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Steve Jobs, Apple's founder, was a fan of William Blake, the English poet and painter. Justin Sullivan / AFP
Steve Jobs, Apple's founder, was a fan of William Blake, the English poet and painter. Justin Sullivan / AFP

Take it as read: a rich literary life pays in all kinds of ways

Although Manar Al Hinai's friends' hobbies vary from painting to writing music, barely any of them have a passion for reading like she does. Their excuse is the lack of time. Unfortunately, they do not know what they are missing and how it can help develop their leadership skills.

Although my friends' hobbies vary from painting to writing music, barely any of them have a passion for reading like I do.

Their excuse is lack of time. Unfortunately, they do not know what they are missing and how reading can help to develop their leadership skills.

Even as global literacy rates are high - at 84 per cent, according to a Unesco report last year - people are reading less and less deeply. While literacy may have been improving in developing countries such as China, that may not translate into deep reading. Many read simply because they have to, whether for school or because it is part of their job.

On the other hand, developed countries such as the United States face a completely contrasting situation. According to the American National Endowment for the Arts, less than half of the adult population reads literature.

This is bad news for future business leadership as broad reading habits are defining characteristics of great business leaders and often trigger and catalyse inspiration, innovation and empathy.

Just note how many business tycoons have been or are devoted readers. Phil Knight, the Nike founder, treasures his library. And Steve Jobs, Apple's founder, was a fan of William Blake, the English poet and painter.

Political leaders were also writers. Winston Churchill won his Nobel prize for literature, not peace. I could go on and on about business leaders who believe that deep, broad reading inspires them and aids them in developing skills to improve their organisations.

How does leadership benefit from reading? More than you can imagine. Reading increases verbal intelligence, making a leader a more articulate and knowledgeable speaker. Reading novels by international authors helps to develop empathy and understanding of various cultural cues, in turn developing emotional intelligence. Leaders who have high emotional intelligence and understanding of others will continuously improve their leadership and managerial skills.

Developing a deep interest in literature is also great for one's health, especially among those who are often stressed by their jobs. Studies by the University of Sussex found six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68 per cent - faster than other stress-relieving activities such as listening to music or walking. Other studies suggest active reading extends the longevity of memory and even repels Alzheimer's disease.

There are different ways to develop a broad literary life for those who are interested:

If you have trouble managing time, join a book club and commit to its schedule. My sister and her friends formed a reading group and meet once a month to discuss books from best-selling novels to historical volumes.

A key point to remember is that reading alone is not enough, as varying your reading topics is just as important. If you work in sales and often read books about that topic, then step out of your comfort zone and set a goal this year to read two or more different books in different areas, such as a biography, a work of classical literature, or history.

Another way to encourage yourself to read is to apply what you read to your job. Are you struggling in the human resources department? Pick up a book on people management or psychology and see what you can apply to your job.

Encourage colleagues to read and share knowledge. After reading a book, my sister and I often exchange it and indulge in a discussion about it.

In a similar approach and to encourage knowledge-sharing, the organisation I work for is in the process of putting up a shelving unit for employees to dedicate books to colleagues who might benefit from them. And, to me, knowledge is the greatest gift anyone can receive.

Reading is an essential component for leadership development but unfortunately it is underappreciated.

The good news, though, is it is never too late to start.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati fashion designer and writer. Follow her on Twitter: @manar_alhinai

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