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on Leading the Next Generation


LeaderTip #5: How to Read a Book

By this time of spring, most schools have selected their student government, resident advisors, club leaders, and peer mentors for next school year. My big question is—could they use some help getting ready?

At Growing Leaders, we’ve decided to post a helpful article each week continuing through the summer on our blog page, geared especially for student leaders. You can expect it on Fridays. They’ll contain practical tips for leading meetings, communicating a vision, choosing priorities, dealing with difficult peers, bossing your calendar, effective planning and more. You can find today’s tip below. If you like it, it’s our gift to you and your students. Feel free to copy it for each of your student leaders as a discussion guide that will equip them to be more healthy leaders. Also, click on “Free Resources” to view and download the growing library of Leader Tips on a special page of our site. This is a page just for young leaders to practice great leadership. Feel free to have your students look for it, all summer as they anticipate leading this fall. Enjoy.


How to Read a Book

Almost everywhere we go, people ask the question: how do you read so many books? Where do you find the time? And…just how do you read a book? Do you read it from cover to cover?  The fact is, this question stems from the belief that leaders are readers. By and large, if you plan to be a lasting leader—you must continue to grow. It’s the only way to stay in front and provide fresh ideas and direction. In 1987, while I was finishing my Masters degree, a faculty member shared with me how he reads a book and saves time. I began using his ideas and later formed my own steps. Below is a list of tips about how I read a non-fiction book.

1. Choose books based on your target growth areas. Don’t be random; I don’t read everything that comes out. Know how you want to feed your mind and heart. Each January, I take a day to completely get away and decide what my plan for personal growth is; then I choose books that are suitable to be part of that plan. For a place to start go to:

2. Commit to reading a set number of pages per day. I do twenty pages a day, five days a week, which allows me to read at least two books a month. Our team is using the App: irunurun. It allows us to hold each other accountable for our growth, our reading, our health, our work, etc. My entire team knows if I have failed to reach my reading goal.

3. I begin with the author’s bio. I always read the inside flap or I Google to find out the background of the author. This will inform me about their perspective and their heart and their intent on writing the book. Each book flows from the author’s character and since you’ll be spending some time with her or him—it’s good to know them.

4. Read for speed at first. When starting a book, read the front matter thoroughly—the introduction, preface, foreword, table of contents. Once you are very familiar with the author’s thinking, read the first two and the last two pages of each chapter. Authors almost always get their idea across and summarize it in these pages. This way, you will have received the big ideas of the book. 

5. Review the chapters that were most relevant for you. Once you grab the big idea, go back and fully digest the great chapters and mark them up. Identify your favorite stories, quotes, statistics and facts. The criteria should be: useable, helpful, relevant and fitting to your mission. Don’t feel guilty about not reading every word of each chapter.

6. Record the great stories, quotes, stats and facts you pulled out. You can record them electronically on Evernote. This is a program we use at Growing Leaders to file helpful information. Or, if the material is in a hard copy of a book or magazine, file them in a cabinet. All information should be titled (you may use more than one title and file it in more than one place).

7. I write notes in the front cover. As I glean good stuff from the pages, I write them in the front and back inside cover of the book.  For instance, I will write: “Story of Zappos CEO working for Happiness, page 73.”  This way, I can easily find great quotes, points or stories later as I need them. It saves me hours of search time.

8. I use note-taking symbols. I have made up a set of note-taking symbols I can use to save space and time when I write down my own thoughts in the margins. I will use stars, triangles, dots, question marks, or even a ballot box if the content requires a decision or action. 

9. To ensure you retain the information—share it with others. I have found the more I talk about the ideas in a book, the more I am able to keep them in my own mind. It’s one of life’s paradoxes: give the idea away and you keep it yourself. Our Growing Leaders team has a book club, where team members take turns sharing brief reports on what they’ve read the last month. It’s inspiring. 

10.  I review the book and transfer information or “to do” items to my agenda. I have found great books are full of ways for me to change the way I live, lead and communicate.  So, I will transfer the great stuff (action items) to my “to do” list or to a piece I am writing. If I use it for a lesson or talk, this makes it easy to attribute the author for his/her content.

Questions for Reflection

a. Do you practice any of these steps as you read? 

b. What system do you use to read articles, web pages, and other digital content? 

c. How do you keep and pass on to others what you’ve read and learned?

d. What other action steps do you take as you consume information?


  1. Kaye on May 10, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Great article, Tim. I have been doing the notations inside the covers of my books for a lot of years and now my husband has adopted the habit as well. Some of these tips sound very helpful. It is good to be reminded that I don’t have to read every word. I have been trying that – even though it’s tough to break the compulsion – but hey, it’s better than running out of time and not finishing the book!

  2. Cameron Watford on May 10, 2013 at 8:31 am

    The link for the good reads in step 1 is broken.

  3. Paul Jolicoeur on May 10, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Great list Tim, I do use a few of these on the list. I always choose books based on areas I have set personal goals in for the year. I almost always only read book by recommendation. There are way too many books out there, so I read book that are recommended by those I trust or look up to.

    For example this year, I wanted to challenge myself in how I communicate with an audience on state. So I went to Michael Hyatt and looked at his reading list for that subject.

  4. Juan Carlos García Rex on May 10, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Best article! Thanks

  5. SM on May 10, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Hey Tim, great stuff. Have you heard of digital books:-)? Amazon will gladly archive all the quotes and notes for you on their web site forever so you can readily get the good stuff without having to copy or type it. Just sayin…

  6. Pat Walker on July 5, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    There is actually a great summary of how to read a book here:

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LeaderTip #5: How to Read a Book