“WhatsApp isn’t a reliable information source,” a CEO warned his team. “Anyone can say anything they want on there and present it as truth, when it isn’t.”
As I listened to his cautionary words, I couldn’t have agreed more. In fact, my only criticism was that his message didn’t go far enough. The problem is not limited to WhatsApp; the digital world at large is rife with questionable truths and dubious facts just waiting to trip us up — and the print press doesn’t fare much better.
Whatever the medium, just because something is there in black and white doesn’t make it factual. When I was a professor, I used to caution my students against relying on online sources and trying to pass Google searches off as thorough research.
We are living in a time where well-researched news takes a back seat to social media spin and where clicks are valued over content. Yes, the internet has unlocked the door to more information than we could ever consume, but it has also made us more vulnerable than ever to manipulation and disinformation. That means we must tread carefully, and think twice about what we rely on as fact.
Here, a good dose of common sense can really pay off. It is the sound, practical judgement concerning everyday matters — the basic ability to perceive and understand in a way that is shared by most people. But, common sense also comes with risk — not least because it’s not as common as the term suggests.
One of the biggest obstacles to common sense is the irreplaceable understanding that comes from reading. Not to be confused with spending hours fixated on social media posts or attention-grabbing headlines — the kind of reading I’m referring to is all about books.
In fact, it directly relates to the theme of last week’s column: “The people you meet and books you read will determine where you are in five years”.
Reading is what makes the difference between understanding and having the wool pulled over your eyes by misinformation. Just ask Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman, Charlie Munger. They credit their success to being learning machines.
We all know they are smart, and yet they keep on getting smarter. Their secret? They read a lot. In fact, so central is reading to their success, it forms the basis of what they call the “Buffet Formula”.
According to Buffet, he sits in his office and reads continuously — at least five-hundred pages per day. This constant intake is how knowledge builds up over time; the more you put in, the greater the value it brings.
Buffet and Munger are not alone when it comes to insatiable appetites for reading. Actually, it is part of the daily routine of many top leaders in the corporate world. Yet, while they read extensively, there is often an air of secrecy about the material they digest, because for them, knowledge acquisition is a competitive advantage.
Few Nike colleagues ever saw the personal library of the company founder, Phil Knight. To enter the room behind his formal office, one had to remove his shoes and bow, not out of respect for the man, but for the volumes on Asian history, art and poetry that were nestled under the low ceiling of his “other” office.
Similarly, until the legendary Steve Jobs sold his book collection, it remained hidden from most of the world. He reportedly had an “inexhaustible interest” in the works of William Blake — the mad, visionary 18th-century poet and artist. Again, although his thirst for knowledge was quenched in secret, it was no less real.
Worlds away from the noise and misinformation perpetuated by social media, top corporate leaders are reading quietly, safe in the knowledge that every page they turn will be useful, whether the topic be science, poetry, politics or fantasy.
Strong leaders have a lifelong interest in learning, and it’s that interest that will enable you to differentiate fact from fiction.
Tommy Weir is CEO of the EMLC Leadership Ai Lab and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at email@example.com.