2012 Recommended Readings

By Bob Bruner-


The world is ambiguous; as Calvin said, “once you become informed, you start seeing complexities and shades of grey.” For this reason, curiosity, openness, and critical thinking help to mark great leaders. One’s reading habits are very important to the growth of these qualities. This post is my annual plea for reading—not just any reading, but the right kind.

Everywhere we see the intrusion of digital media. Ideas are distilled into sound bites—lost is nuance, countervailing evidence, and the balance of pros and cons. Engagement with ideas can grow idiosyncratic, narrow, and faddish—what MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte called the “Daily Me,” a filtered stream of news, opinion, and analysis that generally serves to reinforce what one already knows or believes. Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “As we ignore traditional news media more and more and go online for “news,” we become our own editors. Heaven help us.”

What’s the alternative? I don’t think it’s about hardware: I do more of my reading today by looking at an iPad, Kindle, and MacBook Air and I still read physical books and periodicals. Instead, I think the healthy alternative is about habits and processes:

· Be intentional. Read regularly; set aside a time and place every day.

· Diversify. Get out of your comfort zone. Lots of business professionals focus exclusively on business self-help books and magazines. Big mistake. You’ll boost your resilience, creativity, and repertoire by going farther afield.

· Avoid junk. So many writers, so little time. Focus on the good stuff.

· Drill down. So much of what is served online is superficial. Books and serious periodicals give you much more depth of fact and argument.

· 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.

Read at least one major daily newspaper per day and your local newspaper. I look into three major dailies:

· New York Times. The leader in general news coverage. Excellent investigative reporting. Very good coverage of politics and culture. Left-of-center editorial stance. The Sunday edition is a particular delight.

· Wall Street Journal. Good coverage of economic and business news. Very good investigative reporting (e.g. on issues such as privacy and regulation.) Right-of-center editorial stance.

· Financial Times. Good coverage of international (especially European) economic and business news. Leftish editorially and nudgy toward Continental Europe and America.

A student once asked me, “Why read more that one newspaper? Don’t they all have the same news?” Well, yes and no. Maybe half the content of these papers overlaps with the others. What is covered in the other half is special value-added. And the opinion columns differ substantially. Finally, even in the seemingly redundant content, it is interesting to see how differently writers and editors treat the same events. I read more than one newspaper to sharpen my own point of view about the news.

Supplement your reading of newspapers with periodicals whose articles are thoughtful, well-researched, and well-written. I read The Economist cover-to-cover usually in one sitting on the day it arrives (Saturday). Time very well spent. I have subscriptions to other periodicals, which I skim and choose maybe one article per edition to read in detail: Foreign Affairs, Harvard Business Review, Atlantic, Wired, Forbes, and New Yorker.

Newspapers and magazines only go so deep. To really master a point of view, you must read book-length presentations of ideas. I read 30-50 books per year. Most frequent question: “Where do you find the time?” Answer: make time every day; turn off the television; don’t surf the Web endlessly; learn to read on a stationary bike; always carry things to read on trips. Here are some of the best books I’ve read over the past 12 months.

1. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln. A lifetime project of mine is to read one or more of the “best” biographies of each of the U.S. Presidents, in chronological order. Many good books out there, so progress through the Presidents is slow. More has been written about Lincoln than any President, for good reason. He was a complex and transformational figure. His life offers a host of leadership lessons. This particular book would be a contender for “very best” biography of Lincoln. Suggestion: read this book, then see the new movie by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln.

2. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. One of the most famous speeches in history, the Gettysburg Address articulated a dramatic pivot-point in social and political thought in the U.S., that “all men are created equal.” Wills tells us how Lincoln achieved this and discusses the context, language, and significance of this speech in a short volume. Read it before the 150th anniversary of the speech on November 19, 2013.

3. Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs. An iconic biography of an iconic business leader. Extraordinarily well-written and well-researched. My chief learning was that Jobs wasn’t the modern Newton in the sense of being a genius solo inventor—rather, he was an aggregator of many little inventions into transformational new products. He didn’t practice the kind of leadership we teach at Darden; he could be autocratic, petulant, and interpersonally destructive. The main question begged by the biography is whether one has to be like Jobs to achieve his kind of extraordinary outcomes. I think not. In this sense, the book is an example of how not to lead. Yet it remains a thrilling profile of transformational innovation.

4. Nassir Ghaemi, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness. Lincoln and Jobs were outsized successes. And neither was a paragon of emotional well-being. Ghaemi, a psychiatrist, hypothesizes that some kinds of mental illness (depression, bipolar disorder) are the underpinnings of important qualities of transformational leaders: empathy, creativity, courage, and realism. He presents case studies of Churchill, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and others. I was mildly skeptical when I picked up the book, and by the end, decided that Ghaemi had made a plausible case. Some transformational leaders I have known fit the hypothesis. Whether you ultimately agree, the suggestion of a relationship between leadership genius and mental illness will rock your attitude about “illness.”

5. Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Social scientists love to work with computers on big data sets. Here’s a stunning book based on field research, the antithesis of the big data research. The author, at the time a doctoral student in sociology, hung out with (observed) a street gang in Chicago. From his book we garner rich insights into leadership, organization, and the morass of deep poverty. This book stimulated my thinking about the methods and risks by which scholars might discover new insights.

6. Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing. Iyengar presents original and provocative research on how and why we make choices. What role do our best interests, context, and background play? Paradoxically, choice is not always a blessing. This book will challenge conventional assumptions—it is highly relevant for leaders, consumer marketers, and strategists.

7. Gary Gallagher, editor, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. This is a remarkable memoir by a talented subordinate to rebel commanding generals in the American Civil War. Edited by my UVA colleague, Professor Gary Gallagher, this book profiles a middle-to-senior-level leader during the war. Alexander’s memoir shows what organizational anorexia looks like: progressive collapse with episodes of dramatic risk-taking. The author was brutally candid in his evaluation of commanders on both sides of the war. Very well-written and edited, this memoir carries the reader along. It is one of the best memoirs of the Civil War. Any leader or student of organizational distress will learn from the challenges that Alexander confronted.

8. Susan Cain Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. A great university education is a lot about talking and listening. Introverts and extroverts talk and listen differently. The way I consider it, extroverts talk to think (think out loud) and introverts think and then talk. The composition of a group (the balance between extroverts and introverts) will have big implications for the success of group processes and outcomes. Susan Cain has done a wonderful job of discussing introversion and its implications. This book will be highly relevant to leaders and educators. I also recommend Susan Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.”

9. Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul. This and Grant’s memoirs (see next) are widely regarded to be among the best autobiographies of leaders. Caesar demonstrates incredible initiative in responding to crises, challenges and opportunities. Phrases like “we moved immediately,” “overnight forced march,” “we attacked before the Gauls could assemble,” and so on, pepper the commentary. The memoir also displays Caesar’s strategic thinking and interpersonal skills, particularly in negotiating with adversaries. One only wishes more insights into the means by which he engendered intense loyalty among his subordinates. If you are totally new to Caesar and Roman history, I repeat a recommendation that I made in 2010: Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Any serious consideration of leadership should include an understanding of the practices and life of Julius Caesar. (I thank Chris Duffus, D’00, for sending me a copy of Conquest of Gaul, reintroducing me to a book that I last picked up as a student of Latin in 10th Grade.)

10. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs. I read this as part of my reading of the U.S. Presidents. Grant was the first President to publish formal memoirs (Jefferson began to write segments of an autobiography, but never finished it.) Note that Grant did not cover his years in the White House—this book brings the reader up through the end of the Civil War, in which Grant emerged as a very successful General-in-Chief. Two qualities make this book remarkable: Grant’s story of advancement as a leader and commander through the war and Grant’s audacious philosophy of command. He uses the phrase, “moral courage,” repeatedly through the book to indicate a sense of initiative, willingness to confront problems and crises, propensity to attack, and sheer determination. Grant’s Personal Memoirs inspired me to make “moral courage” the theme of my remarks at Darden’s graduation ceremony last may (see this).

11. Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelations. Of all the items in the vast library called The Bible, “Revelations” presents perhaps the greatest challenge for the reader: mystical, allegorical, angry, frightful, and ultimately apocalyptic. What did the author intend to say? What were the church founders thinking when they appointed “Revelations” to be the final book of the Bible? This book has been cited by some religious leaders as prophecy that “the end is nigh.” Is it? Pagels argues that John of Patmos wrote this book as a diatribe against Rome in 66 C.E. in the wake of Rome’s occupation of Judea and that the book was subsequently used by Church leaders to serve as a condemnation of heresies and infidels of all kinds. To understand Revelations, one must get a fix on geopolitics and Church history in the first three centuries, C.E.

12. Eric Hobsbawm,

a. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848.

b. The Age of Capital: 1848-1875.

c. The Age of Empire: 1875-1914.

d. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991.

This is an immense work (~2000 pages across the four volumes) that is at once magisterial and troubling. These volumes represent an incomplete history of the modern era in terms of economics and business. The author loathes entrepreneurs and the bourgeoisie and displays little understanding of markets and innovation in products and services. He is Eurocentric and barely conceals his antipathy for America. He was a member of the Communist Party, indeed of Stalinist persuasion—he expresses little criticism of the Soviet gulags, Stalin’s famines of the 1930s, the Soviet alliance with Hitler, or repressions of uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In one interview, he said, “the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result”—an attitude that evoked bitter denunciations of him (see this and this). So what is the Dean of a business school doing reading these books? First, they provide an extraordinarily rich perspective into the cultural and sociological aspects of modernization and economic growth. I started reading the first volume out of an interest in learning about the Industrial Revolution, and got hooked. Hobsbawm, like Karl Marx, wasn’t much of an economist, but was a good social historian. I read these books with an interest in learning how social context might influence economic development. Second, it takes a revolutionary to write about revolutions and market crises. Hobsbawm’s discussion of revolutions since 1789 is compelling. Political revolutions have some insights to offer about business and industrial revolutions. Third, Hobsbawm offers a range of helpful insights about the causes and consequences of nationalism, at the heart of headlines today. Finally, in the spirit of getting out of one’s comfort zone, Hobsbawm’s criticisms of liberalism (small-l) are a useful reminder of the challenges facing our assumptions about liberty, equality, democracy, free markets, and global trade, assumptions that have been tested since 2007.

13. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. A very important book (and useful antidote to Hobsbawm). The authors argue that sound political and economic institutions are the primary underpinning of economic growth. Such institutions include democratic rule; the rule of law; respect for property and civil rights; the suppression of corruption and expropriation. Such institutions create an “inclusive society.” In contrast, an “extractive society” caters to a small elite who appropriate the wealth generated in the country and run the country gradually into the ground. The book discusses numerous countries and examples. And it has drawn debates with proponents of alternative theories of economic development, such as Jeffrey Sachs (see this, the subsequent reply by Acemoglu and Robinson, and Sachs’s rebuttal)—the debate is worth studying on its own.

14. Jo Nesbo The Leopard. A gripping and grisly murder mystery, in the tradition of Steig Larsson. You can read The Leopard on a stand-alone basis (as I did). But it is part of a mystery series; if you first read Nesbo’s The Redbreast you may gain some context and character development that can help with getting into The Leopard.

No doubt, you can add to this list and/or find other books that ignite your thinking. Either way, I wish you the “right kind of reading” that ultimately helps you parse Calvin’s “complexities and shades of grey” and that promotes your growth in curiosity and critical thinking.