Monday, August 25, 2008

Connect the Dots

Most of the leaders I know are prolific readers. Reading offers opportunities to leverage a diverse range of opinions and practices that can be used to propel future growth. For that matter, even reading for pleasure provides a measure of intellectual sharpening and exposure to ideas that help broaden one’s leadership base.

But in my experience, the truly great leaders are not just readers – they are writers. Writing is a mechanism to make sense of the world around us, to connect the dots such that lessons are learned and improvement is continuous. Writing also serves as a means to develop others who might benefit from our perspectives.

The most challenging class I ever took was a wastewater treatment course at the University of Texas taught by Dr. Desmond F. Lawler. He wore me out during my first semester of graduate studies, battle scars that no doubt have enhanced my learning since and motivated me to pass along the pain to my own students when I subsequently taught at West Point.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Dr. Lawler’s course was when he shared his philosophy about students who desired to audit his course. You see, the line was quite long for those who wished to learn from this award winning teacher but wanted to do so without receiving a grade. Dr. Lawler’s policy was that anyone who wished to audit was welcome to do so. But they would have to attend every class, participate in each lecture, do all the homework, and take all the tests. That shortened up the line quickly. In his mind, anything less was a waste of time. It was only through this level of participation that the ideas he was sharing would make any sense.

As contradictory as this seemed at the time, Dr. Lawler was right. And I feel the same way about those of us leaders who think we can audit through life. This is where writing achieves the purposes outlined by my professor. Putting ideas to paper forces us to connect the dots and to understand, at a much deeper level, what we believe - and why. Articulating our thoughts in writing makes it easier to share them with those with whom we serve. And writing allows us to participate in the community of ideas with personal perspectives that just might benefit someone else.

Effective leaders know that the more they write the better writers they become. And by putting their ideas in the arena of public discourse, they enhance the collective wisdom of their respective personal and professional communities. Connecting the dots -- good for the writer and for the reader.

So, what are you…writing? That’s Leader Business!


Gannon Beck said...

I agree that leaders are readers. I've been studying this quite a bit myself and have written about it:

Out of the people I've been studying there are a few exceptions to the notion that writing is critical, namely Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs. Perhaps they were (are) writers, but I can't recall finding any evidence of it so far while researching their biographies. That said, others that I have been studying including Thomas Paine, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, the Wright brothers, Bill Gates and Micheal Dell were (are) all writers. That's enough for me to take up the practice, but still the exceptions raise an interesting question. Namely, how were they able to accomplish what they did without the practice? I could also be wrong; perhaps the three that I mentioned did more writing than I've been made aware of.

It's something to chew on. Thanks for great post. It has my gears moving.

Tom Magness said...


Great stuff and thanks for stopping by. I think there are other ways to connect the dots besides writing. I do a lot of public speaking. I find that in preparing and giving a speech or presentation, I am forced to gain a higher level of understanding. I think Disney, Edison, and Jobs may connect the dots through experimentation. Their success and failures, and documentation of each, no doubt helped them make sense of the world around them -- to the great benefit of all of the rest of us! Hooah!