At 99 years old, Henry Kissinger is not only still alive, but actively writing books.  He served in the Nixon and Ford administrations.  He’s been around the block a few times with many other US presidents too.  In his long life, he’s interacted with some of the twentieth-century’s most well-known politicians.  In his new book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, he distills lessons from the lives of Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, and a figure I’m quite intrigued by:  Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

The last chapter masterfully brings it all together. Kissinger notes what all these great leaders had in common.  He also bemoans the fact that today’s world isn’t likely to produce leaders of their calibre.

One of the obstacles, according to Kissinger, is our technological environment.  He writes:

The contemporary world is in the midst of a transformation in human consciousness so pervasive as to be nearly unnoticeable.  This change – driven by new technologies which mediate our experience of the world and our acquisition of information – has developed largely without understanding of its long-term effects, including its implications for leadership.  Under these conditions, reading a complex book carefully, and engaging with it critically, has become as counter-cultural an act as was memorizing an epic poem in the earlier print-based age. (p.405)

Kissinger notes that there are gains and losses associated every new technology.  Usually the gains are easily noticed.  The losses not so much. 

One of the losses he identifies is “deep literacy.”  That’s a term Kissinger has borrowed from Adam Garfinkle.  Deep literacy involves “[engaging with] an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning.”  The six leaders described in this book came of age in a time when deep literacy was the “background radiation.”  Consequently, they possessed the associated qualities of erudition, learnedness, and serious thinking.

Why should leaders prioritize this type of reading?  Kissinger explains:

To the politically concerned, deep literacy supplies the quality Max Weber called ‘proportion,’ or ‘the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure.’  Intense reading can help leaders cultivate the mental distance from external stimuli and personalities that sustains a sense of proportion.  When combined with reflection and the training of memory, it also provides a storehouse of detailed and granular knowledge from which leaders can reason analogically.  More profoundly, books offer a reality that is reasonable, sequential and orderly – a reality that can be mastered, or at least managed, by reflection and planning.  And perhaps most importantly for leadership, reading creates a ‘skein of intergenerational conversation,’ encouraging learning with a sense of perspective.  Finally, reading is a source of inspiration.  Books record the deeds of leaders who once dared greatly, as well as those who dared too much, as a warning. (pp.405-406)

You may want to read that paragraph again.  It brilliantly captures the importance of reading, not only for political leaders, but church leaders too.  Everything he says is applicable to the reading of a pastor, elder, or deacon. 

Church leaders need a sense of proportion or perspective.  Reading deeply provides it.  We have to learn to reason analogically – we read about something that happened in those circumstances, so maybe I should try something like that in this circumstance (or not).  Intensely reading good works of theology will present you with reality that’s well-reasoned, orderly, and sequential.  When Christians engage works of the past, they come into contact with the concerns of previous generations and how they came to terms with them.  And yes, reading is definitely a source of inspiration for Christian leaders too.

As Albert Mohler and others have pointed out, “leaders are readers.”  Kissinger takes us one step further:  leaders are deep readers, intense readers.