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A Library of Lasting Impressions

Author, professor, and RealTime speaker Jim Collins recommends five books for leaders, idea merchants, and change agents alike.

Jim Collins posed a vital and often-neglected question in his 1994 best-seller, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. What makes exceptional companies different from other companies? The answer: Great companies are built to last, not built to change hands in a generation or to flip in a sneeze.

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In addition to penning revolutionary business titles and operating a management-research laboratory, Collins somehow also finds time to read about 80 books each year. “I have a note on my PalmPilot that says, ‘Jim: Read only great writing.’ Because if something isn’t great, it’s stealing your life. My definition of great? If by chapter three, I find myself making excuses not to read a particular book, I know it’s not great.”

Following is a short list of book recommendations from Collins:

1. The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. A portrait of the architect behind modern New York, Robert Moses. “This guy was the Michael Jordan of acquiring and using power. Power for getting things done became power for its own sake in Moses’s life.”

2. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. “The second half of the 20th century is all fallout from World War II. Our world is a creation of Hitler. The most important and shocking idea presented in The Rise and Fall is that one of the most cultured nations on Earth produced Hitler and the Nazi party. That should make us terrified about ourselves. Our natural tendencies are truly terrifying. Every educated person should realize how dark reality really is.”

3. Goodbye Darkness, by William Manchester. “In this book, Manchester wrestles with his motivations for returning to Okinawa, Japan. The ultimate lesson is that the spirit of real camaraderie guides our best actions. What separates a great life from a good life comes down to whether you have relationships with people you simply won’t disappoint or abandon and say, The rocks are rolling down the hill, but I’ll catch you if you fall.”

4. Adaptation to Life, by George Vaillant. “This book is hard to get through, but it’s worth it. Over the course of 60 years, Vaillant studied a group of white, male Harvard graduates in order to determine what variables help people overcome the hardest challenges of life. In the end, the book concludes that influences such as family upbringing and education had a lesser effect than close, long-term relationships on the participants’ likelihood to experience illness, disease, success, or a high quality of living.”

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5. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. “We look for ways to explain success, but often we find that the world is so complex that great things happen not because of competence, but in spite of incompetence.”

Jim Collins is a featured speaker at Fast Company’s RealTime event on October 29 – 31 in Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached via email at jcc512@aol.com

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