your reading list?
Develop your own rules and habits for reading. I like to start with the book’s cover and table of contents. The cover of a book used to be mostly for its protection, but now it contains a significant amount of information, ranging from a short biography of the author to the identification of the publisher. The table of contents, if well constructed, is like a map of the book. Reading is much more effective if the reader knows where the book is headed.
You should read a book or article only for what it is worth. If you find that the book is not contributing to your life and leadership, set it aside. The world is filled with books and other reading material. Is the book making you think? Do you find that it is sparking new thoughts and reflections as you read? If so, read on. If not, set it down and move on.
Learn to read critically. Reading is not merely an exchange of information and ideas. It is a conversation between the author and the reader. Argue with the book and its author when necessary, and agree and elaborate when appropriate.
Treat the book as a notepad with printed words. In other words, write in your books. Make the book your own by marking points of agreement and disagreement, highlighting particularly important sections of text, and underlining and diagraming where helpful. The activity of marking your books adds tremendously to the value of your reading and to your retention of its contents and your thinking.
Reading critically also means evaluating the author’s credibility and clarity of thought. Does the author have the credentials and authority to make these arguments or to present this information? Do the arguments meet the tests of truthfulness, honesty, and relevance? Are claims backed up with credible evidence and argumentation? These are all crucial questions any reader should ask of a book. A couple more include: What is the author’s purpose in writing this book? What do I hope to get out of the experience of reading this book?
Keep reading and developing the skill of reading over your lifetime.
What to Read
Think of reading like you think of eating. In other words, pay attention to your diet.
For the Christian, the highest reading priority is the Word of God. Our spiritual maturity will never exceed our knowledge of the Bible, which is an especially urgent principle for Christian leaders.
In terms of other reading, Christian leaders should read serious Christian books—books that contain spiritual health and deep thought. The leader’s reading diet should include books covering a range of subjects, though most of us will invest first in those books that are most relevant to our work and mission.
Expanding from there, the leader should learn to consult book reviews and notices in major newspapers, magazines, and online sources. Of course, friends recommend many of the books that will mean most to us. When leaders gather, books are usually part of the conversation.
Should leaders read fiction? This is where many leaders admit uncertainty, but the answer is surely yes. Leaders need to read fiction for enjoyment, for learning, and for context. Fiction is important because it allows the reader to enter into the times, life, and mind of someone else.
Novels and short stories are powerful units of narrative, telling a story with compelling force. While enjoying the story, leaders are also learning how to improve their own narrative presentation and communicative ability.
Leaders are ravenous consumers of historical biographies. Their natural instinct is to learn about leaders of the past in order to embrace their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. But the wise leader will range across the waterfront of disciplines, from history and economics to current events and politics. Add to this the expanding number of business and management titles published each year. No leader can read all of these, of course, but the best of the lot should be on the leader’s reading list.
What about newspapers, magazines, and newsletters? The capable leader knows that these are important as well. Even as printed newspapers suffer from circulation losses, they remain extremely influential and informative.
If newspapers represent the first level of report and analysis, then magazines, journals, and newsletters represent the second. The newsweeklies and major intellectual magazines are extremely influential in terms of popular culture.
In addition to keeping up with the news, leaders will also learn communication and writing skills from the best magazines and journals. The writing in these periodicals tends to be fresh and lively, intended to draw and keep the reader’s attention. That is the wise leader’s concern as well.
When to Read
There will never be enough time to read all that you want to read, or even all that you think you ought to read. Just keep reading. Set aside segments of time devoted to reading and grab every spare minute you can find. Keep reading materials with you at all times, or at least close at hand. Keep a stack of books ready for reading, and take a couple with you as you travel.
When possible, read when you can retain and think most productively. I have found it helpful to plan reading projects. Each year, I plan two or three of these, intending to pursue understanding on a specific issue or area of knowledge. Develop a short list of books in an area, and work your way through them. You will be amazed at how much you can cover in a year.
I also advise dividing your reading plan into three categories. First, books you must read. Second, books you should read. Third, books you want to read. Given a bit of honest thinking, you will have a good idea of how this breaks down for you. Once you have this structure in mind, you can plan the stewardship of your reading time accordingly.
Read With Discernment
Christian leaders learn to read with discernment drawn from our deepest convictions. Constant worldview analysis comes like a reflex as the leader develops the capacity and skill of spiritual discernment. Test everything you read by viewing it through the lens of biblical truth and your convictions. Know that your most faithful and productive thinking will often come as you are reading from an author with whom you disagree, even as you apply critical thinking and discernment. Those who would lead with conviction must read with conviction.
Next: My Favorite Books of 2012