Do business leaders read business books?

Do business leaders read business books? It sounds like a no-brainer, but the answer may not be the obvious one.

A student at a leadership seminar recently expressed surprise that any business leader would not read business books. I rather unthinkingly offered the opinion that quite a few of them probably didn’t. I added for good measure that I’ve also met Business leaders who have little time either for book learning or ‘what they teach you at business school’.  A little research and I still haven’t come up with any serious evidence that answers the question.

Does it matter?

The question is posed in a rather clumsy way, but it does hint at an important point. There is a big industry in how to do it management books. Books on how to become a successful leader is part of that flourishing industry. Bookshops at air terminals have their fair share of the latest best-sellers. But there is still the suspicion that these might be OK for the wannabe leader, but real leaders wouldn’t need to read any of that stuff.

Us academics have a bias in favour of reading. Maybe it is counter-intuitive to consider that business leaders can get by without reading books, or without a formal business education. There’s plenty of evidence that the latter assumption is just plain wrong. Never mind the leaders who strugggle with dyslexia, or even in minority of cases with illiteracy, or the favoured heirs to some family business who have leadership thrust upon them. Some other leaders have a suspicion of what they see as business school mumbo-jumbo. “I didn’t get where I am by reading business books” the character from Reggie Perrin might have roared.

One-minute guides

Thinking about it, the popularity of various ‘one minute guides’ suggests that busy people are prepared to take on board their information needs in pre-digested chunks. The situation is not helped by the dire quality of the advice offered in many of the books published on business in general and leadership in particular.

So there we have it. Another leadership question I don’t know the answer to, but would very much like to find out. Any ideas?

6 Responses to Do business leaders read business books?

  1. Darren Poke says:

    In my opinion, any leader who isn’t developing their mind in some way will be stunting their own creativity and capacity to develop their people effectively.

    In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here, won’t take you there.”

    I wrote a post a while ago entitled, “Leaders are Readers.”

    I hope this helps.

  2. davidburkus says:

    One minute guides are very dangerous. As humans, we developed to learn by stories…the guides take the lessons apart from the stories and deliver them in an easy to read, hard to internalize format.

  3. Andrew says:

    In his book, Tycoon, Peter Jones (from Dragons Den fame), starts the book with the opening line:

    “I have never read a business book in my life.”

    I was amazed at first, but the more I thought about entrepreneurs and famous leaders the more I realised that the majority learnt about business and leadership from their experiences rather than from books and formal business education, for example Genghis Khan could not even read or write!

    In that respect there is much to be said for experiential learning and the practical limits of learning from reading rather than learning from doing.

    Peter places great weight on learning from his mistakes which led him at one point to bankruptcy before the age of 30 only to bounce back from that experience and to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the UK.

    Business education is valuable but so is learning from actually running a business or leading a firm.


  4. Tudor says:

    Thanks Andrew. So maybe the important thing is learning in whatever way works for you.

    Has Peter got round to putting his experience down in a book for others to read! Even great leaders find this tough if they have an intuitive style.

  5. Garry says:

    I think that the number of business leaders will match the number of ways they have acquired/contunue to acquire their knowledge. Some will have read many books, some none, and the full range in between that. The critical thing in my opinion is that they continue to grow their knowledge in whatever way works for them and don’t stagnate as this would starve their organisation of change opportunities and hence growth. No Reggies please!

  6. Paul Plischke says:

    I find a good question and/or dilemma often means that truth lies in both positions at the same time. I would suggest that we all have some qualities that make us effective leaders and some characteristics or behaviors that limit our ability to be effective leaders. The number and nature of these qualities and limitations will vary by person.

    Furthermore, I would suggest that some business models will do well despite the leader. The worst run, led, and managed company I ever worked in made more money that they knew what to do with and that was with poor leadership. (BTW, they spent their money on lavish parties with ice sculptures of their logo.)

    So how does this all relate to reading business books?

    Well, some leaders will find success despite their limitations, either because the environment they lead in needs what they do well and/or their environment is such that it will do well despite their poor leadership qualities.

    In these cases, leaders can make do and even be very successful without business/leadership books and training and it is hard to argue with success. What we can argue however is odds. Letting fate decide whether you are going to be successful is a risky proposition. Many environments require a great leader to be successful and there will be times where the methods in which leaders approach a situation will be ineffective and our limiting characteristics will have negative repercussions.

    Business and leadership books provide you additional tools and ways of thinking that provide you new skills that allow business people to be successful more often. In that end, they are useful to everyone, even if everyone doesn’t realize it.

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