Talking About Books

Professional reading is a critical part of being a leader, especially when tightly integrated with action.  When we weave together what we are reading with what we are doing, the rate at which we learn can increase dramatically.

To make reading even more impactful, talk about what you are reading.  It is talking about books–with a constant eye for how it applies to our current work situation–that takes reading to the next level. This is in contrast to how many of us have experienced professional reading–as an individual activity.

As I engage with leaders, I like to recommend books that have made an impact on me.  And because I know the power of talking about books, I recommend that teams pick a book to read together.  Yes, like a book club!

When I was in the Army, we created something called the “Pro-Reading Challenge”–which boiled down to: Read a book and talk about it with your team. So simple, and yet so impactful.  It is the kind of simple leader development tool that any leader can put into practice.

This week I got an exciting glimpse into the impact of the Pro-Reading Challenge through a Twitter conversation.  Paul G. posted a message to his former company commander Joe B.:

Not long ago we were discussing this book in a small falafel stand in Mosul [Iraq]. Tomorrow, it’s my turn!

While commanding an Army unit in Iraq in 2010, Joe picked a book, The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, and talked about four chapters with his officers.  This, my friend, is leader development in action.  In the middle of a combat deployment!  Joe replied on Twitter with a picture of the four chapters highlighted in the table of contents of his copy of the book.  Paul replied with:

It was those 3 or 4 chapters that changed my outlook on studying history!

And here Paul is, five years later, reading and talking about the same book with his own team of leaders.  Creating time for talking about a book made the unit more effective in combat, it inspired a passion for studying history, and it role-modeled a leader development approach that Paul is now emulating.

So, what are you waiting for? Pick a book and engage in conversation about it with your team.  Focus on how it applies to your work.

And, have fun!


A Design For Learning

Clay Shirky, in Cognitive Surplus, writes:

“To participate is to act as if your presence matters, as if, when you see something or hear something, your response is part of the event” (p. 21).

How can we design learning (and leadership) experiences to foster this sense that “your presence matters”?  How can we shape experiences so that many more of us can be a meaningful part of the “event”?

As we think this through, it may be helpful to keep in mind these four elements:

  1. Method or design of the engagement itself
  2. The content
  3. The quality of the teacher/leader/facilitator
  4. And the quality of the students/participants

When I write “quality” of the teacher and student, it is primarily in terms of how prepared they are and the attitude and energy that they bring on any given day. I think we need excellence in all four of these areas in order to create exceptional learning engagements.  Of course, these four elements are mutually reinforcing (each element influences the other three).  Not only that, but if one or two are especially good, they can help carry the day.

Harvey Pittel: Lifelong Learning in Action

This week, I had the privilege of attending the West Point Society Luncheon in Austin, Texas.  Harvey Pittel, world renowned saxophone player and teacher, was the guest speaker.  As a young Sergeant back in the late 1960s, Harvey played sax in the West Point band for three years (see the connection?).  Harvey had us all in stitches recounting stories of the sax player with a Masters Degree in Music going through basic training at Fort Benning, GA.

Harvey is a magnificent musician, and he graced us with some of his playing.  But where his talk got super interesting for me was when he matter-of-factly stated that at West Point he continued to study his craft and “learned to play all over again.”  So, there was a saxaphone player with a masters degree in music in the West Point band who went back to square one and began anew.  I asked Harvey to expand on this.  Here’s what he shared:
“Although I had been playing since I was 7 years old and had a masters degree in music from Northwestern, I did not like my sound.  I had a vision for how I wanted to sound, but I was not there.  When I was in the band at West Point, the band leadership encouraged us to study and continue to learn–and they put their money where their mouth was with funding to help.  The West Point band allowed me the time to start over.  And they gave me permission to experiment and take risks.  I began studying under Joe Allard at the Julliard School in New York City.  I relearned how to do a  lot of physical things, and I changed the way I held my mouth.  But the biggest insight Joe shared right away is that I sounded like Harvey Pittel trying to sound like someone else. He challenged me to be my authentic self.  Thus began 15 years of lessons with Joe.”
Learn more via Harvey’s YouTube video series beginning with this one. [Really interesting stuff!]

Curiosity and a passion for learning are fundamental to success as leaders today.  The West Point band obviously valued learning and helped put into motion the continued development of one of the world’s best sax players.

What can we take away from Harvey’s story?  

How can we foster a learning culture in our organizations?

“Continuous learning is the sauce that success is sautéed in!” –George Purcell

The Knowledge Around You

The other day, I got a ride to Newark airport with Driven Eco, a really cool car service.  Just before I was picked up, I received a real downer of an email — one of those that sucks the life right out of you.  I was not in a small-talk mood.  Well, that is until the driver and I started talking.  Who would have known Ed Stapleton, Jr. — that’s the driver — co-founded the company and is crazy passionate about entrepreneurship, social media and online conversation?  That was the quickest drive to Newark airport I’ve ever experienced.  By the time I was getting out, I loved this guy!  I walked away with no less than five book recommendations (Ed is a reading machine), invites to two cutting-edge online communities, several cool ideas, and a plan to connect again when I get back up that way.

Are you wondering what the deal is with the picture of the rabbi?  So, I’m on the plane, at Newark, and who sits down next to me?  That’s right, a guy who looks just like this dude, only wearing spectacles.  I had just that morning done a google search on “Biblical Meditation” and found a site that described the original Hebrew words that ended up translated into the word meditation. Why you ask? That’s for another story.  But, I jumped on the chance to get this guy’s take on meditation.  I’ll boil his thoughts down to this:

The soul is the motivating force for action; the heart is the gateway to the soul; we have to get knowledge from our minds to our hearts, and it is meditation on God’s word and His work in our life that moves knowledge from our minds to our hearts — and, thus, without meditation, our souls never move us to action.

How about that?  Wow!

Is it possible that every person you come in contact with has a story? Some cool knowledge?  I’m glad I was paying attention on this day.

The Pro-Reading Challenge: One Achievable Step

Corey James and I wrote an article published in the February issue of ARMY Magazine focused on leveraging professional reading–and the Pro-Reading Challenge–as a tool for developing leaders.

The Pro-Reading Challenge boils down to talking about a book with your team at least once a year.  This challenge is for leaders out there who wants to take action to develop their leaders and improve their organizations’ effectiveness.

Article Excerpt:

“…the Pro-Reading Challenge is one way for Army leaders to take action when it comes to leader development and lifelong learning, helping leaders to overcome the feeling that leader development is overwhelming, or just “pie-in-the-sky stuff.” It is one specific action leaders can take and point to as evidence that they are, in fact, “committed to developing their subordinates.” In the process, leaders create momentum and foster a culture of learning. Once you taste genuine leader development, you want more of it. Perhaps most importantly for the health of our profession, lieutenants who take the PRC are much more likely to incorporate professional reading into their leader-development plans when they are in command. In this way, you pay it forward, creating that third-generation-leadership (3GL) effect: “Success [from the 3GL perspective] is not developing great leaders. Rather, success is developing great leaders who themselves have a personal vision to develop great leaders.”