Why leaders should read: My three books

When I was new to management, the boss announced that all department heads would be assigned a book to read and that it would later be discussed as a group. I was skeptical at the time, but in hindsight, I'm forever grateful. That assignment spurred me on to read many more books on leadership, management and even some biographies. I gained insights from these books that guided me throughout the remaining 40 years of my career. I enjoy reading so much that I often use #LeadersRead on LinkedIn to post books I've read, or view titles that have made an impact on other leaders.

I found that reading made me a better person, leader and manager, and these are three books that helped me along the way:

In Search of Excellence, Thomas J. Peters and

Robert Waterman, 1982

Good to Great, Jim Collins, 2001

Dare to Lead, Brenè Brown, 2018

In Search of Excellence, written by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, is based on a study of 43 of America's best-run companies from a diverse array of business sectors. Peters and Waterman describe eight basic principles of management – action-stimulating, people-oriented, profit-maximizing practices – that made these organization successful.

Two principles that remain with me are having a bias for action and management by wandering around. Having a bias for action refers to taking immediate action, including simply reacting to something, instead of taking time to think it through thoroughly. Peters called this the ready-fire-aim strategy for success. It may not be the best plan for every situation, but it has its merits.

Over the years I would hear others scoff at this approach, as if it were completely foolish. Personally, I appreciated the strategy. I found it was often better to try something, evaluate what worked and what didn't, and then modify future actions accordingly. An insightful corollary of this advice comes from American author Steven Pressfield who says, "Start before you're ready." In other words, you may not have the luxury of planning out each step of a process, and as a leader it's up to you to take the first step and trust that you will figure it out along the way.

The other principle from Peters and Waterman that I utilized is called management by wandering around, or walking around – MBWA for short. This style of business management encourages the manager to get out from behind the desk and walk around the workplace at random and in an unstructured manner. Regularly observe what's happening on the front lines with your employees and your customers and check on equipment to make sure everything is in good working order. Ask staff about their ongoing work, responding to their needs and taking note of their wants.

Many days when I worked at University of Illinois Springfield as the chief of staff to the chancellor, I really didn't need an office. I walked around campus and people would stop me and express their concerns. I was able to advance their cause on the spot. I never had the need to use an intercom or phone until the pandemic. Instead, I walked to people's offices and talked with them in person about whatever was on my mind. I never saw this as a time-waster because I was building relationships, and having a bond with staff is invaluable.

A book that enhanced my perspective when it comes to putting people first is Good to Great by Jim Collins. Collins explains that it's crucial for any organization that wants to go from being good to great to prioritize hiring the right people for the job, and only then should an organization move forward with developing and implementing the business strategy. From this came the truism: Take care of your people, and they'll take care of your business.

Later in my career, Dare to Lead and other works by Brenè Brown, a researcher and self-proclaimed storyteller, helped me understand how much people appreciate a leader's deliberate expressions of vulnerability – admitting weaknesses, failures and doubts. Brown studies and writes about vulnerability, shame and empathy, with the latter gaining more attention in leadership training than ever before. "Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we're all in this together," she says.

Ed Wojcicki is retired from all full-time jobs after enjoying executive management roles for 44 years at an association, a university, a few newspapers and a magazine. He is the author or co-author of three books and can be reached at [email protected].

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