This year has been a big one for business news. But if you have some time during this holiday week to step back from the information onslaught, there are a handful of truly eye-opening business books that are worth your attention. As I do every year, I pored over dozens of books to identify several gems. Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century is a smartly argued book. As you may be able to tell from the title, Scheidel makes the case that throughout history, inequality has led only to terrible things (think pandemics and wars). For anybody who has ever debated issues related to inequality and their broader meaning, this book provides more than just a powerful thought experiment. The next book on my list is not a business book exactly, but it does offer a lot of great lessons about leadership: Grant by Ron Chernow. Lloyd C Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, has it at the top of his own reading list for good reason: In recounting the life of Ulysses S Grant, Chernow illuminates a leader who almost wasn’t. A substantial portion of the book examines Grant’s many failures, in business, in politics and in his personal life. It was from those failures that Grant emerged to become a two-term president, and perhaps one of the nation’s most under-appreciated leaders. Another well-told book about leadership, one that intelligently masquerades as a book about sports, is Sam Walker’s The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.
Walker spent years identifying the most successful sports teams in history, and then tried to figure out what had made them that way. His answer: “The most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it.”With genuine insight, he describes seven characteristics of great captains, whom he refers to as Tier One captains. One trait in particular stuck out to me, especially in this age of selfies: “Most of the Tier One captains had zero interest in the trappings of fame. They didn’t pursue the captaincy for the prestige it conveyed.” In the business narrative category — those fly-on-the-wall books filled with delicious details about corporate intrigue — the best were The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and One of the Greatest Financial Scams in Financial History by David Enrich, about the Libor scandal, and Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination by Adam Lashinsky, about Uber. Enrich, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is now an editor at The New York Times, turned what could have easily been a dry academic story into a page-turning, John Grisham-like thriller. Lashinsky’s book gives readers an inside view of the ride-hailing giant’s creation and what created the broken corporate culture that yielded so many negative news stories this year. Wild Ride offers a searing portrait of Uber’s former chief executive, Travis Kalanick, whom Lashinsky shows to be both a genius and wildly headstrong (and not in a good way). Because of when it was published, the book does not include many of the episodes that consumed Uber in 2017, including Susan Fowler’s viral blog post about the company’s misogynistic culture and the ouster of Kalanick. But until that book is written — and it surely will be — Wild Ride is a good primer. Given all the rightful attention on sexual harassment in the workplace, it is worth revisiting Ellen Pao’s story as she tells it in Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change. A venture capitalist at the prominent Silicon Valley firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Pao was one of the first to speak out publicly about a culture that is desperately in need of change and went to court to fight it. Although she lost her case, she may have won something larger, or at least started a larger movement. “I could have received millions from my adversaries if I would just have signed a nondisparagement contract; I turned it down so I could write this book and share my side,” she writes. If you’re a wonk, two books worth nerding out on are Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought by Andrew W Lo, and Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. Fair warning: These books are not beach reads, but they do make significant contributions to the fields they cover.
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