One of my favorite regular activities is participating in a book club called Six Pillars, hosted by my friend Stan. Stan initiated the group several years ago to convene friends, diversify his own reading habits, and make new connections. Six Pillars is so named because each year we read six books in six key disciplines. The group meets every two months, Stan hosts and cooks dinner, and for two hours in a group of 10–12 people we discuss the book we’ve read.
Of course, we’re 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 exist, though one source estimates that more than five million Americans are in one (not including online groups).
Reading is an essential component of leadership development. I’ve argued the benefits of reading extensively 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 extends beyond explicitly “business” books to include histories, biographies, novels, and even poetry. The best lists of “must read” books by leaders in business are often incredibly diverse. But reading is often viewed as a solitary activity. Can leaders benefit from the book club wave? I believe they can. Book clubs are a uniquely effective way to enhance the benefits of reading and come with a number of additional benefits. These benefits can be reaped by businesspeople who join book clubs composed of friends and community members, as well as those who join clubs composed of professional colleagues at work.
First, book clubs make it easier to commit to systematic reading habits. Each year, I commit to reading at least 12 books unrelated to my work. The book club I belong to is an essential reminder of that goal. Groups help reinforce commitment. In a world in which only 8% of people achieve 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 posts on the book as a kind of virtual book clubto commit him to the task. Book clubs have been shown to boost literary engagement in young people and adults. And best-selling author Gretchen Rubin repeatedly affirms that groups, generally, are one of the best ways in which to form positive habits. If you believe in the benefits of reading but have a hard time developing a habit of reading, public commitment to a group might be just the accountability you need.
In addition, the act of reading in community can help you read more deeply and better understand diverse perspectives. You won’t choose every book your club reads, so you’ll be forced to read genres and works you might never find on your own. Engaging with diverse content — fiction, history, biography, social science — can pull you out of your day-to-day routine and help you make connections between ideas from other fields that might be relevant to your work or life. Further, discussing these books with a diverse group of friends or colleagues can expand the way you think. At Harvard Business School, one of the primary reasons for the case method of learning, where students read a case, or story, collectively and then debate it, is to make students more aware of the different perspectives people bring to any discussion and the ways in which those perspectives can deepen understanding and help a group reach a more rounded decision. Book clubs function similarly — they force you to engage on new and interesting topics, and they do so by listening to people who think differently than you. And because you know you’ll have to discuss a book with your peers, you’re likely to read more deeply than you might on your own.
This dynamic can also build and reinforce relationships. Neil Blumenthal, founder of eyeglass maker Warby Parker, once described the benefits of his company-wide book clubs, saying, “From a team dynamic standpoint, it helps build stronger working relationships. It helps build trust when you create what is a safe environment to share ideas, or to debate ideas.” Similarly, I know a senior executive of a young real estate firm who told me his company uses a monthly book club and discussion among the senior team both to deepen understanding of certain topics and to build trust and collegiality among the team. In these examples, company-sponsored book clubs reinforce professional relationships within a firm, but the relational benefits of a reading group hold true even (or perhaps especially) when they are composed of people who do not work together. Many book clubs are primarily about relationships — they create opportunities for friends to meet and discuss topics of mutual interest over dinner or drinks. But even those more focused on books themselves have a way of building and deepening relationships through shared learning.
Finally, discussing content in book groups can make you a more comfortable and confident in professional discussions, whether these are 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’s able to engage on substantive issues is to practice. Book clubs offer a safe space outside your professional environment to engage on content in discussion and learn 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 wise to take advantage of the trend. These groups can help you become a better reader, commit to reading, grow relationships, learn from diverse perspectives, and become a better conversationalist. They can be good for the mind, good for leadership, and good for business.