Read a biography!

by Jack Warren, Top Coach editor and host

Jack W 3If you are like most leaders, you tend to read books – whether it be a few books a year or a few books a month. And like a typical reader, those titles may include self-help, history, how-to, fiction, and more. Among coaches, self-help and how-to are particularly popular.

My objective today is to get you to consider more biographies. Yes, biographies. I’d go as far as to say that if you’re a voracious reader, you try to make every third book a biography. If you don’t tend to read more than a handful of books a year, I’d suggest every other book.

The reasons I suggest biographies is quite simple. Our brains are wired to remember narratives and stories. There is no better story than the story of a person’s life, as it’s made up of hundreds or thousands of stories. As good and impactful as any self-help book has ever been to me, the fact is that I remember far less about that book than I do almost any biography. As many self-help and how-to books that I’ve ever read, it’s rare that I can remember the main points. Yet, 20 years after I last watched it, I can tell you most of the story of Forrest Gump.

I am a history buff. The single best book I’ve ever read on the period from the Revolutionary War to the War Between the States was the two-volume biography of Andrew Jackson by Marquis James. It told the story of the United States leading up to the break up between the North and the South, framed by the life of Jackson and his family. I don’t remember all the facts and figures of that time, but I remember their story.

There’s a reason why the typical speaker asks you to follow him as he guides you through three points (that all start with the letter “Q”). There’s a reason why most times I go to church or listen to a speaker, I try to make a point to take one lesson with me from that event. In both cases, it’s a desperate attempt to get you to remember. Remember points of emphasis, no mater how elegantly laid out, is just difficult. But you’ll remember a story that the speaker told!

At least as good – but I’d argue better – than John Wooden’s books Wooden on Leadership and Pyramid of Success is A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. All three of these books are great, but the narratives that Wooden weaves throughout Observations are incredibly memorable. And when you remember the stories, you’ll quite likely remember the applications.

Therein lies the strategic advantage of a good biography. When you remember a well-crafted tale, you are far more likely to remember the life lessons. An added benefit is that quite often you’re making the application to your own life or to that of your team or organization. Going through that exercise makes it all that much clearer – and memorable.

Here’s something else to consider. Don’t rush over to the baseball section at the bookstore to grab that next bio. I’ll wager you’ll learn as much from reading about Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill, or John Fogerty as you will Ken Griffey Jr., Lou Gehrig, or Joe Torre.

So right now – go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and grab a biography. You’ll be glad you did.

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