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Six Days That Changed My Brain

Just after college, I read a remarkable book called The Day the Universe Changed. Author James Burke takes the reader through an engaging history of technological innovation, showing how, for example, the development of Renaissance painting made possible the discovery of the New World, how the Chinese weaving loom led to the modern computer, and other similarly fascinating stories. Burke demonstrates that most real, meaningful change usually comes when people look outside their field for a solution or opportunity, rather than plugging along inside of it.

That was an invaluable lesson to have ingrained in my head at the start of my management career. In the ensuing years as an HR leader and an obsessive reader, I’ve encountered other similar books that I started reading for personal reasons, but which ended up making their biggest impact on the way I did my job. In the hope that you’ll be inspired to look them up - or better yet, make a list of your own from your interests - I offer five other books, mostly non-business-related, that made me better at my job and may do the same for you.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. He may have set out to write a book about improving human relations, but he ended up giving the world the best book on leadership ever. It’s worth dipping back into a chapter or two every now and then.

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie. I bought this book for the story of the pre-World War I great power naval arms race (can you believe my wife still loves me?). But what stuck with me was the amazing story of Sir John Fisher’s recognition that the Royal Navy’s glorious traditions in the 19th century’s age of sail were dooming it to a mortally dangerous obsolescence in the 20th century. Against resistance from all sides, Fisher recruited brilliant rebels to re-examine every assumption about what a battleship was and how it should be designed, and in the process created not only the first modern battleship but the modern navy. Anyone claiming an interest in organizational culture change and change leadership should read this book (and you can skip the chapter on the Moroccan crisis of 1904).

The Campaigns of Napoleon by David G. Chandler. 1200 pages of maps, battle narratives, and thumbnail biographies of dozens of people with long names isn’t for everyone. But any business leader willing to dive in will find that this engrossing book offers nearly endless lessons about leadership, vision, communication, and organizational cultures that are challenged, shattered, and painfully rebuilt - or not. Lots of real-world leaders publish worthwhile books, but even the best tend to make sure that their own warts never appear too black. Chandler’s portrait of this tumultuous and colorful age gives food for thought about what works – and what really doesn’t – from one of the greatest leaders who ever lived.

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. Drucker is kind of the J.R.R. Tolkien of business writers. They both created their respective genres, but in truth none of their respective successors come anywhere close to the originals. If the previous recommendation sounds intimidating, try this slender volume that offers invaluable, practical guidance for any “knowledge worker.”

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Any successful leader has to remember that all employees, no matter how serious or laughable their foibles and follies, deserve our respect and compassion as fellow human beings. If it’s possible for a novel to teach that lesson without being sentimental (and while keeping up an engrossing plot), this one did for me. It’s the only novel I ever read that left me thinking, “this is how people really are.”

What’s on your list? If you’re not sure, now’s a great time to start building one.


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