“I just sit in my office and read all day.” Warren Buffett, Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway (he claims to spend 80% of his time reading.)
In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none. Zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.” — Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway. 
Why these business leaders read so much is a wonderment to most people. But to regular followers of this blog, the answers will come as no surprise. This post is my annual exhortation to read books and my recommendation of some great books to read. For years (see 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014), I’ve contended that reading is a predicate to professional success. Last year, I argued that reading builds leadership qualities: if you want to lead, you must read. In other years, I’ve made the case that reading makes you a more interesting person and prepares you to deal with a broader array of challenges and opportunities.
Today, I’ll offer an equally potent argument: reading spawns fresh ideas. If you’re tired of stale thinking and/or thrashing around for a fresh perspective on things, then read. Reading boosts new idea creation through two means, one obvious, and the other subtle.
The obvious path is that reading may lead you directly to the idea you need. Reading extends your own knowledge. The real cost of access to a vast knowledge base has plummeted in the past few decades: check out the books, articles, websites, and blogs available online today. But this path is likely to disappoint you more often than it helps: the answers to the problems you really want to solve rarely come straight out of a book. Should I hire Jones? Should I bet next year’s profits on the new gizmo coming out of R&D? Should the company expand to Africa or Arkansas? Trying to answer questions like these through reading is to treat reading like any other instrument of management, a means to an end—and it may take you into the shallowest part of the pond. Amazon.com lists millions of books in the management self-help field, most of which are banal and fruitless.
The less obvious path is to treat reading as an end in itself—and trust that it will reward you with surprising insights that are relevant to your problems at hand. Reading stimulates your mind at two levels: the conscious (like the user interface of a computer that you interact with) and the subconscious (like the heavy computing that your laptop does in the “background.”) Neurologists tell us that the brain devotes some 90% of its effort to work in the background, such as timing your heartbeats, coordinating movement, and trying to resolve dilemmas that matter to you. Virtually everyone has had a “Eureka!” moment where a fresh idea simply came to mind—the tipping point of every Sherlock Holmes story entails one of these. That moment could entail “connecting the dots” of a factual problem in some fresh way, detecting an inconsistency, reinterpreting someone’s meaning, or defining a problem in terms of a completely different metaphor (e.g., “This labor negotiation is like trying to bake bread without yeast. Let’s get yeast going here!”) Eureka moments are manifestations of the subconscious at work. Reading simply stokes the subconscious with lots of fuel. ((Other pursuits that stoke the subconscious are vacation travel, hobbies, music, sports, etc.))
The problem is that reading is easily cut under time pressures. But cutting your reading ultimately starves your ability to generate fresh thinking. Abraham Lincoln once said that if he had eight hours to cut down a tree, he would spend six of those eight sharpening the saw. Thus it is with one’s mind. The point of this post is to encourage you to boost your fresh thinking: read and read more. Here is my approach, outlined in previous years:
· Make reading a habit, like exercise. Regularity helps to assert the priority of reading and to capture its benefits. Irregular reading makes it hard to sustain the thread of an argument. Losing the momentum of a story or argument is like losing one’s physical conditioning. Even a little reading every day will set you up for fresh thinking.
· Set aside a time and place to read every day. Most frequent question: “Where do you find the time?” Answer: by making time every day; turn off the television; don’t surf the Web endlessly; learn to read on a stationary bike, bus, or subway—in these contexts, it is easy to find an hour or more per day to read.
· Carry something to read with you all the time. On your tablet, have several books and magazine subscriptions going. Airline flight delays? On hold for 45 minutes with the IT help line? No problem: just pick up where you left off.
· Get out of your comfort zone. Lots of business professionals focus exclusively on business self-help books and magazines in familiar areas. Big mistake. You’ll boost your resilience, creativity, and repertoire by going farther afield.
· Don’t read junk. Focus on the good stuff. The old socialist slogan, “You are what you eat” is relevant here: you are what you read.
· Talk with others about your reading. As Darden’s MBA students readily discover, you really don’t know something until you can tell others about it. You might even be so bold as to start a discussion group in which you can actively debate the writer’s point of view. Such a group worked marvelously for Benjamin Franklin.
· Keep up with the news every day. Follow at least one major daily newspaper and your local newspaper. Among the majors, I recommend New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times.
· Follow some periodicals. The really worthwhile journals give you chewy introductions to research, important trends, and fierce debates—all without the more intensive investment that a book requires. I read The Economist cover-to-cover usually in one sitting on the day it arrives. And I browse through Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, American Historical Review, Journal of Finance, Journal of Financial Economics, Harvard Business Review, Atlantic, Wired, and New Yorker. Usually there is at least one article in each edition that really jogs my thinking.
· Keep one or more books going all the time. In contrast to newspapers and periodicals, books are immersive: they develop some theme or argument more fully; they show more evidence; they develop nuance; and they enable you to think more critically along with the author.
Here are some of the best books I’ve read over the past 12 months. This is a longish list and does not cover everything I could suggest. I finished some 75 books this year, most of which were pleasing in some particular way, but don’t merit recommendation to a broader audience. The ones that follow deserve special attention and have my enthusiastic support.
David Brooks’ The Road to Character is an inspiring reflection on the strong character attributes on which society depends, and how we might seek to deepen these attributes. The problem, he says, is that we are self-centered. Brooks writes that we should not organize our lives as with a business plan, motivated by personal wants and individual choices. He says, “You don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?” Brooks offers numerous examples from history of people who illustrate the road to character: Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George C. Marshall, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, St. Augustine, and Johnny Unitas—across this disparate group, Brooks weaves a brilliant thread of argument about character: strength of character is not given but is earned through personal struggle; it is inherently outward-focused, not inward-focused; and strong character is manifested in many ways.
Atul Gawande is professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and a writer for the New Yorker. I would encourage you to read anything of his that you can get your hands on. This year, I read two of his books. The Checklist Manifesto is nominally about surgical procedure but is really a meditation on how behavioral errors can override the very best training. The lessons here are of great significance to business practitioners. Gawande writes:
“We now live in the era of the super-specialist—of clinicians who have taken the time to practice at one narrow thing until they can do it better than anyone who hasn’t. Super-specialists have two advantages over ordinary specialists: greater knowledge of the details that matter and an ability to handle the complexities of the job. There are degrees of complexity, though, and intensive-care medicine has grown so far beyond ordinary complexity that avoiding daily mistakes is proving impossible even for our super-specialists. The I.C.U., with its spectacular successes and frequent failures, therefore poses a distinctive challenge: what do you do when expertise is not enough?”
Thus, he argues that where human health and welfare are at stake, even the loftiest professional should follow routines established by checklists. But at the core of this book is a tension on which all business leaders should reflect: lofty professionals resist checklists as an insult to their mastery. Gawande replies that fallibility, not mastery, is the issue. In short, humans forget and overlook; checklists correct.
Gawande’s book, Being Mortal and What Matters in the End, addresses the modern irony of medicine, that by its very success in saving and prolonging life, it creates new ethical dilemmas for old age and the end of life. The problem as Gawande points out, is the “medicalization” of old age. At the core of medical ethics is the desire to save the patient, regardless of cost or later disability. Gawande writes, “Arriving at an acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits and the possibilities of medicine is a process, not an epiphany….The debate is about what mistakes we fear most—the mistake of prolonging suffering or the mistake of shortening valued life?” Anyone contemplating instructions to put into his or her medical directive should read this book first.
In 1938, Harvard commissioned a long-term study of 268 men from the graduating classes of 1938 to 1944. The purpose was to “transcend medicine’s usual preoccupation with pathology and learn something instead about optimum health and potential and the conditions that promote them.” This study has produced various reports and books over the years. Now, George E. Vaillant’s 2012 book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, presents what is likely to be the summation of this extraordinary project as the subjects pass on. Vaillant has been a leader of the study since 1966 and offers not only insights from the research, but also reflections on the challenges of sustaining such a massive project for so long. Anyone interested in the subject of aging will find this book loaded with insights and examples. My dominant takeaway from this study is that life choices really do presage one’s quality of life, particularly in the “senior years.” We all benefit from such reminders: eat sensibly; don’t smoke; get regular exercise; stay mentally active; sustain relationships and make new friends; use alcohol just in moderation; nurture the next generation; save money for retirement and a rainy day; and promote a community—all of which pay big dividends as one ages. And if these nostrums aren’t sufficiently motivating, then the numerous sobering case studies that Vaillant offers will prompt one to find a better style of life.
People who learn continuously through life will tend to be more successful than those who don’t–Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is an extremely important book for those who care about the performance and development of leaders and organizations. The research of my colleagues, Jeanne Liedtka and Ed Hess, has drawn inspiration from this book. Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford; her book has grown to be a classic. The essence of the book is in the contrasting nature of two frames of attitude and their radically different implications for human development and behavior. Dweck calls these frames of attitude, “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset:”
“…believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them….There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
One’s mindset and consciousness have a dynamic relationship with the brain. Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science discusses the concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by making new neural connections over time. Norman Doidge, M.D. is a researcher and psychiatrist at Columbia University and University of Toronto. Conventional thinking had it that damage to the brain through injury or disease is irreversible. But Doidge presents research and numerous case examples to the contrary: the brain can rewire itself. It is plastic. Not only does the brain change in predictable ways as we age (it gets smaller), but it also responds to intellectual and emotional stimuli. Mental illness, such as depression, triggers adverse trends in the brain. And a daily dose of math problems, reading, crossword puzzles, or other cognitive activity, can help to retard or forestall symptoms of dementia. Neuroplasticity is a very important concept, to which this book is an excellent introduction for the lay person.
In 2015, one was struck by the news of rising suicide rates among military veterans. And in a tight-knit university community, one sees the threat of suicide more plainly than elsewhere, perhaps. The book, Stay: A History of Suicides and the Philosophies Against it, by Jennifer Michael Hecht, is an eloquent moral argument against suicide. The philosopher, David Hume, once argued that suicide was acceptable because it promoted the common good. Yet, research shows the opposite: it damages those left behind. The act of suicide loosens the grip of other despairing people and promotes imitators. It damages friends and loved ones left behind. And you owe it to your future self to live. The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote, “Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives… People in the act of committing suicide may feel isolated, but, in fact, they are deeply connected to those around. As Hecht put it, if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.” Some years ago, I helped an acquaintance through such a dark night; thankfully, the intervention of many people succeeded. I wish I had had this book at hand. It gives not only words, but reasons and arguments, for saying “stay.”
The field of psycholinguistics tells us that there is a link between our sentiments on one hand, and the words we use on the other. The book by Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, is a popular introduction to the nature of this link. Pinker is a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, a leading authority in psycholinguistics. Of the books recommended here, I found this one about the most challenging to read—not because the ideas are so hard, but because the narrative bounces across interesting examples at such velocity that one barely hangs on. Yet I recommend the book as an anchor for understanding the emerging field of sentiment analysis, which uses big data analytic techniques to discern attitude shifts in social media and other sources. Sentiment analysis depends on psycholinguistics for its validity. In this regard, I found Chapter 7 to be helpful; there, Pinker discusses “the affective saturation of words,” their emotional coloring. A classic example of affective saturation is a radio interview of Bertrand Russell in the 1950s in which he distinguished, “I am firm.” “You are obstinate. “He is pigheaded.” Each sentence is saturated with loaded feelings, of sharply different kinds. Sentiment is also reflected in our use of metaphors (Chapter 5) and how we name children (Chapter 6). If you want to understand sentiment analysis, big data, and social media, this book affords an intellectually stimulating introduction to its foundation, psycholinguistics.
Over a decade ago, Stieg Larsson gained global acclaim by the publication of three mystery-thrillers about Lisbeth Salander, a sui generis character living on the fringe of Swedish society. Larsson passed away unexpectedly in 2004, and with him, the hopes of his world-wide fans for more of the same. Then along came David Lagercrantz in 2015 with The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a very good extension. Lagercrantz sustains Lisbeth Salander as a remarkable heroine: “She was no hormone-fueled teenager, no idiot show-off looking for a kick. She would only embark on such a bold venture because she was after something very specific, although it was true that once upon a time hacking had been more than just a tool for her. During the worst moments of her childhood it had been her way of escaping, a way to make life feel a little less boxed in. With the help of computers she could break through barriers which had been put in her way and experience periods of freedom. “
We are hearing populist sentiments in the run-up to the Presidential election in 11 months. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a fictional narrative that evokes the story of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and U.S. Senator from 1932 until his assassination in 1935—and one of the iconic populists in U.S. history. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and remains a classic to this day. The character development, dialogue, and tableaus of the deep South are priceless. And one learns something about populism. Here’s a sample, from a point in the book at which the protagonist, Willie Stark, is being coached about giving a speech:
“Maybe you try to tell ‘em too much. It breaks down their brain cells.”
“Looks like they’d want to hear about taxes, though,” he said.
“You tell ‘em too much. Just tell ‘em you’re gonna soak the fat boys and forget the rest of the tax stuff.”
As I stepped down from the Deanship, I took a kayaking trip in the Great Lakes with a son, and brought along Ernest Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories. This collection is about the renewal a young man gains from outdoor life in Michigan. Unlike the previous two recommended books, there is no trail of suspense or gripping climax in these stories. These are literary tone-poems; what matters is the sense of a place conveyed in Hemingway’s imagery. This is the kind of reading you must reflect upon—and to appreciate the depth and symbolism in these stories, you could draw on the very extensive commentary about them on the Web. Hemingway evokes the beauty of the North Woods in prose that is his signature spare style: “He was watching the bottom of the spring where the sand rose in small spurts with the bubbling water. There was a tin cup on a forked stick that was stuck in the gravel by the spring and Nick Adams looked at it and at the water rising and then flowing clear in its gravel bed beside the road. He could see both ways on the road and he looked up the hill and then down to the dock and the lake, the wooded point across the bay and the open lake beyond where there were white caps running. His back was against a big cedar tree and behind him there was a thick cedar swamp.” I have been to such places in the Great Lakes region and can attest to the authenticity of his depiction. But this collection of stories is more than a travelogue; it is a fictional testament to the wisdom of writers such as Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Last summer, I joined a group of faculty who read and discussed Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He prescribes government policy of massive wealth redistribution through a global wealth tax—the name, Capital, will evoke the title of Karl Marx’s famous work; such is Piketty’s intention. Translated from French and written by an economist seeking to influence other economists and government policy makers, the general reader will encounter this as a dry and somewhat technical treatise. Yet it is worth slogging through the volume because of the enormous influence it has gained in debates about economic inequality, and to discover along the way that its arguments are not bullet-proof. Piketty ignores the impact of massive social transfer payments, and of investments in human capital. The thoughtful person should be wiser and more informed about economic inequality and declining social mobility. While Piketty’s book may not be the definitive treatise on the subject, it has so impressively shaped the debate that one cannot intelligently participate in the conversation without gaining an awareness of his arguments.
Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality is a stimulating companion to Piketty. Frankfurt is a moral philosopher at Princeton. This short (89 page) item argues contra Piketty that our primary goal should be to deal with poverty, not eradicate inequality. Accordingly, Frankfurt’s government policy prescriptions are quite different. Frankfurt writes,
“Economic inequality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable. From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.”
This past fall, Richard Mayo and I continued our reading seminar on business history, and concentrated on major financial crises. Several good books emerged either in the seminar or in my reading parallel with it.
Ben Bernanke’s book, The Courage to Act, describes the Panic of 2008 from the vantage of one of the best-informed players, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board. My dominant takeaways had to do with the large gap between economic theory and the practice of setting economic policy and with the challenges of leading during a crisis. Bernanke gives the reader concise briefings on economic concepts along the way including Keynesianism, Monetarism, and neo-classical economics. His own research as a young scholar figures significantly in how he tackled the crisis. He argued that the disruption of flows of commercial credit during a banking crisis can greatly accelerate the downturn–accordingly, the role of a central bank in a crisis must be not only to promote financial stability but also restore normal flows of credit. This proved nearly impossible in a financial system that had grown well beyond the regulatory reach of the Fed in 2008.
Alan Greenspan’s The Map and the Territory 2.0: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting was first published in 2013 and then revised and republished in 2014 (hence the “2.0”). It represents his take on the Global Financial Crisis. Though he did not lead the Fed through the crisis, he was in charge during the housing bubble and remains one of the most trenchant observers on the entire episode. This book is perhaps the most highly readable volume about the crisis, written for a general audience by a leading player. It complements the writings of behavioral finance experts, who argue that behavior and bubbles are products of a kind of incentive-driven irrationality. Greenspan contends that bubbles may now be detectable (hence the reference to the “Future of Forecasting”.) And it represents a bit of a mea culpa for Greenspan, who has been one of the staunchest believers in market rationality. Greenspan writes: “But now after the past several years of closely studying the manifestations of animal spirits during times of severe crisis, I have come around to the view that there is something more systematic about the way people behave irrationally, especially during periods of extreme economic stress, than I had previously contemplated….In a change of my perspective, I have recently come to appreciate that “[animal] spirits” do in fact display “consistencies” that can importantly enhance our ability to identify emerging asset price bubbles in equities, commodities, and exchange rates—and even to anticipate the economic consequences of their ultimate collapse and recovery.”
Perhaps the recurrence of financial crises in the United States is related to our choices about the structure of the financial industry and its regulation. For instance, Canada has had no systemic banking crises since 1840, while the U.S. has had twelve. Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber’s Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit argues that the U.S. banking system is more fragile because of complex bargains struck between politicians, bankers, consumers, shareholders and others. Bad bargains emerge because,
“it is difficult to coordinate opposition to any program that benefits few at the expense of many because of the transactions cost of political activity. Second, taxpayers cannot easily identify the allocation of costs and benefits from bailouts, which is determined not be the courts but by a deposition insurance resolution authority within the government under opaque circumstances and ad hoc arrangements. Third, because taxpayers are sometimes depositors, they may not be able to determine whether they are better or worse off as a result of the government’s intervention.”
While studying with students the Crash of 1929 and Great Depression, we reviewed the enormous wave of financial regulation enacted by the New Deal. The conventional narrative is that these regulations fixed problems engendered by unregulated markets. But Paul Mahoney’s Wasting a Crisis: Why Securities Regulation Fails offers a stunning alternative narrative founded on new research. The New Deal’s regulations either fixed non-existent problems or enhanced the position of influential incumbents in markets at the expense of potential new entrants. Mahoney (Dean of UVA’s School of Law) writes,
“Logically, regulation can have three different effects in varying combinations. It can benefit society by solving informational or incentive problems that keep markets from functioning effectively. It creates social costs because complying with regulations takes money and effort. Finally, it creates private benefits because compliance costs are not uniform across firms. Some firms can comply at lower cost; they profit relative to the rest. The resulting private benefits give the winners an incentive to support socially detrimental legislation or shape regulations in ways that harm society. Whether the public or just certain segments of the regulated industry are net beneficiaries in any given situation must be determined empirically. That is the purpose of this book.”
After the Panic of 2008, Congress chartered the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report on the causes of the crisis. The Commission, composed of five Democrats and four Republicans could not align on their conclusions. The majority (Democrats) adopted the view that the crisis was caused by greed and mismanagement in the private sector. The Republican minority offered an alternative narrative that pointed to government regulations and the perverse goals and incentives imposed by HUD and Congress on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Peter Wallison was a member of the inquiry commission and offers his book, Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World’s Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again, as a detailed exposition of that alternative view. It is impressively documented and lends withering attacks on the majority. In pursuit of nuanced differences between the two narratives, one could read in parallel the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report—I’ve done it though, I warn you that doing so will take a strong constitution.
Here’s a decade-long reading challenge for you: The Oxford History of the United States is a series of volumes prepared by leading historians and written in sufficiently great detail to capture the incredible process of development moving forward in parallel streams at any moment. Each of the books is hefty and not for the faint of heart (hence the decade I mentioned). I’ve read five of the eight volumes, but have seen enough to recommend enthusiastically the entire collection.
This past year, I finished Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789, and Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Though I have been an eager consumer of American history my entire life, it humbles me to reflect on what new stuff I learned in these books. The dominant takeaway from the first two volumes in the series is that the founding of the Republic was quite a close-run thing. And these histories show that pressing issues today extend their roots back 200 or more years in time. Thus, to get wise about today’s problems, study the past.
How leaders take charge when they assume the mantle of responsibility is an enduring question. Anthony J. Badger’s FDR: The First Hundred Days, offers an iconic example. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, at the nadir of the Great Depression. In a space of time so short that it defies imagination, he coaxed 15 major pieces of legislation through Congress, took the U.S. off the gold standard, and expanded the power of the President through executive orders. FDR’s record of accomplishment became the benchmark against which all of his successors have been evaluated. Badger wrote,
“Roosevelt gave indispensable assistance to many Americans in the summer of 1933. He instigated a regulatory regime for financial institutions that prevented a repeat of the Great Crash. He made a start on a massive program of investment in the physical infrastructure of the United States. What he had not found in 1933 was the magic key to economic recovery. But in the Hundred Days, Roosevelt demonstrated that a democracy need not be paralyzed in the face of economic catastrophe. He inspired a new generation of public servants for whom government service was an honorable, disinterested calling. They would enable the United States to survive the worst depression in the nation’s history with its democratic institutions intact and with enough social cohesion and government and productive capacity to fight a successful world war.”
Still, scholars have been mixed in their assessment of what FDR accomplished in the first hundred days. Some elements of the program were ill-conceived, botched on execution, or invalidated by courts.
FDR was elected in 1932 on a platform that by today’s standard would seem conservative: balance the budget, cut taxes, resist financial intervention, etc. Some of his swing to the left of the political spectrum may have been intended to prevent defections of voters to populist candidates. The populist threat to FDR is the focus of Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression. The book presents extremely interesting profiles of populist sentiments during the depression, and of their advocates. Brinkley wrote,
“For more than seven years, Huey Long wielded a control of the government of his native Louisiana so nearly total, so antithetical to many of the nation’s democratic traditions, that there was some justification for popular characterizations of him as a “dictator.” Mention of his name decades later brings to mind a vision of ruthless, brutal power…Father Coughlin, for his part, became after 1938, in the last years of his public career, one of the nation’s most notorious extremists: an outspoken anti-Semite, a rabid anti-communist, a strident isolationist, and, increasingly, a cautious admirer of Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. Those who recall him almost invariably remember a man of hysterical passion and hatred, a harsh and embittered bigot.”
As the world deals with waves of immigrants and with slow recovery from the Global Financial Crisis, we see the appearance of new politicians and aspirants in the tradition of Long and Coughlin. This book well complements Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, discussed above.
* * *
Last spring, I had the good fortune to join a group of 30 MBA students in a course to study the D-Day invasion of Normandy. We toured the field and drew on the guidance of two senior instructors from the US Marine Corps University. For me, the highlight of the extensive reading list for that course was Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe 1944-1945. As the memory of World War II fades, so does any recollection of the very fierce resistance by the Nazi army. Indeed, some generals in 1944 thought that the war would be over by Christmas. But the D-Day landing itself and then the drive through France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany were supremely challenging and demanded new leadership, materials, and organization. Atkinson brings all of this to light through lively prose and a well-paced narrative. This book is especially relevant to business practitioners, for the profiles and insights it offers on leadership styles and personalities of leading generals. For instance, about George S. Patton:
“Instead, the allies would have to settle for the arrival on stage of a man described by a reporter as “a warring, roaring comet” and by a West Point classmate as a “pure-bred gamecock with brains.” The first glimpse of Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., for many soldiers came in Avranches, where he leaped from his jeep into an umbrella-covered police box and directed convoy traffic through a congested round-about for ninety minutes. Assigned by Bradley to overseer VIII Corps’s drive south, Patton had helped shove seven divisions past Avranches in seventy-two hours, cigar smoldering as he snarled at occasional Luftwaffe marauders, “Those goddamned bastards, those rotten sons-of-bitches! We’ll get them!”…When a subordinate called to report his position, Patton bellowed, “Hang up and keep going.” In a Norman landscape of smashed vehicles, grass fires, and charred German bodies, he added, “Could anything be more magnificent? Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God, how I love it.””
The Guns at Last Light is the third volume of Atkinson’s trilogy on the Second World War in Europe. Based on the success of the third volume, I’ll have the first two volumes on my list of readings to come.
In closing, recall Charlie Munger’s message: “I have known no wise people…who didn’t read all the time—none. Zero.” Therefore, go and do. Read books. Read widely. It will make you a better leader and a more interesting person. And it will fuel fresh thinking. If my recommended books don’t resonate with you, check out these other lists from Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Republic, or others you might turn up on the Web.
And best wishes to you and your loved ones for the holidays and the New Year.