"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each," is a quote taken from the speech that John F. Kennedy prepared for delivery in Dallas, the day he was assassinated in 1963.
Is Leadership a result of genetics or is it a consequence of learning and cultural development? This is a debate I am not going to get into here. Future advances in biology will reveal if there is a specific gene responsible for leadership, and most recent research suggests that a good deal of leadership skills are based on culture and personality, and can be developed. In fact, during my career as Professor of Strategic Management I have seen numerous cases of mature managers who are able to identify new leadership traits and grow these new capabilities, sometimes nearly from scratch.
Until biology –or medicine- show us the way to develop new leadership cells, education and training seem the best way to develop leadership and managerial skills. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that a leader could reach the top without strenuous preparation or the dedication to maintain and improve his or her skills. Leaders seem increasingly eager to update their outlook on society and business, and to anticipate the future. It is part of their role. This in turn requires a constant striving for learning and adapting themselves to permanent change, as most management educators will confirm. In my personal experience of dealing with CEOs, I am impressed by the importance they give to learning new management concepts, and how they procure relevant information for their decision-making. Lifelong learning is their reality. I used to believe that managers, particularly those at the top, were people of action rather than reflection, but I now know that this is not the case. Indeed, if we look at the published diaries of top executives, we see long working days of up to seventeen hours, filled almost solely with meetings. But what those diaries do not show is the time CEOs dedicate to preparing for those meetings and increasing their knowledge base.
I had the opportunity to talk with the famous financier and philanthropist George Soros while he visited IE Business School. From our conversation I became aware of just how much time he devotes to reading and dealing with academics. Soros may not be such a good example of the studiousness of managers, since he was formerly an academic, but numerous studies show that successful managers spend a substantial part of their busy days reading and studying. Some studies suggest that one of the reasons senior executives read is to provide relief from the solitude of being at the top. According to a quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: "We read to learn that we are not alone".
If you allow me to suggest just one takeaway from this post: reading literature –the classics, drama, novels, poetry- will help you to learn more about the world, about human nature, about how human beings interact in society and in work. Reading literature may help you to become a better manager.