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May 21, 2015
11 Books Every Leader — And Wannabe — Should Read
Inevitably, when I’m conversing with a friend or former client whom I haven’t seen for some time, I get asked what I’m reading. This is a list of books that have taught me much about people, careers, and organizations. Three don’t fit those categories, but they are exceptional: one on America’s role in the world, one on valuing popular music, and an absolutely delightful and hilarious book on mathematics. Even with this list, I’ve left out some of my favorites — and probably some of yours, too. After all, more than a million books are published every year, and about 11,000 of those are for business.

Many on the list are research based, and only two are quick reads. That reflects my bias toward books of substance. Candidly, if you like a quick read, you probably won’t like most of these books.

Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra. This is a masterpiece on leadership; immensely accessible, brilliantly written, focusing on both theoretical and practical insight into how we learn and what we need to learn. Lots of stories and examples. It’s first on my list because it deserves to be.

Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant. Grant is the hottest organizational researcher of the younger generation. His counter-intuitive approach shows that givers, rather than takers, have extraordinary success. Greed is not good, and Grant demonstrates why this is true.

Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital by Ronald Burt. Burt is the top subject matter guru on social capital. Because it’s loaded with research, I suggest you read the introduction, then read the brief conclusion to each of the five chapters. That’ll tell you what you’d want to dig into in each chapter. Don’t misunderstand the title. It’s not about finance, unless you want to get a promotion and make more money faster than your peers.

Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less by Sutton and Rao. I’m a sucker for everything Sutton writes. I can always put his stuff to work immediately. As expected, it’s very readable and does exactly what the title says it does.

Is the American Century Over? by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Written by Joseph S. Nye, former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, these brief pages deal with the issues from all sides. It’s a clear-eyed assessment of why the American century is not over. At the same time, it rejects the concerns and fears about other nations, including China. It’s an easily readable book of 125 pages by an immensely astute scholar. BTW: It has gotten rave reviews from all camps.

Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music by Simon Frith. Knowing my extensive musical background, my grandson with a double major in math and economics — who also happens to play in a jazz band — recommended this book. It was his class text for a humanities music course at URochester, which has the great Eastman Conservatory attached. Frith shreds the distinction between “high” and “pop” culture and adds popular music — for example, Frank Sinatra and Metallica — to a defining role. It was a real eye-opener, even for this musician, and very readable.

Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations by Harvard’s Groysberg and Slind. These organizational behavior guys upgrade traditional communication in fascinating ways, but like all business communication folk, they demonstrate no real sense of how language actually works. Still, it’s easily the best of the litter. It’s readable, does exactly what the title says it does, and explains why leadership is all about conversation.

Why Read: Can Great Books Change People’s Lives? by Mark Edmundson. This well-known UVA English prof really has a lot to say about the uses of literature that apply to all of life and work. I jotted down more insights from the book (3½ pages in the front) than in any of the last 20 or so books I read. Groundbreaking — and less than 150 pages.

How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. This is a marvelous book, written by one of the most practical guys in mathematics. A prof at Wisconsin, Madison, he’ll keep you in stitches while teaching you more than you could ever possibly know. Chapter titles? When am I going to use this?, More pie than plate, Dead fish don’t read minds, and even What to expect when you’re expecting to win the lottery. He never stops regaling his readers for more than 400 pages. Outstanding reviews. Couldn’t stop laughing — and learning!

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. Here just in case I haven’t recommended this enough. In conversation, I told her I thought it was written for 12th graders. She was delighted and said that was exactly her primary audience. Since published, her ideas have become among the leading in the field — including business development. Profoundly useful stuff for all ages, and especially for the business community. A very simple read, but it takes a while to internalize.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Makes it OK to be an introvert in an extroverted, narcissistic world. I know a lot of extroverts, too, who really need to read it. 

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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