This year’s list is a little different than previous years. It’s 2020 – what else would you expect?
My reading got off to a slow start this year when I started my MBA and was finding my new rhythm in getting through all the reading and research for that (which I haven’t included here – no-one is interested in adding ‘Contemporary Accounting: A Strategic Approach’ to their 2021 reading list!).
Then Covid happened and I basically stopped reading all together, apart from study and anything that would help me lead through the unfolding crisis. It was like my brain had no more free space for processing.
I finally found my way back into reading by digging up some childhood reads from primary school (thanks Timothy Zahn!), and then by taking a leaf out of Jon Acuff’s book and recalibrating what ‘counted’ as my reads. Audiobook of a one man play? Counts! Children’s book? Counts! I also found a whole bunch of shorter reads to get me back into a flow. ‘Short’ was my friend in 2020, making this year’s list a little different than other years.
What hasn’t changed, it’s important to note, is that when I share my own personal Top 10 from the year, it doesn’t mean they are the most ‘worthy’ picks from a literary perspective. They are simply the ones that I personally found most significant, impacting or enjoyable. I’m obviously not here to tell you that Paddington (which made my top 10) is an objectively better book than The Odyssey (which did not). Rather, only that the former was more of a highlight for me than the latter in 2020 – a year when simple joys became newly important for so many of us.
So, in no particular order, here are my Top 10 reads of 2020, along with the rest of my reading list from the year. I hope there are some picks here that you can add to your 2021 reading list!
“There’s a related lesson, though, that I only came to fully appreciate years later, when I was in a position of real leadership. It’s so simple that you might think it doesn’t warrant mentioning, but it’s surprisingly rare: Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, that you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given second chances for honest mistakes.”
One of the things that struck me about Iger’s story was that it was genuinely the story of the guy who starts as a young man at the bottom of the organisation, with no formal qualifications, and rises to become the CEO of one of the world’s most prominent multinationals. It made me wonder if such a trajectory is still possible today, in an era of decreasing upward mobility and the professionalization of leadership. I read this one before the pandemic started, but in light of it, the big moves of Iger – the acquisition of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm and the creation of Disney+ through which to push all of that content – seem even more significant for Disney.
2 – Why We Sleep (Matthew Walker)
“Those participants who obtained seven to nine hours’ sleep in the week before getting the flu shot generated a powerful antibody reaction, reflecting a robust, healthy immune system. In contrast, those in the sleep-restricted group mustered a paltry response, producing less than 50 percent of the immune reaction their well-slept counterparts were able to mobilize. Similar consequences of too little sleep have since been reported for the hepatitis A and B vaccines.”
Like many people, my sleeping patterns took a hit this year, and this book was the latest in several books on the topic I’ve read the last few years. It’s also probably the best, and one I recommend everyone read. If you’re wondering how lack of quality sleep affects you and what you can do about it, check out this post.
3 – How To Be An Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi)
“The segregationist sees six biologically distinct races. The assimilationist sees one biological human race. But there is another way of looking, through the lens of biological antiracism. To be antiracist is to recognize the reality of biological equality, that skin color is as meaningless to our underlying humanity as the clothes we wear over that skin. To be antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as White blood or Black diseases or natural Latinx athleticism. To be antiracist is to also recognize the living, breathing reality of this racial mirage, which makes our skin colors more meaningful than our individuality. To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape peoples’ lives.”
I first started reading this book fairly slowly, in small sections, because there is so much to unpack and think about. However, at one point I sat down and spent several hours focused on it, and that’s when I really found myself able to engage more deeply with the richness and challenge of Kendi’s brilliant thinking, research and analysis. I think it took that extended disconnection from other distractions to immerse myself in the mental journey that is obviously still very much continuing as I seek to rethink paradigms and undo thinking patterns and biases.
4 – The Year of Magical Thinking (John Didion)
Perhaps we all understand this line a little more after this year. Didion is one of the writers I had always meant to read but never gotten around to. This, a memoir of grief, was dazzlingly beautiful in its poignancy.
5 – A Bear Called Paddington (Michael Bond)
It was very nice indeed spending time with this light-hearted children’s classic that I’d never actually read, and it was exactly the kind of small delight I needed to help kickstart my reading patterns after they had all but disappeared in the early months of the pandemic.
6 – Becoming (Michelle Obama)
“A senior partner asks if you’ll mentor an incoming summer associate, and the answer is easy: Of course you will. You have yet to understand the altering force of a simple yes. You don’t know that when a memo arrives to confirm the assignment, some deep and unseen fault line in your life has begun to tremble, that some hold is already starting to slip. Next to your name is another name, that of some hotshot law student who’s busy climbing his own ladder. Like you, he’s black and from Harvard. Other than that, you know nothing—just the name, and it’s an odd one.”
It is a function of Michelle Obama’s unique brilliance in both communication and connection-building that one can listen to her tell the story of her journey and somehow feel more affirmed within your own. By the end of it, I, like so many, was newly inspired and admiring of this extraordinary woman and leader who was raised by working-class parents who never managed to purchase a house, and yet journeyed to international leadership within the most famous house in the world.
7 – How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In (Jim Collins)
“We anticipated that most companies fall from greatness because they become complacent – they fail to stimulate innovation, they fail to initiate bold action, they fail to ignite change, they just become lazy – and watch the world pass them by… But, and this is the surprising point, the companies in our analysis showed little evidence of complacency when they fell. Overreaching much better explains how the once-invincible self-destruct.”
Like many, what I love about Collins’ work is how data-driven it is, across many organisations and industries. I love how, by following that data, he produces insights that can hold true across so many contexts, and others, like the one above, that can be counter-intuitive and yet objectively true. It’s a great balance to the subjective leadership lessons of one person in one industry that fills most leadership books (and which, as noted within this list, can also be fantastic).
8 – The Forged Coupon (Leo Tolstoy)
“In the meantime Mahin, the schoolboy who had taught his friend Smokovnikov to forge the coupon, had finished his career at school and then at the university, where he had studied law. He had the advantage of being liked by women, and as he had won favour with a vice-minister’s former mistress, he was appointed when still young as examining magistrate. He was dishonest, had debts, had gambled, and had seduced many women; but he was clever, sagacious, and a good magistrate. He was appointed to the court of the district where Stepan Pelageushkine had been tried. When Stepan was brought to him the first time to give evidence, his sincere and quiet answers puzzled the magistrate. He somehow unconsciously felt that this man, brought to him in fetters and with a shorn head, guarded by two soldiers who were waiting to take him back to prison, had a free soul and was immeasurably superior to himself.”
The last novella that Tolstoy ever wrote, The Forged Coupon is a tale in two parts. The first narrates a series of events – beginning with a forged coupon, or the equivalent of a cheque – in which treating others badly begets more and more ill. In the second, unwarranted kindness and selflessness begets good. It is at once a morality tale and yet all too recognisable in the realities of life. It paints a picture of the ways that failing to see and honour the true value of each human life leads to damaging outcomes for both individuals and society, and conversely, how calling that value out in others can lead to ripples of good we didn’t anticipate.
9 – Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great (Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, James A. Burruss, J. Richard Hackman)
“How important is interpersonal sensitivity in senior management teams made up of hard-driving individual producers? Our research suggests that it is crucial: unless half or more of the team members scored high on this capability, the team was not likely to make it into the ‘outstanding’ category.”
Another research-driven leadership book, this one focuses on the surprisingly scarce topic of senior leadership teams – what purposes do they serve, exactly, and what structures and behaviours do those that are successful have in common? I have never come across data quite like these authors are able to provide, and I found it tremendously insightful and helpful.
10 – A Promised Land (Barack Obama)
“My emphasis on process was born of necessity. What I was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already. Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities: a 70 percent chance, say, that a decision to do nothing would end in disaster; a 55 percent chance that this approach versus that one might solve the problem (with a 0 percent chance that it would work out exactly as intended); a 30 percent chance that whatever we chose wouldn’t work at all, along with a 15 percent chance that it would make the problem worse.”
If Michelle Obama’s book is a memoir of a life journey, her husband’s is a (beautifully written) chronicle of how decisions, alliances and progress (or not) got made during the early years of his presidency. I was particularly fond of the story of Obama and his team at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, when, after being told by another foreign leader’s staff that their leader had already left for the airport, they realised he was trying to dodge a meeting and instead fanned out across the building to track him down in a meeting room on another floor, smilingly gatecrashing his meeting in order to hammer out an agreement. It felt like it wouldn’t have felt out of place in an Aaron Sorkin political comedy. Its 768 pages quite honestly fly by, giving a fascinating insight into the rooms and processes that shape the most powerful country in the world, and it’s attendant global influence, but also the thinking and philosophies of the man who led it for eight years.
And the rest:
11 – The Infinite Game (Simon Sinek)
12 – Heir to the Empire (Timothy Zahn) [Reread]
13 – Dark Force Rising (Timothy Zahn) [Reread]
14 – The Last Command (Timothy Zahn) [Reread]
15 – Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Oustanding Performance (Karen Martin)
16 – The Tales of Beedle the Bard (J.K. Rowling)
17 – Walk Humbly: Encouragements for Living, Walking and Being (Samuel Wells)
18 – Sea Wall/A Life (Simon Stephens and Nick Payne)
19 – Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World (Michael Pollan)
20 – The Energy Bus (Jon Gordan)
21 – Feeding the Dragon (Sharon Washington)
22 – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins)
23 – Eat, Move, Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes (Tom Rath)
24 – Lot No. 249 (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
25 – The Captain of the Pole Star (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
26 – No Fail Meetings: 5 Steps to Orchestrate Productive Meetings (Michael Hyatt)
27 – The Vision Driven Leader (Michael Hyatt)
28 – Silos, Politics and Turf Wars (Patrick Lencioni)
29 – The Motive (Patrick Lencioni)
30 – The Ideal Team Player (Patrick Lencioni)
31 – Communicating for a Change (Andy Stanley)
32 – Where is God in a Coronavirus World (John Lennox)
33 – Dream Big (Bob Goff)
34 – What Men Live By (Leo Tolstoy)
35 – The Odyssey (Homer)
36 – The Signal Man (Charles Dickens)
37 – Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness (Jerry Cook)
38 – It (Craig Groeschel)
39 – Good to Great and the Social Sector (Jim Collins) [Reread]
40 – Nothing Like I Imagined (Mindy Kaling)
41 – Here is New York (E.B. White)
42 – Zikora (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
43 – These Truths We Hold: An American Journey (Kamala Harris)
44 – The Art of War (Sun Zsu)
45 – The Wasteland & Prufrock and Other Observations (T.S. Eliot)
46 – Self-Reliance (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
47 – Worth the Fighting For: A Memoir (John McCain)
You can find the lists from previous years here: