Executives should read fewer management books. I don't mean that
reading is a waste of their time; on the contrary, they should
read more. The question is what to read. My own view is that only
one book in 20 should be a business book.
That may sound odd coming from an author of three management books,
but I'm convinced that you can improve your leadership capabilities
by drinking deeply from the well of great books that have been
published in a wide variety of disciplines. For one thing, the
business and management genres offer precious few superb books
with new insights, good writing, and timeless value. I can think
of fewer than 10 published in the last 50 years.
More important, outstanding leaders and thinkers often get their
best insights by reading outside their primary field. Abraham
Lincoln, for example, forged his thinking on the slavery question
by reading Euclid's ancient treatise on geometry and then applying
the concept of logical proof to the great issue of the day. Charles
Darwin read about Adam Smith's economic concept of the "invisible
hand" while struggling to formulate his biological concept of
natural selection (which, of course, became the invisible hand
in the theory of evolution). Peter Drucker told me that the most
influential author in his intellectual development was the Danish
existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The great entrepreneur
Henry Ford avidly read essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson and applied
Emerson's ideas to his company.
Here are a handful of my most highly recommended selections:
Chimpanzee Politics, by Frans de Waal. Even
more enlightening than Machiavellis The Prince, this
book describes power takeovers and social organizations in a chimpanzee
colony and argues that power politics is part of the evolutionary
heritage that we share with our closest nonhuman relatives. Ill
never look at academic or corporate politics the same way, and
I understand their machinations much better for having read this
book. Chimps, unlike humans, do not cloak their political pretenses
in rhetoric, so we can see more clearly the process at work and
thereby learn much about ourselves.
The Guns of August, by Barbara W. Tuchman.
This book may well have saved the world from nuclear holocaust.
During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy drew directly
upon the lessons of Tuchmans bookwhich chronicles
how, in August 1914, European nations locked themselves into irreversible
political and military positions and thereby needlessly brought
about the slaughter of World War I. In the midst of the missile
crisis, Kennedy said, I am not going to follow a course
which will allow anyone to write a comparable book [about the
missile crisis]. Superbly-written, this book teaches valuable
lessons about how an organization can be led or driven into calamity
through pride, arrogance, and misunderstandings.
Influence, by Robert B. Cialdini and The Psychology
of Attitude Change and Social Influence, by Philip B. Zimbardo.
I dont see how anyone can hope to be an effective manager
without having a basic understanding of social psychologythe
forces of human influence and the dynamics of social behavior.
These two classic works, both jam-packed with specific examples
and fascinating research studies, teach invaluable managerial
lessons. For example, revolutionary change can best be accomplished
by incremental revolutionaries, who lead people from
A to Z by taking small steps from A to B, then from B to
C, then from C to D, and so on, so that the step from Y
to Z hardly looks like a revolution at all. Another tidbit: explicitly
assign people to play devils advocateto consider
the oppositeand thereby dilute the influence of groupthink
that so often plays a role in disastrous decisions.
In Love and War, by Jim and Sybil Stockdale.
As the highest-ranking POW in the Hanoi Hiltonin captivity
and under physical and psychological torture for seven yearsJim
Stockdale displayed iron-willed integrity under the most severe
conditions. Stockdale teaches that freedom is a state of mind
and that the two greatest weapons of enslavement are guilt and
fear, not bars and walls. Stockdale drew strength from Job in
the Bible, with its central lesson that if you persist in asking,
"Why me?"if you fail to accept that life is not fairyou
Means of Ascent, by Robert Caro, and Truman,
by David McCullough. I love biographies. They offer us a chance
to learn from the experiences of others and to develop role models
and antimodels. Caro shows through the rise of LBJ how those consumed
by ruthless, amoral ambition can become influential in democracya
tale that's riveting, revealing, and depressing. McCullough, in
contrast, inspires with the story of Harry Truman, a failed businessman
with rock-solid midwestern core values, who rose to become one
of the most important and effective presidents in U.S. history.
Taken together, LBJ and Truman demonstrate that while a leader
need not be morally grounded to become powerful, the judgment
of history depends directly upon ones own moral character.
The Pandas Thumb, by Stephen Jay Gould.
We cannot understand our complex world without grasping the basic
elements of evolutionary theory. In fact, Jerry Porras and I dedicated
an entire chapter of our book Built to Last to how visionary
companies like 3M and Hewlett-Packard often evolved
in a way that only in retrospect looks planned. All of
Goulds books on evolution and natural history are superb,
but Pandas Thumb is my favorite and is a good place
The Plague, by Albert Camus. In this novel
Camus wrestles with the question, How do we find meaning in a
seemingly meaninglessand certainly brutal and alienatingworld?
His answer: we must create our own meaning by infusing
our tasks with a sense of purpose and by seeking human connection.
What does that have to do with management and leadership? Everything.
The builders of great organizations appreciate people's deep yearning
for meaning, and they instill a shared sense of purpose and create
tightly knit cultures that bond people together. Sam Walton made
discount retailing a meaningful pursuit, as David Packard did
with technology, and Mary Kay Ash did with selling cosmetics.
The Second World War, by Winston S. Churchill.
This 5,000-page, six-volume autobiography and chronicle of the
years 1919 to 1945 is the best book on leadership Ive read.
Churchills eloquence comes to life as he describes day by
day the monumental task of holding Britain and, later, the allies
together against the Axis powersa burden he shouldered at
age 65 and carried until age 70. I learned from Churchill the
inspirational power of reframing difficult times into a broader
goal. When in 1940 the whole world wondered, Can Britain
survive? Churchill countered that the goal was not to survive,
but to prevail. Brilliant!
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music: The Greenberg
Lectures, by Robert Greenberg, as part of the Superstar
Teacher Series. Im going to cheat a little here and include
a purely audio book. The Superstar Teacher Series,
produced by the Teaching Co., in Springfield, Va., assembles the
best teaching professors to present courses on tape. The Greenberg
music series combines a history of western civilization with a
history of great music from ancient Greece to the 20th century.
Greenbergs 48 lectures come alive with passion and knowledge
while they rock and roll with music from Mozart, Beethoven, Bach,
Wagner, and others. The course illustrates the interplay between
societal change and innovation, and offers a unique perspective
on the acceleration of change wrought by the 20th century.
Someday perhaps Ill write a column recommending the few business
books of the past 50 years that are actually worth reading, but
until then you might want to stick to reading a wide variety of
nonbusiness selections. It will give you a better return on investment.
Copyright © 1996 Jim Collins, All rights reserved.