The Problem:

Learning is a critical aspect of what it means to be an ‘adaptive leader’. It (learning) is required at both a problem diagnosis stage as well as at the point of finding (new) solutions. A key source of learning is through reading; reading the kind of books that expand our thinking and imagination, challenge our worldview and paradigm, and those that provide knowledge, the kind of knowledge that with intentional application our part, can mature into become personal wisdom. Books can do all of this but there are two things that are required:

  1. We need to be reading, and reading the ‘right’ books
  2. We need a way of consolidating our potential learning – of capturing and activating the material and insights gleaned from doing the first thing!

For some the ‘problem’ is #1, whilst for many, it is #2 and that means the potential learnings become like trying to scoop water with a fork. We read but don’t retain and so much of the benefits of reading become diluted and / or dissipate over time.

The Solution:

To #1:

Read, read, read. “But I don’t have the time…I’m too busy” you might say. Then, to put it plainly, you’re too busy! Leaders read. Good leaders recognise that their wealth of experience is unsuited to a rapidly changing world and as Peter Drucker so eloquently framed it, “Turbulence is not the problem, it is the use of yesterday’s logic in the turbulence that is the problem”. Smart leaders know that new learning / insights are essential for many of today and tomorrow’s challenges and so they read. They have a healthy appreciation for what they don’t know and so they read the kind of books that help them know what to do when it is that they don’t know what to do.

They are very intentional with their reading list (after all they’re busy people) and they develop a reading habit.

  • What is your reading list?
  • Who can you go to for tips on significant books that might be suitable for you?
  • What would a reading habit look like? (Here try to dedicate specific time every day to read…even if it is only 10-15 minutes and experiment with the best time to do so)

To #2:

Keep an A4 notebook. When you are finished a book (and this is why I like an actual book) make a spiderweb like or idea-mapping type capture of your notes from the book. Passages you’ve underlined, scribbled margin notes, ideas etc…Do this over a double page with the book title in the centre. You’ll find that you develop a ‘system’ that works for you sometimes with symbols and other notations that capture whatever it is you want to recall. It becomes an invaluable book summary laced with your thinking.

Example: While I’m reading a book, because of the work I do, I might think as I read something, ‘that point would make a great slide in this or that keynote or body of content’. I then put a simple square shape notation next to the relevant text. When I am then capturing the insights from the book into my A4 notebook, one of the ‘spiderweb’ or mind-map lines has a square at the end of it. Under that square I write all the ‘slide ideas’ captured throughout the book. This then enables me, at a glance, to see the work required to translate those ideas into slides to be incorporated into what I teach / present. Very simple but effective in ‘translating the knowledge’. Of course, as I get to ‘share’ this knowledge it has the effect of becoming personalised or appropriated knowledge for my own benefit.

Having such a A4 notebook means that you can flip to any page (in your notebook) and at a glance recall the riches taken from that particular book. Browsing through your A4 notebook allows you to recall and rehearse your learning making it translatable into daily living and application. Again, this is why an actual book and making written notes, is better than relying on Kindle highlights and electronic storage. Psychologists tell us that physical writing creates neurological pathways that help ensure better retention.

I have found that my A4 notebooks has become a very valuable resource and one I keep close at hand!


  1. Find a ‘system’ that works for you. The end goal here is to gain knowledge and then appropriate and incorporate that knowledge into your own leadership / life practice.
  2. Set a reading goal. Mine for this year is to read between 35-40 select books. For some that is not very ambitious and for others that represents a very high number. What is important is what works for you and the type of books read might serve to increase or decrease the pace at which you read. Some books are best read slowly! There will be some novels / fiction and biographies in that mix. Very often I read 3 books concurrently and when doing so, ensure they are of different genre.
  3. Would forming a ‘book club’ where you invite select friends, colleagues into the mix assist with accountability / learning? I once was involved in such an initiative in a Private Bank where the regional MD had said with disarming honesty, “I don’t read” in a conversation we were having as to the importance of reading as a means of learning. I had then asked who in her team were ‘readers’ and from there we stumbled on the idea of launched a book club (to read on her behalf) but with the formal mandate to ‘read on behalf of and for the betterment of the business’. It was an initiative that exceeded our highest expectations…but that is another story!
  4. This may all sound so straightforward and simplistic. In my experience leaders aren’t reading enough and when they are, often it is the kind of material that isn’t that helpful in unlocking adaptive thinking and behaviour and / or in facing the future. This is a sweeping generalisation I know but, I have worked long enough in executive education and leadership development and with enough leaders across the globe and in all manner of industries, to stand by this comment.