You can’t lead if you don’t read. That was the central message of a recent episode of DAU’s Think Differently episode titled “Leaders Never Stop Learning.”
DAU Vice President Frank Kelley hosted the episode and invited three guest speakers to share their thoughts on the importance of lifelong learning through books.
The first was Navy veteran John Laney, who explained that he had always seen learning as a means to an end until he was asked by superior what he was reading.
“It was very clear I didn’t have a good answer!” he said. “So a week later I downloaded some books and—holy cow! There was a lot of good information in those books. It was a total realization at 38 years old.”
That epiphany led him to found DoD Reads, a website dedicated to providing content to lifelong learners.
“I thought, there’s probably another Ensign Laney out there,” he said. “And if I can help individuals learn earlier in their career than I did what you can learn by being a lifelong learner, hopefully I can help their career.”
Ryan Evans, the second guest speaker, said he “grew up with a voracious appetite for reading,” thanks in part to parents who encouraged reading early on. As the founder and CEO of War on the Rocks and the publisher of the Texas National Security Review, he offered his recommendation that young learners begin by specializing in one particular topic of interest rather than reading anything and everything.
“It’s important to start by mastering a more discrete topic or issue, whether geographic or functional. Understanding what it’s like to dig deeply is important to becoming a generalist down the road,” Evans said. “Find mentors, go to those places, read about their culture, and learn their language. Then you can start looking at the next brick over on the wall, a related topic. See where that process of intellectual curiosity takes you.”
The final guest speaker was Michael Kanaan, the first chairperson of artificial intelligence for the U.S. Air Force, Headquarters Pentagon, and the author of T-Minus AI. A TEDxDAU speaker in 2019, Kanaan said that “dedicated time for literature does matter,” and he listed several books that had influenced him over the course of his career. These included Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Stephen Hawking's The Universe in a Nutshell, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, among others.
Kanaan also cited the importance of “candid dialogue,” which books can lead to, but cautioned that “for a dialogue to be meaningful we have to have a common understanding.” As an example, he pointed to artificial intelligence and the “misperceptions and misgivings” that surround it.
“The differences occur not because of some complex technological issue,” he said, “but because…we too-frequently speak below, above, around, and past each other—especially when we don’t have a shared set of experiences or common understanding.”
The episode closed with all three speakers encouraging listeners to embrace books as a way to see the world from other perspectives, particularly during this time of unprecedented social tumult.
“It’s not the time to stop reading an alternative point of view—caring is crucial,” Kanaan said. “If we’re not voracious readers, and we’re not hearing the other side, then we’re not being whole people.”
Laney agreed, describing a successful lifelong learner as “somebody who has a growth mindset and is able to take in new information—whether it confirms or contradicts their belief.” He added that leaders had “an obligation to our fellow man to help them see we’re not living in a binary world,” and that conflicting perspectives are not wrong but rather a “different way to look at the same problem.”
As for those who have yet to make the leap into lifelong learning, Evans had some parting advice for his fellow leaders.
“Be available in a non-judgmental way and hope they come around,” he said. “Be an example and encourage people.”
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