Why The Phrase ‘Leaders Are Readers’ Should Die

The prevailing business and management wisdom over the years has been that “leaders are readers.” Is this still true today?


With the emergence of technology like podcasts and an over-abundance of opportunities to learn it seems like the landscape may be changing …

Matter of fact, was the idea “Leaders are readers” ever really true?

And so in this new edition of “Hero v. Villain” Jerod and Demian debate the issue with the hot vehemence that only caucasian Midwesterners can truly muster.

Plus, there’s a little bonus for you, too.

In this 24-minute episode you’ll discover:

  • Some anecdotal evidence that some leaders read (not a very convincing way to start)
  • The 7 scientifically proven benefits that reading offers
  • The very important difference between listening and reading
  • The historical issue with reading that complicates the “leaders are readers” argument
  • The hands-down best way to learn (even beats teaching)
  • How to embed important knowledge in your long-term memory (most people accidentally leave it in short term)
  • The quiz that will determine whether you’ve been paying attention


The Show Notes


Why The Phrase ‘Leaders Are Readers’ Should Die

Jerod Morris: I’m saying that a lot of people these days are part of these secret, private Facebook groups.

Demian Farnworth: They exist?

Jerod Morris: They do exist.

Demian Farnworth: Are you kidding me?

Jerod Morris: Yeah.

Demian Farnworth: That’s crazy, man. I don’t know.

Jerod Morris: They’re cool, too.

Demian Farnworth: I guess that’s why it’s a secret, because I don’t know about it.

Jerod Morris: I just found out about them.

Demian Farnworth: Welcome back, everybody, to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. The Lede, as always, is hosted by me, Demian Farnworth, and my co-host, Jerod Morris, one of the VPs at Rainmaker.FM.

If you like The Lede, if you like me, if you like Jerod, and you want more of us and our surly Midwestern humor, check out our personal podcasts on the Rainmaker.FM network, which is the best marketing podcast network this side of Saturn, by jumping over to Showrunner.FM. That’s Jerod’s podcast about creating a dang good podcast show, and you can find me at RoughDraft.FM, where I drop essential web writing advice in less than 10 minutes a day, pretty much four days a week.

Speaking of the best marketing podcast network this side of Saturn, we are actually growing. Yes, an earthling known as Scott Ellis has launched a podcast called Technology Translated. The goal of Scott’s podcast is to help you, oh business owner, understand technology that you may not already understand well enough and to remove any myths and misconceptions about technology and things that touch on technology. For example, in his first real episode, Scott interviews Giovanni Gallucci on images as content and understanding the usage rights behind these images.

This is knowledge you’re not born with and that you need. Give Technology Translated a listen. Give it a rating, and give it a review, and I promise you won’t regret it.

By the way, all of our shows are brought to you by Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network built on the Rainmaker Platform, a platform that empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales empire, because, yes, we know you want to take over the world. The cool thing is for the next 14 days, you can use the Rainmaker Platform for free.

That’s right. You can get your hands on the Rainmaker Platform for 14 days without paying a dime. Just visit RainmakerPlatform.com to start your free trial.

Now, on to the show — and oh, by the way, you better pay attention. There will be a quiz after the show, and no, I’m not joking.

Some Anecdotal Evidence That Some Leaders Read (Not a Very Convincing Way to Start)

Jerod Morris: Demian, so there’s this cliché, this saying, and I’m pretty sure we’ve even used it on previous episodes of The Lede. There’s multiple different variations of it, but it’s basically ‘to lead, you need to read’ or ‘leaders are readers,’ whatever it is. But the basic premise of the idea is that to be a leader, you have to be a reader.

I was thinking about this, and I actually posed this question in one of those secret mastermind Facebook groups that I’m in, that you’re probably in. I wanted to get people’s ideas about it because it dawned on me that, yes, you certainly need to be reading, but is it just reading that you need to lead?

Or in this day and age, where so much great content now is being produced as podcasts or being produced as videos online, is it more about you need to consume content to lead and not just read? Are we pigeonholing ourselves? And are we actually doing a disservice to potential leaders by saying you have to read, when if all you do is read, you’re leaving out all the thought leadership that’s on podcasts, everything that’s on videos, all this other content that’s out there?

I know that it doesn’t have any kind of lyrical or rhyming quality to it, but ‘You need to consume good content consistently to lead’ seems like a much more relevant saying in this day and age than ‘read to lead,’ when in the past, all the big ideas were in books, and now they’re spread across many different mediums.

Demian Farnworth: Wait a minute. Are you saying I’m part of a Facebook mastermind group that I don’t know about?

Jerod Morris: I don’t know. Are you?

Demian Farnworth: No.

Jerod Morris: I’m saying that a lot of people these days are part of these secret, private Facebook groups.

Demian Farnworth: They exist?

Jerod Morris: They do exist.

Demian Farnworth: Are you kidding me?

Jerod Morris: Yeah.

Demian Farnworth: That’s crazy, man. I don’t know.

Jerod Morris: They’re cool, too.

Demian Farnworth: I guess that’s why it’s a secret — because I don’t know about it.

Jerod Morris: I just found out about them. We created a Facebook group for the Showrunner course, and I’ve got a couple other ones.

Demian Farnworth: Wow.

Jerod Morris: I mean, I’m not a huge fan of Facebook, but there are these private groups where you can talk candidly, and you get a lot of like-minded people in there and exchange ideas, and they’re really cool. You should try it.

Demian Farnworth: Clearly, no one thinks of me as a mastermind material, because I’ve yet to be invited into one.

Jerod Morris: I think people just don’t think you’re on Facebook.

Demian Farnworth: Okay. All right. Great. That doesn’t need to be remedied, people.

Jerod Morris: Don’t invite Demian to your Facebook mastermind groups.

Demian Farnworth: Your contention is that we’ve outgrown this idea of ‘leaders need to read’ and now it’s more ‘leaders need to learn?’

Jerod Morris: Yes, exactly. That’s at least alliterative. That’s a much better way of saying it.

Demian Farnworth: That’s a good question to be asking, because to be honest, really, this whole idea of ‘leaders need to read,’ the premise itself is actually on a pretty flimsy foundation. I tried to look up some study, some research, that made a connection between reading and leading, and the best I could find were quotes by Harry S. Truman and these others. Harry S. Truman is probably the most famous one in which he says that very thing that leaders should read.

The thing is, too, it’s interesting, because if you type in ‘leaders should read,’ you’ll get this Forbes article, and it starts off in a pretty stereotypical way, talking about a long list of prominent leaders who did read like Steve Jobs, Nike founder Phil Knight, Winston Churchill, and a guy named Sidney Harman who called poets ‘the original system thinkers,’ who, by the way, is quoting freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson.

The 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits That Reading Offers

Demian Farnworth: There is some anecdotal evidence that some leaders read, but there’s really no ‘leaders read and then their companies or their governments succeed.’ Here’s the thing, though. Reading itself — there are a huge number of advantages. You can find a lot of studies on that. Reading will make you smarter. It’ll make you more creative. It will help you be a better communicator. It’s actually the quickest way to absorb new information. There’s even studies that say that you will be nicer if you read, particularly fiction.

Jerod Morris: Can I ask you a question?

Demian Farnworth: Yeah.

Jerod Morris: Are we making a distinction between sitting down and reading a book and reading a blog post online? When you say all that stuff about reading, do I have to be in a chair with a book, or do I get those same benefits going through my RSS feed? What counts as reading, I guess is my question?

Demian Farnworth: That’s a great question, because there’s another study — and we’ll drop all these links into the show notes. There was another study done. It wasn’t the greatest study, but it was at least a start, in which they demonstrated Kindle retention — what would you obtain from reading from a Kindle and print. What they found was you didn’t retain so much when you read a Kindle. Now, the problem with that study, though, was that the readers were not native to Kindle. It was naturally going to be difficult for them.

The Very Important Difference between Listening and Reading

Demian Farnworth: I mean, it’s another good question. Here’s the thing though. I think about what you’re saying with all these other resources out here. The problem with listening — because that’s naturally what you’re suggesting is that listening is just as equivalent to reading or just as effective — I don’t find that to be true at all. For one thing, books — even looking at, say, an article online — require an element of engagement and concentration that absorbs your mind.

I’ve talked about this before. When you’re reading, you are actively engaging with that book. You could be marking it — and this is particularly why I encourage people to mark in books, and sort of absorb that book into your bloodstream by marking it, making notes, and stuff like that. That can translate, though. If you’re listening to a lecture, listening to a video or podcast, if you take notes and then you do something with those notes later on.

But how many of us listen to a podcast while running? I’m just passively absorbing this information from HBR IdeaCast or some other podcast that I’m listening to. I’m just passively absorbing it. I think that’s the problem with saying that we should just be learners, because it’s not really so much about what you’re consuming, or how, but it’s retaining it. Does that make sense?

Jerod Morris: It does. I wonder if our ability to retain information is changing among the generations. The reason I ask that is, take us. We’re a little bit older. We grew up in an era where we did read, and that’s how we learned to retain information, so maybe we don’t retain quite as much from a podcast. But what about new generations who are coming up with technology and consuming content in all these different sources and don’t have as much experience with paper books?

Do you think that they’re really missing out on something, so we’re not going to have the same quality of leaders? Or are we entering this new era where people will be more experienced, more able to really absorb information in their bloodstream, as you say, from a lot of different sources, not just reading?

The Historical Issue with Reading That Complicates the “Leaders Are Readers” Argument

Demian Farnworth: I’m an avid reader. I love to read. I’ll be a champion of reading probably until the day I die, particularly in print books. But here’s the one problem that I have with reading that I have to admit to: it’s a relatively recent invention. We’re talking about 5,000 to 10,000 years, but our brains didn’t really evolve to read, and that’s the conclusion that Alison Gopnik came to in a New York Times study. That brings us to the point that you’re making, is that we are now seeing a new generation of plastic baby brains reshaped by the new digital environment.

The question becomes, every generation does this, right? Do we grieve? Do we see hope in that? We say, “Oh, this generation is not going to be capable of leading well because they’re only consuming things through podcast and iPads.” Socrates actually feared that reading would undermine interactive dialogue, and he was right. It’s a completely different way of learning, and it did exceed that interactive dialogue that we’ve come to know as the Socratic method.

The point that I have to come back to is how are we retaining that particular information? The question really is not ‘how are we learning,’ but ‘how are we retaining it?’ What are we retaining when we read? Could it be that millennials now can listen to a podcast and remember all that? Is that actually learning?

Jerod Morris: I don’t know. I mean, you bring up a great question, because I’ve also read a lot of studies as well or seen a lot of people talk about how writing things down is the true gateway to learning. Whether you’re listening to a lecture or whether you’re reading or whatever you’re doing, that process of actually taking handwritten notes is the secret to unlocking true engagement with material and true learning. Maybe it’s more that instead of it just being specific to reading, it’s that no matter how you’re consuming education, coming back and handwriting what you took from it is the gateway to unlocking this.

The Hands-Down Best Way to Learn (Even Beats Teaching)

Demian Farnworth: I agree with that. Taking notes is a great way to retain information, but here’s a better way, I should say. This is a 2011 study published in Science magazine, and it basically says that the best way to retain information is to take a test. You read, you listen to a podcast, and then immediately afterward or without much lag time, you sit down and take a test based upon that information you just hit.

This scientist, his name is Jeffrey Karpicke. He’s an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. He says, “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge.” So that’s what taking a test forces you to do, right? You put that information inside your head, but then how are you retrieving it?

I don’t know if you listened to that episode. I recommend everybody to listen to it — the one that Kelton Reid did with Grybko, the neuroscientist, on creativity. Grybko was talking about memory being very important when it comes to creativity and talking about the difference between short-term and long-term memory.

How To Embed Important Knowledge in Your Long-Term Memory (Most People Accidentally Leave It in Short Term)

Demian Farnworth: If you want something to go from short-term … which, basically a short-term memory would be if the phone rings, putting your coffee down, and then after the phone call is over, knowing where that cup of coffee is. If you want information to go into long-term — because most of that stuff, if I listen to a podcast, to be honest, like I come back from a run — most of that is sitting in that short-term memory. It’s like I set my coffee cup down. Unless I do something with it, I’m going to forget it.

Jerod Morris: That’s a really good point, because I find that when I listen to podcasts, if I’m just — this probably isn’t the right term — aimlessly listening, like if I’m just going through and saying “What’s interesting?” and “Let me listen while I’m brushing my teeth and showering,” I don’t retain a bunch.

When we were launching the Showrunner course and I wanted to listen to episodes of The Mainframe where they were talking about launching, just because Chris and Tony are really smart about that stuff and I don’t want to miss anything, I’m listening for specific reasons, so I retained that more.

I almost wonder, these two ideas that you’ve brought up right now, it’s almost like for these podcasts, you want to coach people to look at the episode title first and try and think of how this episode can help you. Because if you think about it in context, it can help you remember, and then we could just do a quiz at the end of it, like at the end of a couple episodes: “Why is Demian afraid of edamame?”

Demian Farnworth: Here’s another thing, too. That’s a great idea. I’m thinking to myself, God forbid that I do this, because it just adds another level of work to four shows a week, but “Hey, listen. Sit down and then answer these questions about that. If you’re interested in retaining what you learned, take this little short quiz.”

So retaining it, being able to retrieve that information — but the other part about reading I think that’s important that studies have suggested it is it leads to better concentration. Podcasts — think about it. A podcast is going on in the background, but we’re focusing on something else. That’s just background noise. It’s a soundtrack is what it is.

We can say that we listen to 48 podcast a week by super-smart people, but that’s no different than if I was sitting in a crowded Starbucks and there are 48 different people having conversations with other people. You have to concentrate what you’re actually doing. Even if it’s a podcast, even if it’s a video, even if it’s reading, you still have to concentrate. Here’s a great little exercise.

If you, Jerod, want to know how well you concentrate, the best way to do this to read some short story and then write just an abridged, very short summary of that short story that you just read. This could be an article in the newspaper, and then you rephrase it in however few words you can express it. You read it, and then you summarize it. That will give you a gauge of how well you can concentrate.

Jerod Morris: Okay, but again, everything that you’re talking about, and I think you even said this, it’s not like it’s just reading. I mean, with a podcast, yes. If you have a podcast on in the background and you’re doing something else, you’re not really engaging with that, so you’re not learning. That’s not going to help you as a leader, but it’s the same thing. If you’re half reading a book on a subway but you’re paying attention to what this guy is doing, or you’re eavesdropping on that conversation over there, it’s the same thing. It’s just lapground noise, I guess, if you have the book in your lap. I just made up a really bad term.

You know what I’m saying? Again, it comes back to this idea that it’s not reading. It’s learning. It’s learning and retaining information that makes you a better leader, because I think you can work on concentrating, whether it’s reading, whether it’s a podcast. I struggle to concentrate on videos, actually. I don’t like learning from videos because my mind wanders, and I’ve got my computer open and I click around on different tabs. That’s the hardest way for me to learn.

Demian Farnworth: I think that’s a great point, too, knowing your preferred style of learning, because I usually will read the transcript before I will watch a video. I get very antsy. Watching lectures, I get very antsy because I want the transcript so I can breeze through this really quickly.

It really comes down to this idea of being able to retrieve that knowledge, and you could do that by taking a test, or I’ve heard this one, too: teaching what you learn. You read about a concept, teach it to somebody else, and that’ll help imprint that into your memory. And then concentrating — if you really want to learn something, then you need to concentrate.

Jerod Morris: Okay, so where do we fall in this? I mean, do we come to the same conclusion that it’s ‘leaders need to be learners,’ or again, is there something inherent in reading that makes it predictive of leadership or that somehow helps you be a better leader that consuming content via other mediums does not?

Demian Farnworth: I don’t think so because of the things that I mentioned before. I mean, there are studies that show that reading, just six minutes of reading a novel or something like that, will help you to relax. Like I said, I talked about empathy. Reading a fictional novel will help you be more empathetic, help you get into the heads of other people.

This is true for a lot disciplines, not just leaders. In fact, everybody should be learners, leaders in particular. I think people who naturally gravitate to wanting to learn tend to lead in some kind of capacity, if that makes sense.

Jerod Morris: I almost think if we’re trying to make a blanket statement about leadership, I mean, ‘learning’ is obviously a big one, but ‘doing’ is almost more important. Leaders are doers, but the people who are out there even when they lack confidence, when they lack a real plan, they’re still out there doing. They’re giving people something to follow. That seems like a more universally applicable rule even than just ‘leaders are readers’ or ‘read to lead.’

I also think that a lot of the people who say that are older people, even people older than us, which makes sense. For a lot of them, reading was the only way to really grasp these big ideas, and I guess my main point is that as technology has changed and as content consumption has changed, even though our perspectives, this perspective of some of us who are older may not have changed yet, the reality is different.

Demian Farnworth: I think we’ve outgrown the idea that leaders have to be readers. They should read. They should be reading. They should be doing a variety of different things, but ultimately, they should be concentrating better. They should be retaining it better, and they should be, like you said, executing.

I remember Chris Brogan, I don’t know if he Tweeted this or what — but he said, “I’m sick and tired of seeing people Tweet about it. ‘I just read this book, and now I’m going to read this book.’” What he wanted to see people do is read a book and say, “Now I’m going to do this.”

That’s the thing that we struggle with when we are faced with so many opportunities to learn. We want it to be a crash course in everything, so we never actually turn that knowledge into wisdom. Wisdom comes from knowledge. Knowledge plus experience equals wisdom, whether you fail or succeed whenever you try that. But ultimately, getting to that point where that knowledge becomes wisdom — you have to find ways to embed that in your memory. I think a lot of times it’s through some sort of experience, whether it’s a test or whether teaching it.

The Quiz That Will Determine Whether You’ve Been Paying Attention

Jerod Morris: I agree. Should we do a quiz at the end of this episode? Should we put a quiz on the show notes page?

Demian Farnworth: Yeah. I can come up with one real quick.

Jerod Morris: See if people retain any of this.

Demian Farnworth: Exactly. It’s a good idea, man. We can do just do a Google Doc, give the world permission to do it.

Jerod Morris: Go to TheLede.FM, and go to the show notes for this page, and you don’t have to read the transcript to be able to translate this information into leadership material.

Demian Farnworth: That’s right.

Jerod Morris: Take the quiz, and make sure you retain it.

Demian Farnworth: We’ll test that theory too.

Jerod Morris: You can use this information to lead. Yeah, we will.

Demian Farnworth: ‘Lead’ and ‘Lede.’ You’re full of puns today.

Jerod Morris: I know. What can I say?

Demian Farnworth: You’re just it, man. All right, buddy.

Jerod Morris: Got it.

Demian Farnworth: Good talking to you, my friend, and I hope that the rain in Dallas is kind to you and backs away here soon.

Jerod Morris: If it’s still raining by this episode goes live, we’re going to have some real problems.

Demian Farnworth: Indeed.

Jerod Morris: All right, man.

Demian Farnworth: All right. Take care, buddy.

Jerod Morris: Thanks for listening, everybody.

Demian Farnworth: Yeah, thank you.

Naturally, I cannot with a good conscious allow this episode to slide by without giving you a quiz. It is only appropriate.

If you drop down to the show notes, you’ll see there a link to a Google Doc. It’s called ‘Leaders Are Readers’ Should Die Quiz. You can take the quiz, but you’ll have to do it on your own. Jerod and I will not check it. This is solely for your purpose. You have to check your own answers. You wouldn’t learn anything if we did all the work for you, now would you? Of course not.

In the end, what did you think? Whose side are you on? Is it true that leaders are readers, or has the landscape actually changed on us? Have you run across any studies demonstrating that leaders in fact do read? Share your thoughts, your comments, your questions in the comment section of this blog, or catch Jerod and me on Twitter. We look forward to hearing from you.

If you get a chance, leave us a rating or review on iTunes. Let us know how we are doing. We love hearing from you. In fact, the next episode, episode 101, will be a special episode to celebrate you. You’ll need to stick around to see what I mean. Until then, take care.