The suggested readings in the second installment of the "Leaders Are Readers" series examine the relationship between health and leadership, the value of intuition, the benefits of systems thinking, and the role authentic purpose plays in motivating teams and moving organizations forward.
Recently, my love for leadership and learning has taken me to exciting places. During a family trip, I was reminded of the importance of getting away to rejuvenate and process all the information I take in each day. At the EDUCAUSE Cybersecurity and Privacy Professionals Conference, I was reminded of the power of a simple conversation. Along the way, I got in some great reading. A few of the things I read expanded beyond traditional leadership literature, while others focused directly on the subject.
If you're reading the "Leaders Are Readers" series for the first time, this is the second installment. Since the first article includes background on the series (the "why"), I'll get straight to the substance.
Here are four readings worth exploring, along with the ideas I took and lessons I learned from each. Whether these readings are new or familiar to you, your takeaways may differ from mine. In fact, I'm sure they will. I hope you can build on the lessons I learned and discover your own insights.
Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity
By Peter Attia with Bill Gifford
In the book Outlive, Peter Attia asserts that physical and mental health are integral to thriving as a human, regardless of whether you are a leader.Footnote1 I believe the relationship between quality health and effective leadership is undeniable.
Dismissing personal health in the name of service is easy to do. Nod along if you've encountered these thoughts (or ones like them): "I don't have time to exercise; too many people rely on me to complete tasks," or "I'll prioritize my health later. Right now, my focus is on my team and giving them my best." At first glance, such statements may sound admirable. However, they overlook a fundamental principle: You are the leader. Your physical and mental health carry your leadership potential. Without your well-being, you cannot thrive as a leader.
Attia emphasizes that personal decisions about movement, nutritional biochemistry, emotional well-being, and sleep are the primary determinants of how long a person can live and lead well. Genetics and environment are certainly factors, but nothing weighs heavier on people's health than their own daily decisions.
I'm a health and fitness nerd, so I love this book. It's long, but every sentence has a purpose. Attia uses refreshingly clear terms and practical reasoning to begin his discussion of the four horsemen of morbidity: heart disease, type 2 diabetes and related metabolic dysfunction, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. He dispels myths with pinpoint research and gives readers a better understanding of these four issues so they can take ownership of their health. For example, dietary cholesterol is not directly correlated with blood cholesterol (except in rabbits), and brain health, often thought to be genetic or random, is strongly correlated with baseline physical strength.Footnote2 Attia then gets to the sweet spot, recommending people implement practical solutions to problems before they become problems. Modern medicine takes a reactive approach to most health concerns, and often it can be too late to solve the problem. Attia advocates for a proactive "Medicine 3.0" approach that incorporates exercise, nutritional biochemistry (what you eat), and a focus on recovery and mental health.
I don't want to define what "healthy" means for anyone. It can be different for different people. However, I am passionate about taking my health into my own hands. Outlive is a fantastic place to dive into a logical, clear, and actionable approach to perhaps the most important component of life. After all, we only get one body to carry us through this world, so we must take care of it.
Bonus recommendation: For those who are interested in health, longevity, and movement, I also recommend Built to Move: The 10 Essential Habits to Help You Move Freely and Live Fully by Kelly and Juliet Starrett, two of my favorite movement thinkers. People who work all day at a desk need this book, which compliments Attia's work perfectly.
Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World
By Wade Davis
Wade Davis is a famed anthropologist and explorer. His studies have taken him across the globe, and his most interesting experiences involve living among native communities as a botanist and learning about the plant life of various regions and how humans have used these plants since antiquity.
His book, Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World, is not a leadership book, but it can be if it is viewed from a certain perspective. My favorite leadership lesson from this book came from Davis' description of Polynesian navigators. These people crossed the oceans on nimble, open-decked catamarans ten centuries before Julius Caesar ruled in Rome. A navigator was chosen from birth and trained in every aspect of the water, sky, animals, and winds. As Davis wrote, "It was the impossibility of keeping track over a long voyage of every shift in speed, current, and bearing that kept European sailors hugging the coastline . . . . But this is precisely what the Polynesians managed to do, and all without benefit of the written word."Footnote3 Navigators could sense land far before it could be seen by noting the subtlest shifts in tide and current. They could maintain a map of the stars in their mind throughout a months-long journey.
The navigators were masters of their craft and of intuition.
The modern world has put the brakes on intuition and a person's ability to sense and trust it. Individually, people have dampened their intuition with medicines and other substances, busyness, or information overload. Collectively, leaders have crushed it in terms of creating processes, systems, and red tape. Leadership, though, still relies on some sense of intuition. Hiring the "right" person, making the "right" decision, and responding in the "right" way all require intuition. Of course, these things should be vetted for equity and sound reasoning, but intuition and knowledge aren't either/or. Leaders need the intuition to sense the land nearing or the waves changing just as much as they need systems for communicating with the captain, packing the boat, and changing the sails.
Today's AI-enabled and information-rich world has lured people into a trap. In a version of the Dunning-Kruger effect, many leaders have convinced themselves that modernity is a measure of wisdom.Footnote4 Davis explains that this assumption is wrong. When the riches of modernity are stripped away, leaders have much to learn and explore.
Davis was recently interviewed by technology investor and advisor Tim Ferriss. During their conversation, Davis expanded on one of my all-time favorite quotes: "Pessimism is an indulgence."Footnote5 Check it out if you are interested in learning more.
"Tackling Systemic and Structural Inequities in Higher Ed IT: A Primer on Beginnings"
By Sha-shonda Porter, John Wang, and Shannon Dunn
During my graduate studies, I stumbled upon Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.Footnote6 It was a true Baader-Meinhof moment; once I learned the patterns of systems thinking, I saw them everywhere! I have long perceived that conversations about equity in higher education lack a systems perspective, so when I saw this article by Sha-shonda Porter, John Wang, and Shannon Dunn, my interest was instantly piqued.Footnote7
It did not disappoint.
The authors note that they can't holistically address systemic inequity in the limited space of a single article. No one could. However, I appreciated their practical approach to defining terms that are often undefined or interpreted differently. They explained systemic inequity clearly and offered steps to take action, build accountability, and confront systems head-on.
What excites me the most about this article is that it was written at all. Systems thinking is far more complex and has more components than systemic thinking. It is the equivalent of understanding how an ecosystem thrives versus how to plant a tree. Deeper knowledge and a clearer vision are required. For leaders to explore the complexity of systemic inequity in such a short article is fantastic. Find ten minutes, and dive in!
The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose
By Zach Mercurio
You are not the primary leader of your team or organization. No one is. Questions?
In The Invisible Leader, Zach Mercurio argues that the real driver of any organization is authentic purpose.Footnote8 Authentic purpose is the reason teams come to work every day. It encapsulates why organizations exist and who they serve. The purpose can live without specific people and be carried forward over time as team members come and go, but people can't thrive without purpose.
The problem is that many people and organizations have never articulated the authentic purpose that drives them. I know from experience how disorienting that can be. People and teams need a clear purpose to make decisions, collaborate well, and create powerful businesses. "When we put authentic purpose at the core of our lives and organizations," Mercurio writes, "we lead with freedom, allowing people to be pulled together by a common reason for existence."Footnote9 As a leader, carrying the burden of bringing people together can be tempting, but with real purpose, people are pulled together by something more powerful.
Throughout The Invisible Leader, Mercurio poses questions to awaken and align purpose, discusses the power of a strong purpose, and offers practical ways to ensure people feel that they are valued and meaningful members of an organization. If that isn't leadership, I don't know what is.
Mercurio is one of my favorite thinkers when it comes to leadership as a component of humanity. Many leadership books provide ideas about how to lead yet seem to forget that leading is a human-centered endeavor. Leadership is often measured with material outcomes—bottom line profit, widgets sold, clients signed—but those outcomes are feeble and fleeting. The best leaders and organizations place human purpose at the center of their approach, and Mercurio provides leaders with the tools to do just that.
As summer blooms here in Colorado, life flourishes all around. Active animals, radiant sunshine, and blooming wildflowers trigger in me a sort of reawakening as a leader. I feel hope and rejuvenation during this time of year. I hope the same is true for all of the leaders out there.
Being a leader is a formidable task and a profound calling. It is no coincidence that the United States presidency is often described as the most glorious burden. However, when learning becomes the core of a leader's approach, leadership becomes not only attainable but also immensely purposeful. I hope those who have journeyed this far have found value and insights in at least one of the readings I have shared.
Be curious. Be well.
- Peter Attia, Outlive (New York: Harmony Books, 2023). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Ibid., 118; Ibid., 201. In one study of nearly half a million people in the United Kingdom, grip strength as a proxy for overall strength was strongly and inversely associated with onset of dementia. "People in the lowest quartile of grip strength (i.e., weakest) had a 72 percent higher incidence of dementia." Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Canada: Anansi Press, 2009), 61. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- "Why Can We Not Perceive Our Own Abilities? The Dunning-Kruger Effect Explained," Resources, The Decision Lab (website), accessed May 17, 2023. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- "Famed Explorer Wade Davis — How to Become the Architect of Your Life, The Divine Leaf of Immortality, Rites of Passage, Voodoo Demystified, Optimism as the Purpose of Life, How to Be a Prolific Writer, Psychedelics, Monetizing the Creativity of Your Life, and More," January 27, 2023, in The Tim Ferriss Show, podcast, 2:34:28. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 2006). Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Sha-shonda Porter, John Wang, and Shannon Dunn, "Tackling Systemic and Structural Inequities in Higher Ed IT: A Primer on Beginnings," EDUCAUSE Review, April 9, 2023. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Author's note: I have known Zach personally for years and have followed his work just as long. However, I found myself revisiting his book recently as I worked to align my own authentic purpose with work and other aspects of life. It was incredibly helpful. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
- Zach Mercurio, The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose (Charleston: Advantage, 2017). Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
Ryan MacTaggart is Associate Director, Professional Learning, at EDUCAUSE.
© 2023 Ryan MacTaggart. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.