A leader will be forced into countless situations that they have never been in before. Trying, painful, stressful, baffling dilemmas and difficulties unlike any they have known. Nothing could have prepared Kennedy for the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it’s a good thing he had read B. H. Liddell Hart a few years before—it was Hart’s wisdom that helped Kennedy rationally and calmly deal with that unprecedented moment. Nothing could have prepared Churchill for the outbreak of WWII… except of course, the decades he had spent as a historian, which intimately acquainted him with the strategic insights and moral clarity required to bravely fight on.
“One common characteristic of virtually all great leaders I have known is that they have been great readers,” Richard Nixon would write later in life. “Reading not only enlarges and challenges the mind; it engages and exercises the brain. Today’s youth who sits mesmerized by a television screen is not going to be tomorrow’s leader. Television watching is passive. Reading is active.”
Great advice… that a reader of history also knows that Nixon did not quite live up to. In all, Nixon watched over 500 movies while in office in less than 6 years. Might he have been better served by engaging and exercising his brain? Might he have been better off if he’d had more of his assumptions challenged and fewer of his paranoid delusions indulged?
Marcus Aurelius does not become Marcus Aurelius without having read Epictetus at his teacher Rusticus’s urging. Seneca would not have been Seneca without Attalus introducing him to the works of the Stoics, but equally, he would not have been Seneca without his diligent reading of Epicurus, which actively challenged his mind and his assumptions. How did he bravely face death at the hands of Nero’s goons? He was aided by his reading of Cato’s life, just as Cato faced his death by reading of Socrates’.
A leader must be a reader. We must learn from the experiences of others. We must be challenged. We must exercise our brains. We must prepare ourselves for the things we’ll only be able to experience once, by learning from the experiences of others.
It’s not just the best way, it’s the only way.
For more Stoicism-based guidance on how to read effectively and with mastery in order to fulfill your goals, check out Read to Lead: A Daily Stoic Reading Challenge. It’s 13 days of challenges designed to boost your acumen with the books you love, and will teach you how you can use them to become a great leader.