This year I read 131 books (I aim to read at least 2 books per week). Some were just ok, and a few were fantastic. I power-skimmed about 45 because that’s all they were worth to me in the end. I reread 12 because they resonated in me so well, plus 14 which I had read in previous years but was drawn back to again this year. I also read through the Old Testament twice and New Testament four times.
Here are the 14 best books that I read this year, in no particular order, with my comments.
Exponential Organizations (Salim Ismail with Michael S. Malone and Yuri Van Geest)
Exponential Organizations is an eye-opener as a challenge to the 20th century means of getting bigger. There is very helpful analysis here about leveraging big data, algorithms instead of physical assets, and communities which include your customers. This book, unique among several I have read in this genre of “future business” describes the internal mindsets required to behave differently. The authors gamely describe how a “traditional” organization could reinvent itself to act in exponential fashion, but it’s a huge leap. I think it will always be easier to design an organization to work this way from conception.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)
I continue to read biographies of Teddy Roosevelt to gain insights about his unique combination of intellect, massive energy, and ambition. This biography chronicles his life up to the point where he becomes President. Edmund Morris used his extensive access to letters and diaries from people close to Roosevelt to paint a vivid picture of his energetic youth, raising cattle in South Dakota, and years in the New York state legislature. It’s astounding to comprehend how young Roosevelt was as he accomplished so much – good inspiration to apply all your energies into worthwhile pursuits.
Eisenhower in War and Peace (Jean Smith)
I’ve read biographies of Eisenhower before but learned more than I expected from this book. Why? The coverage on post-WW2 leadership, especially the details on Eisenhower’s political ability as president of Columbia University and managing his talented executive office as President of the US. Other biographers have glossed over his failures and weaknesses but Jean Smith does not shy away from describing events and assessing them. Leaders can’t learn as much from biographies where the subject is treated as all marble and gold.
I was privileged to meet Richard Koch at a conference in Chicago earlier this year, and in getting ready to meet him I decided to read all his books. Most people don’t know that he’s written 20 books in addition to The 80/20 Principle. Two of his books are on my list this year:
The Natural Laws of Business (Richard Koch)
The Natural Laws of Business is subtitled “How to harness the power of evolution, physics, and economics to achieve business success.” In turn, Richard explores the science and history of biology, physics, and economics to find the places where natural laws of the universe can be exploited to understand how to create and run better businesses.
I used up half a gel pen marking up my copy! I was already familiar with most of the science, but was delighted by the rush of insights and clarity Richard packed into the book. He does an excellent job explaining scientific principles, as good as Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson presentations. The book is extremely well organized, with section summaries and action items for business use.
I also was impressed with how well this book has stood the test of time. 2001, in technology innovation terms, was a generation ago. Yet, the discussion feels contemporary and relevant. This suggests to me that the core natural laws and business application principles will be relevant for years to come. This is not a faddish book.
Suicide of the West (Richard Koch and Chris Smith)
Richard collaborated with Chris Smith (who holds the title The Right Honorable Lord Smith of Finsbury and is a former MP and Secretary of State in Britain) to review the six core ideas forming the root of Western civilization: Christianity, Optimism, Science, Growth, Liberalism, and Individualism. This is not a long book, but deep, and I picked up more the second time I read it. I really enjoyed the British perspective of American global dominance since the late 1800’s. Koch and Smith describe the crumbling of Western strengths as self-inflicted, and document their ideas on how to avoid what some characterize as inevitable suicide. There is hope.
Management 3.0 (Jurgen Appelo)
Agile is not just a buzzword, it’s a way to think about how to organize work and facilitate people doing great work. I’ve been thinking about agile in IT for years now, and applying it to IT projects and how they are managed. There were not many new ideas for me in Management 3.0, but in many passages I thought, “Yes, that’s a brilliant way to express that idea.”. Appelo is also not hindered by the typical American business book conventions, so Management 3.0 is a refreshing read. I also like the practical suggestions for implementation.
What’s Best Next (Matt Perman)
I’m friends with Matt Perman, and saw some early drafts of this What’s Best Next, so I was excited to see Matt’s successful launch this year. This is not yet-another-book-on-productivity, but a thoughtful approach on why we pursue productivity combined with a practical DARE model (Define, Architect, Reduce, Execute). Matt’s approach is particularly valuable for people who care about making a difference in the world with their strengths and talents, and especially for knowledge workers. I think What’s Best Next will be considered an early 21st century classic in this area.
Essentialism (Greg Mckeown)
I suspect Essentialism will be on many “best books” lists this year. Greg McKeown deeply challenges our addiction to muchness and manyness. I had multiple moments as I read when I would say, “Yes, yes!” and promised myself that I would shed complexity. My desire is still outpacing my actions, but Essentialism struck a nerve, and helped me think about my busyness with a fresh perspective.
The First 20 Hours (Josh Kaufman)
I’ve admired Josh Kaufman since I first learned about his Personal MBA reading list. (A few years ago I read all 66 books on his list – hugely beneficial.) I have passed on several copies of The Personal MBA book to others. In The First 20 Hours Kaufman breaks down how to master the critical elements of a new skill. It’s 80/20 thinking applied to learning practical skills – there are a few critical items that if practiced/mastered first, enable you to make rapid progress later. Kaufman has done us all a great service by explaining this as a process that can be applied to any new skill development.
Managing Performing Living (Fredmund Malik)
A worthy successor to Peter Drucker! This book is plain, straightforward, and gutsy. No faddish theory, no frilly anecdotal feel-good stories. Malik writes with a mentor style that cuts right past your cherished but foolish ideas about how you work, and how the real world works.
Show and Tell (Dan Roam)
I invest considerable energy in communicating with others: it’s a fundamental craft inside the craft of leadership. After reading Show and Tell on a plane flight home I fired off a quick note to the managers reporting to me – “Run, don’t walk, and get a copy of this book.” Roam brilliantly lays out a small number of archetypes of presentations, and explains how to make each effective. Don’t be put off by the cartoonish drawings. This is gold for presenters.
Turning Pro (Steven Pressfield)
After The War of Art rocked my worldview in 2012 I hesitated to pick up Turning Pro. These books are like cold-shower therapy for our creative parts which would much prefer electric blanket snuggles and “there, there, I understand it’s hard” Pablum. In Turning Pro Steven Pressfield explains that both the mindset and behaviors of professionals are distinct from amateurs. Great, challenging stuff – and written with the skill of a novelist.
King’s Cross (Timothy Keller)
I missed this when it was first published and got to it this year — what a delight! Keller works through the Gospel of Mark beautifully to help modern audiences grasp the story. Many people tell people who are interested in learning more about Jesus to read the Gospel of John; I usually suggest the Gospel of Mark. The immediacy, plainness, and simplicity of Mark’s account is powerful. Though I read a number of explicitly Christian books this year, King’s Cross affected me the most and touched my soul.
Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
I began reading this book in 2012 after receiving it as a Christmas gift, lost interest, and put it down. I came across it while reorganizing some bookshelves, and on a whim picked it up again. This year I was ready for it. Goodwin used her access to the letters and diaries of people around Lincoln and the cabinet members to paint a delectable story. These were complex men in a complicated time. Chances are good that you can identify with their struggles. If you saw the movie Lincoln (which I recommend, too) you have only scratched the surface of the depth of this book.
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