One of my favorite regular activities is going to a book club called Six Pillars, hosted by my friend Stan. Stan started the group several years ago to bring friends together, diversify his own reading habits and form new relationships. Six Pillars is so named because each year we read six books in six key disciplines. The group meets every two months, Stan organizes and prepares dinner, and for two hours in a group of 10 to 12 people, we discuss the book we have read.
Of course, we are not unique. From Oprah Winfrey’s famous club to popular online sites like Goodreads, book clubs are all quite common. Because book clubs are informal, it’s hard to know how many there are, though one source estimates that more than five million Americans belong to them (not counting online groups).
Reading is an essential component of leadership development. I discussed the benefits of intensive reading at HBR – broad and deep reading habits can sharpen intelligence, make you a better communicator, and improve emotional intelligence, among other benefits. For business leaders, the most impactful reading goes beyond explicitly “business” books to include stories, biographies, novels, and even poetry. Top “must-read” book lists by business leaders are often incredibly diverse.
But reading is often seen as a solitary activity. Can leaders benefit from the wave of book clubs? I believe they can. Book clubs are a particularly effective way to enhance the benefits of reading and come with a number of additional benefits. These benefits can be reaped by business people who join book clubs made up of friends and community members, as well as those who join clubs made up of professional colleagues at work.
First of all, book clubs facilitate the adoption of systematic reading habits. Every year, I commit to reading at least 12 books unrelated to my work. The book club I belong to is a vital reminder of that goal. Groups help build engagement. In a world where only 8% of people reach their New Year’s resolutions, Mark Zuckerberg, for example, chose to post his resolution to read 26 books in 2015 on Facebook and offered his book posts as a kind of book club. virtual reading to engage him in the task. Book clubs have been shown to stimulate literary engagement in young people and adults. And best-selling author Gretchen Rubin has repeatedly said that groups, in general, are one of the best ways to build positive habits. If you believe in the benefits of reading but struggle to develop a reading habit, public engagement with a group might be the responsibility you need.
In addition, reading in community can help you read more deeply and better understand the various perspectives. You won’t choose every book your club reads, so you’ll be forced to read genres and works that you may never find on your own. Engaging with diverse content – fiction, history, biography, social science – can take you out of your daily grind and help you make connections between ideas from other fields that might be relevant to your work or life. Plus, discussing these books with a diverse group of friends or co-workers can broaden your thinking. At Harvard Business School, one of the main reasons for the case-based learning method, where students read a case, or story, collectively and then discuss it, is to make students more aware of different perspectives than people bring to any discussion and ways in which those perspectives can deepen understanding and help a group make a more rounded decision. Book clubs work the same way – they force you to engage with new and interesting topics, and they do so by listening to people who think differently from you. And because you know you’ll have to discuss a book with your peers, you’ll probably read deeper than you would on your own.
This dynamic can also build and strengthen relationships. Neil Blumenthal, founder of eyewear manufacturer Warby Parker, once described the benefits of his company-wide book clubs, saying, “From a team dynamics perspective, it helps build stronger working relationships. It helps build trust as you create a safe environment to share ideas or debate ideas. Similarly, I know of a senior executive at a young real estate company who told me that his company uses a monthly journal club and discussions within the senior team both to deepen understanding of certain topics and to build trust and collegiality within the team. In these examples, company-sponsored book clubs strengthen professional relationships within a company, but the relational benefits of a book group are true even (or perhaps especially) when composed of people who do not work together. Many book clubs are primarily relationship-oriented – they create opportunities for friends to meet and discuss topics of mutual interest over dinner or a drink. But even those more focused on the books themselves have a way of building and deepening relationships through shared learning.
Finally, discussing content in groups of books can allow you to better comfortable and confident in professional discussions, whether it’s group work with colleagues, boardroom presentations or even team meetings. While there are countless articles on better conversations, the best and surest way to be a good conversationalist who can engage on substantive issues is to practice. Book clubs provide a safe space outside of your work environment to engage in content discussions and learn how to converse more productively with others.
Book clubs are booming. And with the leadership benefits of reading so clearly known, businesspeople who want to grow personally and professionally would be well advised to take advantage of the trend. These groups can help you become a better reader, engage in reading, develop relationships, learn from diverse perspectives, and become a better conversationalist. They can be good for the mind, good for leadership, and good for business.