Power of Literature

The power of literature: CEOs share how books transformed their approach to life and leadership

By Tina Irgang

In the early ‘90s, Jim Ziolkowski was hitchhiking through Apartheid-era South Africa. Along with his brother, Ziolkowski had just launched a nonprofit that was looking to build a school in the country. Ziolkowski was touring townships and meeting with members of the African National Congress, now South Africa’s governing party but then a banned organization.

To pass the time while he waited for rides, Ziolkowski had brought several books along. One of them was Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr.’s account of the civil rights movement.

“It had a really profound spiritual and emotional effect on me, because as I’m reading about the civil rights struggle, I was immersed in Apartheid,” Ziolkowski recalls. One quote in particular struck him: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

At that moment, “I knew for sure that when confronted with injustice, I needed to not be silent,” Ziolkowski says.

That insight, along with a near-fatal bout of malaria and dysentery, focused Ziolkowski on what he wanted to achieve, resulting in a mission that his nonprofit, Stamford, CT-based buildOn, embraces to this day: breaking the cycle of poverty through education.

Twenty-five years later, buildOn has worked with countless high school students in some of America’s most challenged inner-city neighborhoods on service projects, both in their own communities and in developing countries. Altogether, student volunteers have logged 1.6 million hours of service, and students in the buildOn program have a 93-percent high-school graduation rate, Ziolkowski says.

A significant part of that achievement is due to that slim non-fiction volume, which Ziolkowski calls “a template for leadership.”

“In my view, there is no better business or leadership book,” he says. “[King] created a sense of urgency. … He employed strategy… and was able to build discipline into that strategy. This is three decades before Jim Collins was writing anything.”

And, he quips, “it’s a quick read! Only 153 pages.”

A well-read CEO is a successful CEO

“The best leaders are always readers, and in fact, the best CEOs are voracious readers,” says Mike Myatt, chairman of Philadelphia-based leadership-development firm N2Growth.

And that means branching out beyond Jim Collins and Steve Jobs. “Keeping up with industry reading and current business thinking is important, but so is developing the depth and breadth of your personal knowledge base,” Myatt says. A great way to do that is to read history and science books, as well as classic literature, he notes.

John Hoey, president and CEO of the Y in Central Maryland, has thoroughly embraced that approach: “I tend not to read the traditional leadership books. … I tend to focus my reading more on biography, history and fiction.”

The busy schedule of a CEO notwithstanding, Hoey says he makes time to read each day. “For me, it’s like breathing. … I read every night before I go to bed, and it’s very important to me. I feel like if I don’t do that, something is lost for me.”

So how does the reading habit help him lead? “It helps me in terms of my thought processes, making mental connections on things.”

One book whose leadership lessons have stuck with Hoey is Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, which was made up of people who had been political opponents in the past.

“In terms of its relevance to anybody who tries to lead an organization and lead a group of people, it’s a fascinating book,” Hoey says.

For Hoey, one of the lessons Team of Rivals conveys is that CEOs shouldn’t be afraid to surround themselves with people whose skills sets and perspectives are different from their own. “We have to be unafraid to look in places that most people wouldn’t look at. Lincoln wasn’t afraid to look at the other party, or people who were trying to beat his brains out politically.”

Another lesson lies in the leadership personality of Lincoln himself. “He was under enormous stress, yet he was able to navigate all of that by being comfortable with who he was, by making decisions on his own time and in his own way. He wasn’t trying to be something he wasn’t.”

Leadership as social work

Other CEOs draw their literary leadership inspiration from previous careers. Laura MacLeod, founder of From The Inside Out Project in New York City, helps companies resolve conflicts and communication problems.

But in addition to leading a company, MacLeod is a licensed social worker. To this day, for leadership lessons, she refers to a book she first read as a graduate student, Skills For Direct Practice In Social Work by Ruth R. Middleman and Gale Goldberg Wood.

“Any kind of leadership involves leading a group, whether it’s a training or any kind of meeting,” MacLeod says. “So this book has great skill information; it’s very specific for things that can occur in any group. For example, what do you do when someone is monopolizing? How do you get them to step back a bit and let someone else get in the game?”

Like Hoey, MacLeod embraces reading frequently and widely as an essential part of leadership. “I read a variety of things that may seem like they’re not directly connected to leadership. … To me, it’s a way to find new ideas.”

Leader and servant

Of course, all this doesn’t mean there is nothing to be gained from picking up a leadership book every once in a while.

“The very first book that got me started in management when I was very young was The Power of Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf,” says Paula Welsh, president and CEO of Dumfries, Va.-based online jewelry store 7 Charming Sisters. Servant leadership taught Welsh the importance of “being very aware and knowledgeable about the needs of others, and putting those needs first.”

At Welsh’s company, the lessons of servant leadership have translated into everything from baby showers (“Even for the guys,” Welsh says) to retreats at Disney World or a weekend Welsh spent driving to bring home an employee who had broken his back.

Servant leadership has also meant ensuring that all employees get something at the end of the year that is just for them, she says. “A bonus check is great, but for many people, that’s going to savings, children’s Christmas presents and bills.” So in addition to a bonus, employees receive something they might not buy for themselves, such as a designer bag.

“The goal,” Welsh says, “is to show your staff appreciation and empathy.”

The Books: At A Glance

MLKWhy We Can’t Wait

Martin Luther King Jr.

Signet Classics

Why We Can’t Wait constitutes King’s account of and rationale for the civil rights movement, specifically the nonviolent campaign in Birmingham, AL. King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail forms the core of the book.


Team of RivalsTeam of Rivals

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster

This non-fiction history traces Abraham Lincoln’s unlikely ascent to the presidency over several better-known rivals. It also discusses Lincoln’s cabinet, which brought together political opponents to harness their diverse talents and knowledge.


Skills For Direct Practice In Social WorkSkills For Direct Practice In Social Work

Ruth R. Middleman and Gale Goldberg Wood

Columbia University Press

This social-work textbook examines the fundamental skills needed to effectively deal with both individuals and groups. Each skill is illustrated by short vignettes.


The Power of Servant LeadershipThe Power of Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf

Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Former AT&T executive Greenleaf illustrates the benefits of a leadership approach that is based on serving others first. The Power of Servant Leadership is a collection of eight essays by Greenleaf.