From Great Reader to Great Leader

The value of reading for the business world.

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By Joseph Luzzi, Ph.D.

“Business leaders would benefit from studying great writers,” The Economist announced, challenging corporations to create “inward-bound courses” that grapple with big ideas, instead of the typical “outward-bound” corporate retreat featuring kayaking, lectures on trust building, and other “strange rituals” that only enrich the companies offering them.

Some of the world’s most successful executives and entrepreneurs have long taken such advice to heart. “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think,” Warren Buffett has said, “So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business.” His friend and fellow bibliophile, Bill Gates, is famous for taking reading retreats in his isolated lakeside cottage. And in Zero to One, Peter Thiel cites sources ranging from Tolstoy to Shakespeare for his business philosophy—including a surprising mention of how the deadly rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet can help explain why he reconciled with Elon Musk during the PayPal Wars of the late 1990s.

These visionary business minds have grasped something that eludes far too many, both in business and beyond: the powerful ideas from history, philosophy, literature, and other humanities disciplines can be as valuable a source for innovation and bottom-line success as the more measurable fields of science, technology, and economics.

A pioneer in artificial intelligence and leading engineer at Google, Damon Horowitz, quit his job to get a PhD in philosophy because he believed that without an understanding of “the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning,” all artificial intelligence would produce would be “a bunch of clever toys.” It is no surprise that Peter Drucker, arguably the most influential management thinker of the last fifty years and a professor steeped in the traditions of Western thought, promoted the idea of business as an interdisciplinary “liberal art.”

The humanities brim with lessons and models for any businessperson willing to explore them. Want to learn effective decision-making? Study why Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, how Abraham Lincoln kept the American Union together during the Civil War, what enabled JFK to keep the world out of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis—and why Harry S. Truman made the fateful call to drop the first atomic bomb. Looking for an effective manual on leadership? Try Martin Luther King Jr.’s discussion of civil disobedience in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Queen Elizabeth I’s “Speech to the Troops at Tilbury” as they prepared for a possible invasion of the Spanish Armada, or Machiavelli’s discourse on the nature of power in his still-essential Prince.

As with any serious engagement with ideas, the trick in leveraging the brilliance of such works is not just what to read, but how to read them. My advice would be to follow the “rule of fours”: pick four books to read, and commit 45 minutes a day, four days a week to reading. In the time of a quick lunch or coffee break, you can be on your way to incorporating Shakespeare’s psychology of human nature and Emerson’s program of self-reliance into your work routine. Finally, and most importantly, you will start to see how and why reading great books can boost your company’s long-term success and add to your bottom line—especially by aligning the work you do with a larger sense of mission and purpose.

As James L. Heskett wrote in The Culture Cycle (2015), a robust corporate culture “can account for 20-30 percent of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.” Businesses that implement “Great Readers Programs” can boost morale, increase retention, reduce expensive turnover, and enhance a sense of mission and purpose by fostering an exciting exchange of ideas in seminars that recreate the joys of college.

There is a good reason that the so-called workplaces of the future at places like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are looking more and more like college campuses. “As organizations look to promote creativity, collaboration, and employee satisfaction,” Fast Company reported, they are increasingly “realizing that [the] best ideas across academia, the arts, and more can have positive impacts on their company for the future.”

An effective way to bring these value-adding, employee-satisfying, and idea-generating benefits to business is going to the ultimate sources themselves: the books and ideas that have helped create the world we live and work in. That is why the forward-thinking businessperson should engage with great writing. And that is why Plato believed that “storytellers rule the world.”

Joseph Luzzi (PhD, Yale) is Professor of Comparative Literature at Bard College and the founder of DeepRead, a program dedicated to educating leaders through literature and the humanities. His books include “My Two Italies,” a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and “In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love,” which has been translated into Italian, German, and Korean. Dr. Luzzi speaks and consults regularly for businesses, corporations, and conferences.

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