Hey, there: This column's for you

My brother Erik told me that I should make my headlines more cryptic so more people will read my column. I informed him that most people think the purpose of a headline is to tell the reader what the column is about.

"Don't do that," Erik told me. "When I read one of your headlines that isn't about me, I don't read the column."

I usually think of Erik as a good example of my target audience: He loves the details of business, he's excited about his career, and he wants to be a billionaire. So for one stupidity-filled moment, I thought of following my brother's advice. But you know what? I believe that every column applies to everyone who aspires to be a respected manager and effective leader.

Effective leaders need to understand what life is like for the people around them. And since you can't live through everyone's problems, reading about them is your best bet for gaining a broad understanding.

To be honest, I recommend you stop reading this column right now, and start reading the literary cannon: Thackeray, Hawthorne, Maugham; and throw in some women like Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Woolf; fiction is the best way to understand human nature. But most people don't have time to work, do their daily life, and read 1000-page novels. On top of that, while you can read this column online, at work, Thackeray would be more difficult in your cube.

So, since you depend on furtive business reading to make yourself a better manager, you need to read broadly. That is, read about many different types of career problems in order to understand what your employees and co-workers face.

The best way to motivate people to do what you need them to do is to understand what they want and approach the task from their perspective. Someone who reads only about their own issues will approach employees from a self-centered, and therefore ineffective, perspective.

And don't decide you can fake it because the only person you'll be faking out is yourself: You cannot hide lack of interest in other people. It shows because you are a bad listener, you have a narrow perspective, and you don't engage people with your questions.

This column applies to those who are unemployed as much as to anyone else. You're not going to get your next job out of the want ads because, for the most part, there aren't any. You are going to get a job from networking. And the best way to network is to learn how to understand people who are different than you so you can make small talk with them: Read broadly about business issues.

For those of you who see yourselves as corporate activists (and are repulsed at all my advice about fitting in and sucking up), the first step toward making the corporate world a better place is to understand the varied interests within the system. So read as carefully about the small business owner as you do about the oppressed worker. If you think fitting in and sucking up are the core of the problem, you need to have a very good understanding of the roots of that behavior. (So maybe you should cut out the columns you like the least and study them the most.)

For those of you who are like my brother Erik, congratulations on getting to the bottom of this column. It's the first step toward a life of broad reading and broad knowledge, which will enable you to be the kind of leader who changes people's lives.