I first posted this last December, but I thought that it would be fun to update it for 2012. Note I have removed two from last years list: Men and Women of the Corporation and Who Says that Elephants Can't Dance? They are both great books, but I am trying to stick to 11 books and the two new ones below edge them out. Here goes:
I was looking through the books on Amazon to find something that struck my fancy, and instead, I started thinking about the books that have taught me much about people, teams, and organizations -- while at the same time -- provide useful guidance (if sometimes only indirectly) about what it takes to lead well versus badly. The 11 books below are the result.
Most are research based, and none are a quick read (except for Orbiting the Giant Hairball). I guess this reflects my bias. I like books that have real substance beneath them. This runs counter the belief in the business book world at the moment that all books have to be both short and simple. So, if your kind of business book is The One Minute Manager (which frankly, I like too... but you can read the whole thing in 20 or 30 minutes), then you probably won't like most of these books at all.
1. The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. A masterpiece of evidence-based management -- the strongest argument I know that "the big things are the little things."
2. Influence by Robert Cialdini the now classic book about how to persuade people to do things, how to defend against persuasion attempts, and the underlying evidence. I have been using this in class at Stanford for over 20 years, and I have had dozens of students say to me years later "I don't remember much else about the class, but I still use and think about that Cialdini book."
3.Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath. A modern masterpiece, the definition of an instant classic. How to design ideas that people will remember and act on. I still look at it a couple times a month and I buy two or three copies at a time because people are always borrowing it from me. I often tell them to keep it because they rarely give it back anyway.
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman. Even though the guy won the Nobel Prize, this book is surprisingly readable. A book about how we humans really think, and although it isn't designed to do this, Kahneman also shows how much of the stuff you read in the business press is crap.
5. Collaboration by Morten Hansen. He has that hot bestseller now with Jim Collins called Great By Choice, which I need to read. This is a book I have read three times and is -- by far -- the best book ever written about what it takes to build an organization where people share information, cooperate, and help each other succeed.
6. Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. It is hard to explain, sort of like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll as the old song goes. But it is the best creativity book ever written, possibly the business book related to business ever written. Gordon's voice and love creativity and self-expression -- and how to make it happen despite the obstacles that unwittingly heartless organizations put in the way -- make this book a joy.
7. The Pixar Touch by David Price. After reading this book, my main conclusion was that it seems impossible that Pixar exists. Read how Ed Catmull along with other amazing characters-- after amazing setbacks, weird moments, and one strange twist after another -- realized Ed's dream after working on it for decades. Ed is working on his own book right now, I can hardly wait to see that. When I think of Ed and so many others I have met at Pixar like Brad Bird, I know it is possible to be a creative person without being an asshole. In fact, at least if the gossip I keep hearing from Pixar people is true, Jobs was rarely rude or obnoxious in his dealings with people at Pixar because he knew they knew more than him -- and even he was infected by Pixar's norm of civility.
8. The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew May. This 2012 book has more great ideas about how to get rid of what you don't need and how to keep -- and add -- what you do need than any book ever written. Matt has as engaging a writing style as I have ever encountered and he uses it to teach one great principle after another, from "what isn't there can trump what is" to "doing something isn't always better than doing nothing." Then each principle is followed with five or six very short -- and well-edited pieces -- from renowned and interesting people of all kinds ranging from executives, to researchers, to artists. It is as fun and useful as non-fiction book can be and is useful for designing every part of your life, not just workplaces.
9. Leading Teams by J. Richard Hackman. When it comes to the topic of groups or teams, there is Hackman and there is everyone else. If you want a light feel good romp that isn't very evidence-based, read The Wisdom of Teams. If want to know how teams really work and what it really takes to build, sustain, and lead them from a man who has been immersed in the problem as a researcher, coach, consultant, and designer for over 40 years, this is the book for you.
10. Give and Take by Adam Grant. This book won't be out for a few months, but you should pre-order it so you don't forget. Adam is the hottest organizational researcher of his generation. When I read the pre-publication version, I was so blown away by how useful, important, and interesting that Give and Take was that I gave it the most enthusiastic blurb of my life: “Give and Take just might be the most important book of this young century. As insightful and entertaining as Malcolm Gladwell at his best, this book has profound implications for how we manage our careers, deal with our friends and relatives, raise our children, and design our institutions. This gem is a joy to read, and it shatters the myth that greed is the path to success." In other words, Adam shows how and why you don't need to be a selfish asshole to succeed in this life. America -- and the world -- would be a better place if all of memorized and applied Adam's worldview.
11. The Path Between the Seas by historian David McCullough. On building the Panama Canal. This is a great story of how creativity happens at a really big scale. It is messy. Things go wrong. People get hurt. But they also triumph and do astounding things. I also like this book because it is the antidote to those who believe that great innovations all come from start-ups and little companies (although there are some wild examples of entrepreneurship in the story -- especially the French guy who designs Panama's revolution -- including a new flag and declaration of independence as I recall -- from his suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and successfully sells the idea to Teddy Roosevelt ). As my Stanford colleague Jim Adams points out, the Panama Canal, the Pyramids, and putting a man on moon are just a few examples of great human innovations that were led by governments.
I would love to know of your favorites -- and if want a systematic approach to this question, don't forget The 100 Best Business Books of All Time.
P.S. Also, for self-defense, I recommend that we all read Isaacson's Steve Jobs -- I keep going places -- cocktail parties, family gatherings, talks I give and attend, and even the grocery store where people start talking about it and especially arguing about it. As I explained in Wired and Good Boss, Bad Boss I have come to believe that whatever Jobs was in life, in death he has become a Rorschach test -- we all just project our beliefs and values on him.