Reading Right – How to Get the Most from a book.


“Leadership development is synonymous with personal development.”
– Henry Blackaby

Effective leaders maintain an aptitude for learning throughout all of life. Show me a great leader, and I’ll show you a hungry learner. The old Irish proverb is true: “You have to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather is.” When a leader grows, he or she opens the door to organizational growth. In the words of Henry Blackaby, “As leaders grow personally, they increase their capacity to lead. As they increase their capacity to lead, they enlarge the capacity of their organization to grow. Therefore, the best thing leaders can do for their organization is to grow personally.”

One of the most basic expressions of a desire for growth and openness to learn is a leader who is a disciplined reader. Read any good books lately?

I routinely ask that question of leaders around the world as I interact with them. I find many of the books I read have been recommended to me by people I respect. But in asking this question – Have you read any good books lately? – I have learned that not all leaders are readers and that not all readers are learners. Let me explain.

Sometimes when I ask a leader what he or she has been reading, I’m met with a blank stare – that “deer in the headlights” look that makes me feel as awkward for a moment as they do. I usually try to bail them out by recommending a book I’m reading or one I feel could be helpful based on where they are in their journey. I want to gently nudge this kind of leader to become a reader because I know they will be vulnerable to “plateauing” if they don’t cultivate the discipline of personal growth. One of the most common barriers to finishing well is to plateau as a leader.

Other times I find leaders are quick to list the latest books they have purchased and begun to read. So I follow up by asking, “What was the most important new idea you gleaned from reading that book?” And now I have yet another deer in the headlights.

Still other leaders share in a straightforward and self-assured manner what they are reading and what they are getting out of it. That’s a leader who is both a reader and a learner. And if you dig a little deeper inside this kind of leader, you will almost always find a leave of proactivity or “intentionality” to their reading. So let me ask you again – have you read any good books lately?

John R. Mott: A Historical Model

One of my favorite historical mentors is John Mott, the leader of the Student Volunteer movement for over thirty years. Mott was a reader and a learner. On one 17-day voyage to South Africa, he booked a second cabin on the steamship just for his books! Mott sat on the deck of the cabin on the ship reading one book after another. An opinionated leader, he was observed ripping pages out of books he didn’t agree with and “flinging them into the sea.” On at least one 10-day trip, John Mott read almost an entire book each morning before feeling up to writing letters and reports.

What Makes a Good Read?

Remember the last time you were disappointed by a book? What makes a good read, and how can I maximize my time and resources when it comes to learning through reading? I’ve been asking myself that question and sought to organize my thoughts. I believe the right combination of content, format, style, timing and approach makes the best opportunity to read and learn.

* Content. I know it is not very profound, but if the author doesn’t have much of value to say it will be hard to harvest a great deal from the book. You would think the publisher ought to be your ally in screening out poor content, but plenty of fluff gets printed and promoted these days. But what if you get going on a book that turns out to be disappointing from the perspective of content? I believe it is the author’s responsibility to engage my mind and stir my heart. Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down with a bad book. It’s amazing how many people feel some sort of moral obligation to finish a book, no matter how disappointing it may be, before they move on to the next title. Learn to find the balance between giving up on a book too early and bogging down in a quagmire of disinterest or disappointment.

* Format. Books come in a variety of formats including biographical, inspirational, devotional, instructional, recreational, etc. (By format I’m obviously not referring to fiction/nonfiction or hardcover/paperback) While it is ideal to develop an appreciation for a wide variety of formats, most people gravitate toward one of two. And authors tend to stick with a specific format as well. I prefer biographical and instructional formats. I don’t do much of any reading in the inspirational, devotional, or recreational formats. (By devotional I’m referring to a genre of writing, not the personal time spent in worship, prayer and the study of Scripture.) When good content is combined with one of my favorite formats, I know I’m building momentum for a good read.

* Style. Some authors use flowery word pictures and lots of illustrative material while others write in a more natural or conversational style. The format of the book often dictates to some extent the style the author will choose. I like illustrative material but not when it gets in the way of the content. I prefer a conversational style of writing where I can almost imagine the author speaking out loud to me as I read. I like charts and graphs in more technical books to give visual depictions of the concepts. I have found some very popular authors whose books have sold extremely well write mostly in an inspirational or devotional format with a style that is harder for me to digest. I don’t tend to buy this type of book although I know many other leaders who purchase everything these authors write.

* Timing. In some cases the only thing between me and a good read is the timing of what is happening in my life when I pick it up. We have all had people enthusiastically recommend a book as “life-changing” only to be disappointed upon purchasing it. Six months later the same book can become life changing for me too. Why? It’s all about timing.

* Approach. The people I know who benefit most consistently from reading books have an approach to reading that is intentional if not explicit and preconceived. Leaders who are both readers and learners have an approach to reading that enables them to get the most out of the material and develop systems that enable them to utilize what they learn well into the future.

One Approach to Reading Right

I have met very few younger leaders with a well-developed approach to reading books that maximizes the potential for learning. So let me share with you how I’m seeking to read and learn with the goal of inspiring you to develop a system that works for you.

Before you Read

As the following questions of a book before you get into reading it:

* Why do I want to read this and what do I hope to get out of it? (There is nothing wrong with reading a book for fun. That in itself is what you hope to get out of it. Knowing what your purpose is will almost always enhance the value that comes from reading a book.)
* What is the subject of this book, and how much do I already know about it? (Obviously if you are new to the subject matter you will need to process the information differently than if you have a lot of expertise in a given area.)
* For whom was this book written? Who is the target audience? (Knowing who it was written for helps you understand how hard you are going to have to work to apply the principles to your situation. A book written about marketing to corporate heavy hitters will require some careful processing when applying the ideas to a very small nonprofit organization.)
* What is the format of the book and the style of the author’s writing? (In most cases the title and flyleaf copy will answer this question but you may need to adjust your opinion after you get into the book.)
* Based on the above information, at what level should I interact with this book? (If you know a lot about the subject, you may simply want to scan or browse through the book looking for new ideas or helpful illustrations. If it is a subject you really need to dig into, you may want to read it word-for-word or even study it by reviewing portions of it several times.)

Note: In some cases you may decide not to read a book at all after answering these basic questions. I like to approach reading a book like I would attend a seminar. I’d never go to a seminar without giving some through to what I hope to get out of it, who it is for, and what I already know about the topic.

While You Are Reading

Devise a system that works for you to identify the key concepts from the book so that you can readily process and utilize them later. I typically look for ideas, research/facts, quotes, and illustrations. (If the book is biographical, I look for process items – how God was shaping this person; pivot points – the key turning point moments in their journey; and heart-stirring vignettes-the biographical equivalent of an illustration.)

I mark these various items as I read and transfer the page number to one of the blank pages in the front of the book along with what is it – quote, illustrations, etc. This allows for a much easier review of what I want to harvest after I have finished the book.

After You Have Finished

If you have invested a few hours interacting with a book, it is important to bring closure to the process sin a n intentional manner. Here are a few questions to consider when closing out a book.

* Do I need to engage this material at another level? (Sometimes a book you intended to browse through may turn out to be work reading or even studying. Sometimes the author will quote another source that piques you interest and is worth pursuing.)
* What are the most important ideas I have gleaned from this book, and how can I apply them?
* What research, data, or facts have I gleaned from this book? How can it help me?
* What quotes have I gleaned that are worth keeping?
* What illustrations have I gleaned that are worth keeping?
* How would I rate this book against others dealing with the same subject? Would I recommend this book to others interested in this subject?

If you want to keep growing you will need to find a way to learn from what you read. My approach might not work for you without some modification. Find an approach that enables you to maximize the benefits that come from reading good books, and use it.

This article is reprinted from the book Leadership Insights, with permission from Steve Moore and Top Flight Leadership. To purchase Leadership Insights or subscribe to Leadership Insights Online, contact Top Flight Leadership at or call 866-9LEADER

With that in mind…have you read any good books lately?

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