Monday, December 28, 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

As the tumultous year of 2020 comes to a close, I thought I would share a few of my favorite reads from the past year (note: a few of these books were actually published in 2019).   Here we go, in no particular order:  

A riveting account of Winston Churchill's leadership during the early portion of World War II.   Larson combs a variety of primary sources to describe how Churchill, his family, and his inner circle navigated the Battle of Britain.   I've read many biographies of Churchill, but I found myself learning something new on many occasions as I read this book.  Churchill had many flaws, and Larson documents them.  However, we also learn so much about Churchill's brilliance as a wartime leader.   

Insead Professor Erin Meyer has teamed up with Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings to write a terrific book about the unique culture at the streaming giant.  The book left me (pleasantly) with as many questions as answers.  I'm not sure other firms can adopt elements of the Netflix culture successfully, nor am I certain that they should try.  However, it seems to have worked incredibly well at Netflix, and it does have many merits.  For me, the most interesting part focused on the "Netflix innovation cycle."  I appreciated the extensive discussion about building a culture of candor, particularly given my work.  Having said that, I do worry that other firms could encounter serious challenges trying to adopt the Netflix approach on candid conversations.  

I just devoured all the Heath brothers books in the past.  Here, Dan Heath strikes out on his own and provides us an illuminating book about how to prevent catastrophes, rather than spend our time constantly fighting fires.   Heath digs into serious problems in many different facets of society, and he blends the findings of rigorous research with his fine story-telling skills and inductive reasoning capabilities.  Heath's work is full of important insights about problem-finding and error detection.   The book could not be more timely too, given the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Mike Isaac's book describes the rise and fall of Uber under founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.  Isaac offers a cautionary tale about a unique startup culture run amok and the devastating deleterious effects that emerged.   He explains the values that Kalanick championed, how they helped him build a high-growth company that attracted and delighted many customers.  Then, he demonstrates how those same values led managers to engage in a set of ill-advised behaviors, and how those actions harmed the company and many employees a great deal.  It's an easy read, and you find yourself wondering at times if it's a true story and a great work of fiction.  

Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Larson has written this fascinating dual biography of two central figures in the birth of the United States of America.   He brings to life, in vivid detail, the unique relationship between George Washington and Benjamin Franklin - perhaps the two most important and influential of our founding fathers.   In business, we often examine the interesting relationships between fascinating pairs that have shaped the founding and growth of successful companies (Moore & Grove, Jobs & Wozniak, Brin & Page, etc.).   Here we have a well-researched, engaging narrative about the partnership that helped launch a revolution and shaped a nation.  

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company 

Bob Iger has written an insightful account of his career, culminating in his tenure as CEO of Disney.  He reflects on the many lessons he's learned, as he turned Disney around after the challenging final years of the Eisner era.  One of my favorite Iger lessons is this one:  It’s not good to have power for too long. You don’t realize the way your voice seems to boom louder than every other voice in the room. You get used to people withholding their opinions until they hear what you have to say. People are afraid to bring ideas to you, afraid to dissent, afraid to engage. This can happen even to the most well-intentioned leaders. You have to work consciously and actively to fend off its corrosive effects.

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