I’ve come to the conclusion that Sir Francis Bacon may well have been on to something here. In the late sixteenth century he inadvertently defined what the three key qualities of a really good leader are.
I first came across them in the US Library of Congress several years ago, on a bookmark no less in the souvenir shop. Taken from an essay called ‘Of Studies’, the philosopher and former Lord Chancellor said this:
“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
There is so much to behold in this, a single sentence of only 14 words. Not only does it nail to the mast the importance of reading, talking and writing, but also that if you do them well, you are likely to achieve a greater sense of fullness, readiness and precision (or ‘exactness’, to be exact).
All six of these merit worthy discussion, as they are as relevant in life as they are at work. For the sake of this post though, it boils down to the three: Read. Talk. Write. It may sound like a nod to Ross McGill’s next book, but as mantras go, it’s up there with the finest.
I wonder how many of these you do on a daily basis? Probably all of them. I suspect you talk an awful lot and I can’t really see how it’s possible to get through a day without doing so. I remember once as a teacher attempting to teach my class for an entire day minus a voice (laryngitis), using only written signs, hand gestures and expressions. It didn’t work, although I’ve never known a class so quiet and well-behaved. As teachers, our voice is often our greatest asset and so it’s something we are skilled and confident at using.
I’m sure also that you read lots, even though you probably never actually sit down and ‘read’. If like me, you spend far too much time hunched over a screen reading through emails or glancing at social media feeds, you probably read a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Then there are the policy documents, reports, evaluations, statutory guidance documents etc. In a single day you probably read thousands of words, equivalent to a chapter or two of a novel. You are of course currently reading this, so that’s just over another 1200 words consumed in one hit.
And what about writing? Again, I bet you write loads. In a single week I must knock out close to an entire novella*, although granted, far too much of it is taken up by emails, reports, blogs, tweets, DMs etc. In his memoir, ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King writes that, as with physical exercise, we should set a daily writing goal. He suggests we aim low to start with and that it should be at least a thousand words a day (about a side-and-a-half of A4, typed).
Now, I know only too well that when I was a teacher I would not have had the time, desire or energy to do this, so I understand that for some of you this is unrealistic. So if you do have a class, don’t worry about this bit too much. However, if you do find yourself with some spare time, use it wisely by reading Mark. Plan. Teach. instead.
For now then, let’s just indulge ourselves with one of the three, the one you use the most: Talk. I know I’m taking liberties here slightly, because strictly speaking Sir Francis refers to it as ‘conference’. But it means the same thing in essence. A quick dash to the dictionary and I’m reminded that ‘to confer’ requires an exchange of ideas resulting in some kind of discussion taking place. The irony of course is that this tends to be the last thing that happens at a conference.
To confer with a colleague therefore means that you need to talk with them as opposed to at them. In Latin, ‘confer’ literally means ‘to bring together’. All the best leaders are highly skilled at doing this, even with those colleagues that are the hardest to reach. In fact, talk is the only meaningful way to engage with such people. Sticking with the US Congress theme, it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” I’m sure he didn’t mean by sending him an email.
If of course, as a leader, when talking with someone you intend to engage with the person then the ability to listen with intent is as equally important. It also requires plenty of integrity and openness and the willingness to genuinely understand. Steve Radcliffe, in his brilliant book Leadership Plain and Simple, unpacks this perfectly in his Future-Engage-Deliver model:
“Engagement is central to a leader’s ability to build alignment, involvement, ownership, unity and team. Crucially, it is absolutely distinct from ‘communicating to’, ‘presenting at’, or ‘telling.”
To assume that because you’ve told someone something, or sent them an email, or sat them down in front of a PowerPoint, that they will immediately jump up with glee and merrily go about their business implementing it, is a mistake that many of us I’m sure have made in the past. I’ve certainly done this – and quite possibly still do – especially when bringing new sponsored schools into the trust where one assumes engagement is taken as read.
I am always very mindful that it’s less about what you say and everything to do with how you say it. If you get this bit right – day-in, day-out – the results can be spectacular. Or as Radcliffe puts it: ‘What’s possible for a group or organisation when people are really engaged can be immense.’
In Radcliffe’s book he defines a leader as being someone ‘who is up to something‘. There are few definitions of leadership better than this, for if you are not up to something then you cannot possibly be in a position to engage meaningfully with someone.
The next time you really want to talk to someone in a meaningful way try asking them what they’re up to. If you are in the presence of a true leader, you will invariably see their eyes light up, as if to say, ‘Sit down. I thought you’d never ask‘. So you find yourself sitting down with them and sharing what you’ve both been up to and before you know it, the engagement leaves an indelible mark on you both and something happens. The best leaders know that it is the artful synergy and alignment of these ‘things that happen’ that create deep-rooted systemic change. All from a single conference.
Read, talk, write. As tempted as I am to call these my new year resolutions, I’m going to resist. This is because it would be wrong of me to revisit them only once a year for the first few weeks of January, only to have forgotten about them entirely by time the clocks change. These three simple behaviours need to remain my mantra at all times, something that I try to work hard at developing every day, providing of course they are rooted in quality. Having it emblazoned on my bookmark helps me no end, so long as I remember to read.
*’A short and well-structured narrative, often realistic and satiric in tone’, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. A novella can consist of as few as 7,000 words.