While recovering from the coronavirus in hospital last month, President Donald Trump made a video. He pronounced: “I learned a lot about Covid. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-book school.” His point: personal experience of Covid-19 taught him more than reading briefings by America’s finest doctors and epidemiologists.
Now that Joe Biden looks set to replace Trump in the White House, it’s easier to pass judgment on this lack of respect for science, facts and expertise. An absence of curiosity is a disaster. Especially for leaders in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous era. In the 2020s, effective leaders are readers.
It’s no secret Donald Trump favors gut instinct over independent, rigorous analysis – and doesn’t enjoy reading. Before his inauguration, he revealed he liked his briefings short, ideally one-page and in bullet-point form. In Fire and Fury, the controversial expose of his first year in office, author Michael Wolff quotes economic adviser Gary Cohn writing in an email: “It’s worse than you can imagine…Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.” Admittedly, Wolff’s book has been heavily-criticised for alleged inaccuracies, but the assertion of Trump’s aversion to reading is among the most fully corroborated.
Instead, Trump was known to favor evening telephone calls with close confidants to reflect on events. Talking is an excellent source of support for any leader. However, without reading as a balance, it reinforces our human tendency for confirmation bias. John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University observes verbal communication is personal, focuses on emotions, and strengthens what you already know. Conversely, the written word “collects information we don’t memorize” and is therefore conducive to deeper, prolonged thinking.
Trump also famously likes to connect to the world via Twitter. However, a strong preference for broadcasting opinions – over receiving information – is a problem for anyone needing to acquire new knowledge. The World Economic Forum predicts that between 2018 and 2022, a sizeable 40% of our expertise will need to be thrown away and replaced with something entirely new. It’s clear the ability to rapidly unlearn, and relearn, is a key leadership skill of our business era.
Self-Made Billionaires Read More Than Most People
It’s ironic that Trump is so at odds with how successful people value reading. Back when Bill Gates was the Chairman of Microsoft, he devised a way to prioritise learning in his busy life. Each year, he’d take two separate “Think Weeks” out of the office just to read and reflect in a secluded cottage. In these seven-day stretches of solitude he contemplated the future of technology. He banned all outside visitors including his own family. The only person who had direct access to him was a caretaker, who brought two simple meals each day. During these weeks, ploughing through white papers from his staff, Gates stumbled upon insights which powered Microsoft’s success for decades.
Author Thomas Corley spent five years studying the habits of self-made millionaires. He found, instead of watching TV, they read a lot more than the general population. Not just for fun, but to learn. It’s a consistent practice of the world’s most successful people. The leaders-are-readers list includes Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Warren Buffet, Jack Ma, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. TV talk show star Oprah Winfrey is clear about the origins of her success: “Books were my pass to personal freedom,” she said. Nike founder Phil Knight so reveres his library that visitors have to take off their shoes and bow before they enter. Elon Musk invested in SpaceX after he learned about building rockets from the pages of old science books. Former U.S. President Barak Obama claimed reading books helped him to survive his eight arduous years in the White House. Amid the information overload of the Oval office, quietly reading gave him the opportunity to “slow down and get perspective…the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” Obama now famously shares his favourite books in a much-anticipated yearly list on social media.
Curiosity Is a Muscle
Trump’s lack of respect for the written word is counterproductive when leading for new ideas. The purpose of reading is to learn, but it’s pointless to study if you already know everything. The list of subjects on which Trump claims world-beating insights is long. It includes helicopters, South Korea, drones, ISIS, courts, lawsuits, America’s system of government, trade, renewable energy, banks, taxes, tax laws, debt, campaign finance, money, infrastructure, construction, technology, the economy, Democrats, polls, steelworkers, the word “apprentice,” environmental impact statements and “the power of Facebook.” Most lately, the list included Covid-19. More intriguingly still, he claims to know more about “things.”
In an increasingly fast-moving environment that’s difficult to forecast, mining the collective intelligence of your team is a must. Psychological studies show curiosity is like a muscle, if you don’t exercise your urge to know more, it becomes atrophied. Constant use strengthens it. My advice to leaders is to cheerfully admit they don’t have all the answers. Instead, to empower people with engaging “what-do-you-think?”, “what-if?” and “why-not?”-type questions.
When Donald Trump was showing journalists around The Oval Office he was asked about the books on his desk. He showed the group “Adams v Jefferson” by John Ferling. One of the journos asked if it was worth reading it. Trump quipped: “I wouldn’t”. The hallmark of effective leadership in disrupted times is open questions and a healthy respect for the expertise of others. Reading doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader; but not reading is sure to make you a bad one. Enlightened leaders in the 21st Century need to shift from “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all”.