Do Personal Libraries Of Corporate Leaders Show Keys To Success?
I’m an avid reader. I’ve been a lifelong fan of learning as much as I can everyday. In fact, recently I’ve started a journal in which I aim to derive one life lesson or item of meaning from each day I live with the hope that once my unborn children reach adulthood I can hand them over as a compendium of approximately 8000 life lessons they may not have to learn if they accept the advice (assuming my wife and I have our first child in about 4 years, and I hand over the journals at age 18; more lessons for the younger children). More about that little project later. I mentioned my penchant for books as a preface to the my thoughts on this article published in the New York Times yesterday, CEO Libraries Reveal Keys To Success.
Journalist Harriet Rubin took an interesting slant on the libraries of the powerful by focusing on the fact that the libraries of the likes of bigwigs such as Michael Moritz and Phil Knight are stocked with books about “how to think, not how to compete“.
Nike founder Phil Knight apparently has a library full of tomes on Asian history, art, and poetry; Apple’s Steve Jobs at one time had an “inexhaustible interest” in the works of William Blake. Chief executive of the American Medical Association’s accreditation division, David Blake has stocked an entire cabin with the collected works of Aristotle! He also gives us this insightful advice:
“Don’t follow your mentors, follow your mentors’ mentors”.
It may take a minute to process that, but when looking at the contents of these exec’s libraries, it begins to make sense.
Rarely do you find business books in the libraries of those at the top of the business world. Instead you find a whole blend of literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, that tend to give new perspective and engender symphonic or systems thinking. In many instances they also tend to be quite antiquated, hence the “mentors’ mentors” phrase in the quotation above.
Even the climate change literature which tends to be popular amongst corporate leaders these days (I would say that’s a positive sign) are not “Al Gore’s tomes but books from the 15th century about the weather, Egyptian droughts, even replicas of Sumerian tablets recording extraordinary changes in climate”.
Apparently poetry speaks to some CEO’s. Sidney Harman of Harman Industries used to tell his HR people to find him poets for managers. Why? “Poets are our original systems thinkers…they look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand”.
Shelly Lazarus of Ogilvie & Mather “read(s) for pleasure and to find other perspectives on how to think or solve a problem“.
So how would we summarize the characteristics of CEOs, their personal libraries, and literary interests according to the NY Times article?
- Each book acquired has a permanent place in the CEOs life; they accumulate over time and many have huge personal collections. This may be related to income however as bookseller Ken Lopez states in the article that it is almost impossible to put together a serious library on any one subject for less than a couple hundred grand!
- Many keep their personal libraries private.
- Interest in antiquated works of great thinkers and philosophers as opposed to business-related literature.
- Read widely, as much fiction as non-fiction.
- Controlled chaos in library organization. (This could make for an interesting article.)
- Books are used to find other perspectives when trying to solve problems; learn symphonic thinking skills.