I remember having a conversation with a colleague a number of years ago where we were ruminating on this topic. During the dialogue it was teased to the surface that perhaps there was an unconscious element in learning the breadth and depth of a book. Perhaps without the kind of deep study we associate with university-level English courses we are still able to learn the ideas presented in the volumes we consume.
Bill Hybels, a renowned Christian leader, seems to agree. He claims that “When you read, you invite new information into your subconscious mind. You may spend ten full hours going cover to cover and at the end feel like you’re none the wiser. But then a day or a week later, you face a leadership dilemma that you are able to solve only because you read that book.” (Hybels, 2008, 197). In fact he likens it to being mentored by a person you’ve not met face to face – the written word acting as vicarious interlocutor. I have certainly experienced this in my professional life when in a conversation or situation a principle pops into my mind that otherwise found its home in a book previously read.
I think this also relates to Steven Johnson’s principle of the slow hunch. He describes a slow hunch as an idea that is given “just enough nourishment to keep it growing” and then it is “plant(ed)…in fertile soil, where its roots can make new connections” (Johnson, 2010, p. 78). It is through this process that he suggests we give our ideas time to bloom. Read, ruminate, repeat….
Leader, where are your new ideas coming from? I strongly believe that leaders ought to be reading books related to their craft. There are a tonne of books out there on the topic of leadership, management, psychology, sociology, education, marketing, and Christian living. Some are good, some are bad, but they are all helpful. Books can nourish ideas if we give them a chance.
Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: Powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. New York: Riverhead Books.