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My favorite college professor once said something that has always stuck with me, “great leaders are among the greatest of writers.”
I never understood or appreciated what that meant until I began writing consistently on my own. In doing so, I studied other great writers and their influences, habits, and philosophies. Eventually, I stumbled upon Winston Churchill’s long list of writings, for which he received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Which led me to Theodore Roosevelt’s impressive bibliography, Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and more. Barack Obama arguably propelled himself into the White House with the popularity of his writing. Abraham Lincoln was known for writing his own speeches (and if you’ve never read one of his speeches, start with this one.)
Following the leader-writer rabbit hole is fun and highly recommended, but the lesson here is simple. Not all writers lead. But all great leaders write. By writing frequently and deeply, not only will you become a better writer, but it will translate into sharper thinking and persuasive speech, resulting in more effective leadership.
But let’s dig a little deeper. There’s much more nuance to leading well than simply thinking better and speaking better. The question is not whether, but why writing makes you a better leader. In my experiences, I’ve narrowed it down to what I call “the three C’s,” which have aided beyond measure my writing, and by osmosis, my leadership.
Pictures might be worth a thousand words because they compress an array of ideas, emotions, colors, and beliefs all in a single visual fixation. Great leaders are like great painters. Concise, coherent, and compelling (three more C’s), they paint a picture with their words that makes it easy for us to follow them. Abraham Lincoln made concerted efforts to be concise in his writing. His Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches in history, was just 272 words. His Emancipation Proclamation, just 719 words—a three-minute read. His second inaugural address, 703 words. His ability to be succinct in his thoughts gave his words life, power, and influence. To this day, Lincoln’s greatest speeches aren’t just evoked in the abstract, but also have the distinct ability to be recited verbatim. His writing is arguably what made him one of the greatest American presidents, and one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.
Self-awareness is key in effective leadership. Writing down your thoughts allows you to freeze them in time. The human mind has a wicked way of twisting and turning thoughts into unrecognizable stories. Capturing them on paper allows you track your thought processes through time. Your ability to compare your different states of mind and edit your thinking will improve your decision-making capabilities manifold. The more aware you are of the evolution of your thoughts, the better you’ll be able to govern yourself.
Many people who keep their writing private benefit from compression and cognizance. Many never publish their work because they are afraid of what the public will think. But doing the uncomfortable thing is what cultivates courage. As a great leader, it’s not enough to write. You must write publicly. Leaders stand for what they believe in. Doing so takes courage, and it takes decisiveness. Writing in public is the training ground.
Leading without writing is like trying to construct a building without scaffolding. It’s possible, but it’s much more difficult without a structure to support you. You may not look at yourself as a writer, but if you intend to lead people and lead well, then writing must serve as your scaffolding.
Not all writers lead. But all great leaders write.
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