Leadership is an art and science

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Major Kort Koser Official photo

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – When I came into the Air Force, I had amassed 160 semester hours of college credit. Of the 160 hours, only three were in humanities and arts. The majority of my time in college was spent focused on what now is called STEM, science, technology, engineering and math. It took a mentor to set me on the path of life-long learning and professional reading.

My mentor recognized immediately that I was in need of a professional reading list that was balanced with biographies, non-fiction, fiction, political affairs, sports as well as literary classics. He recognized that a STEM-heavy background is best complemented with art and humanities. This made me think about the joke: “How do you tell if an engineer is an extrovert? The extroverted engineer will stare at your shoes versus their own shoes.”

Joking aside, the leaders of the next industrial-technological revolution are those who will have expertise in seemingly unconnected knowledge domains of STEM and humanities. This is a difficult balance to achieve, but I have seen great success in my career with teams that have diversity of thought and background. Professional reading is a great way to encourage diversity of thought in your teams.  

I try to read 20 books a year, with the operative word being “try.” One of the ways I attempt this annual goal is by listening to audiobooks on my commute. I am blessed to live only 15 minutes from my workplace. A normal work week yields two and a half hours of listening time, which goes a long way to getting after a reading list if your schedule is tight. The Air Force Digital Media Program is my go-to source for audiobooks as it is free to active-duty military personnel and has a good selection. I have also used LibriVox, which has around 12,000 public domain audiobooks, mostly classics, free for download. Others have had success with listening to audiobooks while running, walking or performing other cardio activities. I’ve even tried listening to audiobooks on family trips. The challenges have been finding a book that everyone can enjoy and one that is age-appropriate for my son. Challenges aside, I think road trip audio books are now a family tradition.

Creating a professional reading list isn’t rocket science. A good starting place is to ask your supervisor, mentor or senior leader which books have influenced them or changed their thinking.  Additionally, the Army and Air Force Chiefs of Staff have published professional reading lists in the past that are chocked full of insightful options. Just like most things in life, too much of one thing can be bad for your health. Binging on one category of books will lead to burn out and abandoned books. Instead, a well-balanced reading list will challenge your view points, your thought processes and even your leadership skills.      

I am thankful that a mentor changed my life with suggesting a professional reading list. I try to pay it forward by passing on books I have finished to team members in my life.