Last week, there was a wonderful essay in The New York Times about a leadership program created by the old Bell System back in 1952. The all-powerful telephone company worried that its executives needed a broader perspective, not just on business but also on society, even life itself. “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions,” one sociologist explained. “An educated man knows what questions are worth asking.”
Working with the University of Pennsylvania, Bell launched the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives–a 10-month program in which businesspeople read and debated the Great Books, visited museums, and studied architecture. The “capstone” of the program was a series of eight three-hour seminars devoted to Ulysses. Can you imagine? Twenty-four hours devoted to the discussion of a single (and famously vexing) novel!
As I finished the Times piece, I lamented how little time any of us has to think deeper, look broader, and reflect on “what questions are worth asking.” Of course, as summer arrives, there’s the hope that we can carve out a bit of time to read one or two books that may leave a mark after we’ve returned to the grind. So, in the spirit of humanistic studies, I reached out to a diverse and intriguing collection of thinkers, writers, CEOs, and entrepreneurs and asked what non-business writing has had a big impact on them, and that they’d recommend others. They sent back a diverse and intriguing collection of fiction, science fiction, and history that is bound to stir the soul and challenge the mind.
My friend Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, told me his choice was easy, albeit not the easiest read. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, first published in 1946, explores Frankl’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and his quest for a reason to live. Why this book? “It’s a two-fer,” Dan says. “Part of it tells a gripping tale of surviving a concentration camp. Part of it elaborates Frankl’s theory that the quest for meaning is the essence of being human and that it can be pursued in any circumstance. His single-sentence guide to behavior is a gem: ‘Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.'”
The struggle to reckon with human behavior in its many dimensions was at the heart of many of the titles recommended by my informal book club. Len Schlesinger, president of Babson College, the country’s top-rated school for entrepreneurship, told me that he “regularly revisits” Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. “Sometimes I read the script, other times I watch a video of the play. It’s still the greatest work on the struggle to define success, and the struggle between success as an employee and success as a family leader.”
Eliot Spitzer, the former Attorney General and Governor of New York, suggested that everyone who wants to understand what went wrong on Wall Street re-read Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. “It explains the financial crisis and what drives that world better than any work of economics or history ever will,” Eliot says. “The sense of entitlement surrounding the world of finance was and is the root of the problem.”
Harriet Rubin, who left an indelible mark on the world of business books as the founder of Doubleday Currency, has a different novel to recommend. “A group of business leaders and I have started a Brothers Karamazov summer reading group,” she tells me. “One book, the whole summer: slow reading. Our ROI: a rip-roaring tale that has us asking ourselves how to make moral decisions in chaotic times. And: Can one prevail without the group? Dostoevsky’s novel was David Simon’s inspiration for The Wire. It’s an epic case study in which one economic system is being replaced by another. But unlike economists, pundits, and CEOs, Dostoevsky prompts the deep question: Who will we be when capitalism ends as it appears to be doing?”
Dean Esserman, Chief of Police in Providence, Rhode Island, is one of the great change agents I’ve studied over the last few years. I expected to get from him a great piece of crime fiction, or maybe a look at poverty and the justice system. Instead, he recommended a classic on economics, first published in 1953, called The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, by Robert L. Heilbroner. Of course, the Chief’s choice makes sense. How can anyone take command on issues of law and order, crime and punishment, without a deep immersion in basic questions of what makes us tick, and competing ideas for how to bring out the best in people and society?
Guy Kawasaki, the marketing genius and technology evangelist, also reached deep into the past for his choice. His strong recommendation was If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland. The core message? “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” I’d never heard of Ueland’s book, but Guy described it as “the best book about creativity that I’ve ever read.” Lots of other people seem agree. First published in 1938, a new paperback edition was released this past May.
Science fiction is a favorite escape from the workaday world, and it also has the virtue of illuminating where the world is going. So it’s no surprise that sci-fi was a favorite of my group. Seth Godin–entrepreneur, blogger, and big-picture thinker of the first order–urges people to read (or re-read) two classics of the genre by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.
Software entrepreneur Jim Lavoie, cofounder and CEO of fast-growing Rite-Solutions, is one of the most down-to-earth innovators I’ve met in a long time. He recommends an out-of-this world classic called Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. The book is about a school where the world’s brightest children learn how to defend the planet against alien invaders. “It was controversial when it was published,” Jim says, “mainly because of the violence, but the book describes what’s happening today in terms of visualization, immersive environments, and player-tracking technologies. It shows how technology can allow you to get excellent at something you’ve never really done before.”
Susan Smith Ellis, CEO of (RED), the business-and-social-change initiative founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver, recommended The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston, a nonfiction book that reads like science fiction. The book chronicles the battle over smallpox, which was eradicated from nature more than 30 years ago, but kept alive in secret locations to allow for further study and defense against biological attacks–a decision with haunting consequences. “Imagining the insanity that some men may go to in a quest for what, exactly, is a good exercise in perspective,” Susan says. “But you can’t just be scared out of your wits, so let me recommend another book”. She picks the just-published (and much-praised) novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. It’s just what you need over the summer, Susan says, an exploration of “self-destruction, the search for redemption, art, music, and breathtaking writing.”
But enough about history, economics, and technology. Leadership is an affair of the heart as well as the head, and the truly lasting impact of literature is its capacity to shape how we feel as well as what we think. Maureen Bisognano, executive VP and COO of the Institute for Health care Improvement, leads an organization devoted to improving quality and efficiency in medical systems around the world–which means she spends much of her time identifying best practices, analyzing statistics, and evaluating performance. But when the numbers threaten to overwhelm the mission, Maureen turns to dispatches from Pulse–Voices from the Heart of Medicine. “I read it every time it comes into my inbox,” she says. “You never know if you’ll laugh or cry, but you always find yourself in the shoes of a patient or, more often, a staff member at a hospital. I sometimes read them aloud at our staff meetings to keep us all close to our mission.” The posts have been compiled into a book, Pulse: The First Year, so you can now read them all in one place as a source of inspiration and motivation.
As for my choices, I’d nominate two very different books on leadership. The first, When Pride Still Mattered, is a biography of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi by Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss. It’s one of the greatest biographies I’ve ever read, and it will soon be a Broadway musical. My second choice is The March of Folly by historian (and two-time Pulitzer winner) Barbara Tuchman. She looks at some of the great failures of leadership in history–the Trojan War, British reactions to the American colonies, Vietnam–and teases out lessons that illuminate more current leadership crises.
Here’s hoping you find time this summer to read a few of these selections. At the very least, find time now to suggest your favorite work to others. What’s your pick for a must-read book? Put it in a comment and we’ll generate our own list. See you on the beach!
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review