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The Reading Leader: Recommended Books, 2014

By Bob Bruner-

There once was an enterprise leader who boasted that he read nothing: no books, periodicals, blogs, nothing. He claimed that this kept his mind pure of the conventional thinking that would be inimical to his foresight and originality. He was a boring dinner companion: highly opinionated on a narrow range of subjects and given to superficial exclamations on important issues beyond his field. He displayed no subtlety, critical appraisal, humor, or empathy. He brought nothing in the way of a surprise to colleagues; no ‘Aha!’ about life that made one grateful for the hours one spent with him. Before long, the company was doing poorly; the enterprise leader had lost his job—his foresight had become hindsight and customers found his originality banal. If this were an Aesop’s fable, the moral might be, “One who reads not, will want much.” [1]

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I believe that the association between reading and effective leadership is strong (see this, this, and this.) Most frequently, I seek the following eight attributes in people who aspire to leadership—reading widely strengthens them all: [2]

Leadership Attribute

How Wide Reading Strengthens the Attribute

Integrity

Builds awareness of moral dilemmas, past, present and future. Illuminates trustworthy leadership. Trust is the magnet with which leaders attract followers; one builds trust by doing the right things, fulfilling commitments, telling the truth, etc.

Strategic Thinking

Builds anticipation; helps you see around corners. How histories, biographies, and fictional stories turn out become templates or rehearsals for how your story might turn out. Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” Reading prepares your mind for the unexpected.

Social Awareness

Widens your frame of reference and strengthens your ability to gain the sense of a group of people. It is said that “culture trumps strategy,” meaning that no matter how good is your strategy, if you cannot work through the culture of an organization, you will get nowhere. Edgar Schein famously wrote, “Culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perform, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Reading helps you to anticipate and understand the shared assumptions in a culture.

Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is a high quality of leaders; they understand their weaknesses and their strengths, the impact these have on others, and ways to manage that impact. Reading promotes useful reflection on your own personality and character.

Excellent Communication Skills

Conveying your idea effectively to your followers is perhaps the #1 skill of leaders. The best communicators are voracious readers. Reading builds communication skills because it provides models of excellence. Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Note that Bacon started with reading; it is the foundation for conference (speaking), and writing.

Enterprise Point of View

Reading helps to reveal unexpected linkages among individuals and groups. Being a great CFO depends on understanding the nuances of marketing, production, human resources, supply chain, etc.—the whole firm is greater than the sum of the parts; this is the enterprise point of view. Russell Ackoff wrote, “Managers don’t solve problems, they manage messes.” To lead well and manage messes entails knowing how parts link together and anticipating side-effects of one’s actions. Reading helps you to connect the dots in the world around you.

Humility

All of the foregoing should lend a sense of proportion about one’s place in the universe. Biographies of humble leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela, and Grant are useful antidotes to the narcissistic qualities embedded in the media profiles of business and government leaders today.

Bias for Action

Shows the futility of over-analysis of problems. Promotes a sense of what is knowable, and what isn’t. Helps one to reach a definition of effective action—for instance, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Never confuse movement with action.”

The point of all this is to convince the current or aspiring leader to read more. Here is my approach:

· Make reading a habit, like exercise. 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 strengthening your attributes of leadership.

· Set aside a time and place to read every day. 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, bus, or subway; always carry things to read on trips. I read for 30-90 minutes each morning before and during breakfast, and before bedtime.

· Carry something to read with you all the time. On my iPad, I have three books going and subscriptions to several periodicals. Airline flight delays? No problem; I just pick up where I left off.

· 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.

· Don’t read junk. So many writers, so little time. Focus on the good stuff. The old socialist slogan, “You are what you eat” is relevant here: you are what you read. Ditch Fifty Shades of Grey and read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.

· 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 one major daily newspaper and your local newspaper. I recommend New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times.

· Follow some periodicals. I read The Economist cover-to-cover usually in one sitting on the day it arrives. And I subscribe to Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg Businessweek, Harvard Business Review, Atlantic, Wired, and New Yorker.

· 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 insights about character and leadership; and they enable you to think more critically along with the author. I read 30-50 books per year.

Here are some of the best books I’ve read over the past 12 months—this list ignores my recommended bibliography on higher education (see this) much of which I also read in 2014. I’ve arranged these recommendations by theme and have included books that I’m currently in the process of reading (and really like) as well as some books that I look forward to starting in 2015.

Inequality. Robert Frank and Philip Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society describes how certain markets lead to sharply asymmetric benefits for their participants; some competitors gain a lot, and others very little. This argument is intuitively appealing as an explanation for worsening income inequality in the U.S. I’m not sure that winner-take-all is as prevalent as the authors argue; but the book sparked quite a lot of reflection. The authors write, “One of our central claims is that although the competition for top slots in winner-take-all markets does indeed attract our most talented and productive workers, it also generates two forms of waste: first, by attracting too many contestants, and second, by giving rise to unproductive patterns of consumption and investment as contestants vie with one another for top positions.” (p.8)

Financial History. Ron Chernow’s book, The House of Morgan, summarizes in exhaustive length some 150 years of the firm presently known as J.P. Morgan & Company. The book is an iconic case study into how firms and institutions change with their times. And it illustrates how a forceful founder (J.P. Morgan himself) can tend to be supplanted by bureaucracy and systems of management.  Thomas McCraw, The Founders and Finance profiled the first three U.S. Treasury Secretaries (Morris, Hamilton, and Gallatin) and showed how very artful leadership by them probably saved the fledgling nation. Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis, caught the attention of investors and regulators alike in 2014 with its dramatic characterization of flash trading on the U.S. stock markets. It suggests that the U.S. equity markets are rigged, which will surprise, enrage, and/or intrigue the reader. Paul Erdman’s, The Silver Bears, is an amusing and quick-to-read novel set in the 1970s about a group of investors who aim to corner the market in silver. Earlier this month, I led a discussion in New York City of Edwin Lefevre’s, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, published in 1923 and still a classic in the field of investment management. Waiting to be read are two books in financial history, to be discussed in a special seminar led by Richard A. Mayo and myself. Battle of Bretton Woods, by Benn Steil, illuminates the founding of the post-WWII global financial structure (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other systems) meant to forestall a future depression—our ability to understand the Panic of 2008 and the Global Financial Crisis depends in part on an assessment of how well the Bretton Woods system served us, and why. Stress Test, by Tim Geithner, is the memoir of the pre-eminent fire-fighter of the recent financial crisis.

Geopolitics. Henry Kissinger’s, On China, is recommended reading for students in our GEMBA (Global Executive MBA) program. It is a brilliant summary of Chinese history and China’s rising position in the world. Kissinger is a pragmatist, a practitioner of real politik, which may annoy the idealistic reader. But his observations on current tensions and the history of the opening of China with President Nixon in 1971 lend tangible examples of the behavior we observe in business negotiations. Making a big impression on me what Kissinger’s discussion of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as a foundation for Chinese culture and diplomatic outlook. I highly recommend this book, and recently acquired his latest book, World Order, from which I expect more insights.

Technology and learning. Spending any amount of time in high-tech ecosystems convinces one of the need to keep learning to stay ahead of what technology can and will do to your life. I highly recommend two books that outline the profound impact that automation and artificial intelligence will have on society: Brynjolfsson and McAfee, The Second Machine Age and Ed Hess, Learn or Die. Hess (full disclosure: he is a wise and productive Darden colleague) ably argues that the only response to automation and artificial intelligence is faster and better learning, and that high-performance learning organizations become so through great recruiting, great culture, and great processes. Read his book before your competitor does.

Old Age and Beyond. Sherwin Neuland’s, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, riveted my attention in the context of the illness and/or passing of some friends. This is required reading for many medical students. But written in plain language, it is accessible to the lay reader. What impressed me most was his description of how aging causes mortality—or in words offered by my colleague, emeritus professor Robert Spekman, “things wear out and the parts go out of warranty.” Living sensibly can decelerate the aging process, but not forestall it. Neuland’s advice on living well resonated with me.

Bible. I’ve read the Bible (Old and New Testaments) clear through three or four times. The Bible has had immense influence on world literature; reading the Bible gives you a frame of reference for so much else that you read.  For similar reasons, I’d eventually like to read the Qur’an of Muhammad and the Analects of Confucius.  Now, I’m reading the Bible again and have finished the second volume of the very best and most highly annotated edition I’ve seen, The English Bible: King James Version, New Testament and The Apocrypha, edited by Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch. The footnotes and chapter commentaries are both brilliantly illuminating and accessible to the lay reader and have helped me to understand the composition and origin of the New Testament. This edition of the Bible came to my attention through a rave review in The New Republic. Similarly, a provocative commentary in the New Yorker brought Mark Larrimore’s, The Book of Job: A Biography, to my doorstep. For me, Job has been one of the most interesting and puzzling books of the Bible. Larrimore gives an outstanding summary of the deep questions posed in the book, and of its critical interpretations over the centuries. Last summer, I took a short course at UVA’s Rare Book School, and was assigned to read Christopher De Hamel’s, The Book: A History of the Bible. De Hamel covers the publication history of the Bible, rather than its theological contents, from papyrus scrolls, to parchment manuscripts, to early printed books, and ultimately to digital representation—this is the Bible as art form. What impressed me about this history was how the Bible changed physically and in contents as time passed.

Presidential Leadership. I have a longstanding interest in the US Presidents and in distilling from their examples some insights about leadership that we might convey to the next generation. James MacGregor Burns’, Leadership, offers a provocative distinction between “transactional” and “transformational” leaders. This is one of the most widely-cited discussions about leadership by contemporary writers. Joseph Nye’s, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, says that leaders need “certain soft and hard power skills to be effective…soft power skills are emotional intelligence…vision…and communication…hard power skills are particularly important: organizational capacity and the Machiavellian political skills of bullying, buying, and bargaining in the formation of winning coalitions.” (p. 12) And Stephen Skowronek in two books (The Politics Presidents Make and Presidential Leadership in Political Time Reprise and Reappraisal) argues that the impact a President has made depends in part on his place in the “political cycle,” whether one sets a new political order or simply helps to sustain a political order previously set. For instance, Skowronek argues that Thomas Jefferson set a new political order of party politics, James Monroe articulated it, and John Quincy Adams struggled (and failed) to maintain it in the face of turbulent new forces in American society. So Jackson set a new political order and the cycle repeated itself. Skowronek’s big idea is that to understand the impact of a President’s leadership, we must understand the political context. All of these books have rich insights for enterprise leaders.

Role of Women. It is conventionally thought that universities incubate the big cultural changes to come. If so, then women-in-leadership is the next big step in the liberalization in the role of women in society. A straw in the wind: for the past couple of years, women have led the Darden Students Association and a majority of Darden’s 45 student clubs. In this context, I see women students “leaning in” in just the way that Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, prescribes. Sandberg—the COO of Facebook and one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world–has written an inspiring, accessible, and entirely practical manifesto for women to rise to positions of enterprise leadership. I highly recommend it to women and for men.

Autobiography. As I argued earlier, autobiography, as a class of literature, can give the rising reader clues as to what and what not to do. This year, I’m leading a special seminar on autobiographies of US Presidents. We began with Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiography, which yields remarkable insights into his entry into public service, his capacity to learn, and his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Theodore Roosevelt’s An Autobiography, conveys an intense soul, one who advocated the “strenuous life” and molded the Presidency into the role of an activist. In the next semester, the students in our seminar have selected the autobiographies of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon—I’ll have more to say about these in my book round-up a year from now. Also in 2014, I finished two books that are on the short list of very best autobiographies in history, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and St. Augustine’s Confessions—these stand out for their incredible self-revelation, for their witness to transformative experiences, and for the presentation of values that represented a pivot in their times and culture. (Garry Wills’ Augustine’s Confessions is an excellent interpretive companion to the original book.) Finally, I loved Robert Gates’, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, a memoir of his years as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama. Gates presents a vivid picture of a wartime leader who struggled with the Federal bureaucracy, the White House, and Congress to prosecute the war effort and yet managed to retain the perspective of the troops on the ground.

Remember my fable: “One who reads not will want much.” I hope these recommendations are helpful. Read and enjoy. Better yet, read and grow as a leader.

  1. This fable is based on no person in particular but on a few individual conversations I’ve had with managers over the years. Often such conversations entail the bold assertion that “There’s nothing you academics can’t tell me that I don’t already know and find relevant.” As the saying goes, they are waiting for a fall. []
  2. These eight are a small fraction of a long potential list. My colleague, Jim Clawson, once documented over 300 leadership attributes generated by academic research. []