Here Are 3 Simple Ways Leaders Become Better Readers

Leaders are readers but sometimes reading gets you in trouble

Funny story...

It's mid-December 1981, and I've been reading chapter books for a few months. I'm five years old.

My family is driving from Abilene, Texas to Birmingham, Alabama for Christmas. I'm in the back seat of a brown VW bus reading the book adaptation of the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

We stopped for gas somewhere between Dallas and Shreveport (a brutal stretch of I-20, by the way) and my mom asked me to read to her.

Now remember that I'm in first grade.

But I got this, right?

So off I go blazing a trail of words.

'Hey, wait a second. What did you just say?' I knew that tone from my mom. I had done something wrong, but she didn't want me to think I had done something wrong. At least not yet.

'Will you read that word again?'

'Yes, ma'am.' 

I looked at it. B-A-S-T

'Bastard.'

Oops.

Sometimes reading gets you in trouble, right?

Two challenges I see when it comes to reading for church leaders.

  1. Poor reading skills. 
  2. Reading without planning.

Let's talk about how to tackle both of these challenges

Tips For Better Reading

Read Specifically

When the last round of year-end book lists came out, I got sucked in. I must have looked at 100 lists from all across the literary spectrum. I easily could have spent hundreds of dollars on top-shelf books.

But in the end, I didn't buy a single one.

Here's why.

Last summer I went through my library to catalog my books.

Beats working, right?

Well, as I was scanning books into an app, there were more than a few books that I had never opened.

Odds are you've done the same thing. Someone you respect tells you about this amazing book, maybe on a book list. So you buy it. 

And then you never read it.

Looks great on the bookshelf, right?

You feel awesome when someone asks what you're reading, and it takes you five minutes to scroll through the list of books in your Kindle app.

But how many of those books did you read?

Or, how about this, how many of those books were wasted reads?

Wasted because you read a book but will never put what you learn into action.

Wasted because you read a book to hide from the real work that you need to do.

Stop and read back over that last sentence and then come back.

Maybe the best thing you can do right now to improve as a reader is to read with a plan. A plan that focuses on the work your church needs you to prioritize. A plan that takes what you learn and puts it to work for you and your church.

Read Stories

You really should be reading stories.

I'm late to the game on this. For years, 99% of what I read was non-fiction. Big books on theology. Books, articles, journals, blogs that would help me grow as a leader and get better at my work.

It took me a long time to understand the power of story. Not just as a preacher and a leader (although I would contend that fiction brings out unique elements in my preaching and leadership).

I need stories because I am a human being. As a man with dreams of a world shaped by prevailing values such as joy, rest, courage and generosity, stories that capture what matters most to me is like oxygen to my soul.

So as part of my routine before bed, I read stories. Sometimes fiction, sometimes biography. For instance, I am committed to reading one biography on each of the U.S. Presidents. For fiction, I try to mix in classics with recommendations from family and friends.

Read Smart

You don't have to read every word of a book to understand the message of the book.

Put this principle into practice in your non-fiction reading.

I subscribe to a service called Blinkist. Blinkist provides summaries of over 1,500 non-fiction books that you can read (or listen to) in 15 minutes. 

When I come across a book that I'm interested in, I read the Blinkist summary. If I feel like I grasp the message of the book from that summary, then I don't buy the book. Because I don't need the book.

Blinkist doesn't summarize many books from Christian publishing houses, but it's my go-to site when I hear about a book on leadership, sociology, history. 

(One alternative for Christian books is to use a service like Audible that allows you to listen to someone else read the book. 

Personally, I love Audible, but I don't use it often for non-fiction because I learn visually and like to see someone's argument for solving a problem.)

When Blinkist doesn't have a summary for the book I'm interested in, here's my xx approach to reading a book well.

1. Make an outline. 

I create an outline using chapter titles and major headings (if included). I am creating a high-level overview of the book that lets me know which parts of the book I need to read. 

Sometimes this practice leads to the conclusion that this book has nothing to say to me right now and I put it away.

If I keep reading...

2. Skim the relevant chapters. 

I have one goal at this level: understanding what the author is saying. 

So I read fast and focus on keywords and concepts. I don't pay attention to illustrations, case studies, application and action points that reinforce the argument in that chapter. Once I can put that argument in my words, I write it down.

If I need to dig further...

3. Dig into the details. 

When a particular chapter, section or passage of a book can help me solve a problem, I will read it in detail. My purpose here is to interact with the author: making observations, asking questions, writing conclusions. 

What I focus on with that intensity might be no more than a single page or paragraph in a book. But it's exactly what I need to get what I want out of that book.

Do The Next Right Thing

How do you improve your reading so you can grow in leading? Choose one of these habits and put it to work.

  1. Use my three-part plan to get more out of your reading.
  2. Go to a bookstore and buy a story that you'll start reading tonight.
  3. Discipline yourself only to buy books and read articles that help you right now.

Let me say one last thing about focusing your reading. Some leaders can afford to read more books on more subjects. Before you assume that you are that kind of leader, I challenge you to be more intentional in the books you read. 

I have a soft spot in my heart for leaders who read to escape the hard work of pastoral ministry. I have certainly been guilty of hiding at times. 

Hiding inside a book, however, won't make the problem go away. It just compounds the problem because your book-reading has allowed it to fester.

Choose wisely. Read well. Grow as a leader.

What was most helpful to you? What questions do you have after reading this? Let me know in the comments section below. And if this post was helpful, I'd be grateful if you share it with a friend using the menu below. 

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