Long before he joined Microsoft and decades before he became its CEO, Satya Nadella was passionate about two things--cricket and books.

Nadella shares a habit with Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates. Both leaders are voracious readers who apply what they learn to propel their organizations into the future. Although Nadella is largely credited for leading Microsoft's transition from a Windows-centric company to a cloud-first company, his reading habit is the fuel behind his success.

"For as long as I can remember, I've always had a hunger to learn--whether it be from a line of poetry, from a conversation with a friend, or a lesson from a teacher," Nadella writes in his book, Hit Refresh.

Nadella cites several books that shaped his leadership, but two in particular form the foundation of the changes he implemented at Microsoft upon being named as CEO in 2014.

The Smokejumper Who Failed to Build Trust

In business school, Nadella had read Young Men and Fire. The book tells the story of a 1949 tragedy when thirteen 'smokejumpers' (parachuting firefighters) who lost their lives in a forest fire. The book provides a lesson in the need to build trust and credibility with your team.

According to Nadella, the lead firefighter knew that he had to build a small fire to escape the bigger one. "But no one followed him. He had the skills to get his men out of harm's way, but he hadn't built the shared context needed to make his leadership effective. His team paid the ultimate price," Nadella writes. "I was determined not to make the same mistake."

Nadella saw himself as the lead firefighter--his mission was to convince a team to adapt a counter-intuitive strategy at Microsoft--to shift from the tools that paid everyone's salary to embrace what was then a tiny cloud business. Today, Microsoft's cloud business is growing 48 percent year over and year, generating over 9 billion dollars in its latest quarter.

Transforming Microsoft into a 'Learn-it-All' Culture

The other book that had a major impact on his leadership philosophy is Mindset by Stanford professor, Dr. Carol Dweck. This book inspired Nadella to transform Microsoft from a 'Know-it-all' to a 'Learn-it-all' culture. According to Nadella, Microsoft's culture had become rigid by the time he had been named as CEO. "Each employee had to prove to everyone that he or she knew it all and was the smartest person in the room."

A learn-it-all culture meant that Microsoft had to refocus on its customer's needs, actively seek diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and act as one company instead of a "confederation of fiefdoms," according to Nadella.

In a recent interview for the Wall Street Journal, Nadella was asked, "Where do you find inspiration?" Nadella said he finds inspiration in books. Specifically, books that teach him how companies and institutions stay relevant and outlast the generations who created them. And that's exactly what books do--teach you how to lead through the experiences of another leader or team. 

Books as Mental Simulators

James Stavridis, a former U.S. Navy admiral and NATO commander, once told me that he reads two or three books a week because they act as a 'mental simulator' - allowing you to imagine yourself in a similar circumstance as the book's subject or protagonist. By putting yourself in someone's else's shoes, you become a better leader.

"There are very few problems that are new problems," Stavridis told me. "Almost always you can reach back in history in fiction, memoir, biography and find a problem that is similar to your problem."

Stavridis is referring to "narrative transportation." It simply means that well-written books transport readers from their existing reality into the world of the characters whose lives they are reading about.

Nadella goes one step further than reading and applying the books he reads. He hands them out, too. When Nadella became CEO, he handed out copies of a book to his senior leadership team. It was titled Nonviolent Communication. The book, written by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, teaches empathetic communication, a principle that pervades Nadella's own book and his leadership philosophy.

Nadella's appetite for books doesn't surprise me. In my twenty years of studying persuasion and communication, I've noted a trend among successful leaders and entrepreneurs--they read far, far more than the people they manage. They apply what they read, share it with their teams, and often hand out copies of the books that inspire their strategy.

If you want to stand out as an innovator, step up your reading.  

Published on: Feb 12, 2019
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