This past week and a half, I participated in an experiment on LinkedIn that looked and felt a lot like the annoying Facebook multi-day challenges that involve tagging one’s friends and asking them to do some task. Perhaps to some it was similarly annoying and equally as meaningless. The challenge was to post, over ten days, the covers of ten books that have influenced your work—only the cover, no description—and tag someone else to do the same. I decided to take up the challenge, with a twist, after reading yet another dismal report about the dearth of women in leadership, this one the Wall Street Journal analysis “Where Are All the Women CEOs?” I made a long list of books that have influenced me, over the past couple of decades, and then winnowed it to ten that are less well known and perhaps less obvious in their potential to influence. And rather than randomly tag my closest associates or my most active social media buddies, I decided to nominate only women and to tag only women in each posting. I shared my intent only with those I nominated, and many of those women did the same by nominating only other women or minorities or other underrepresented populations. I hope that the experiment will grow exponentially and engage more women in speaking out and speaking up on social media as well as offline. Was this experiment meaningful? Admittedly, probably not. But when I saw the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020 that found we are unlikely to find gender parity in our lifetimes or even within the next generation as it currently stands at almost 100 years away, I think all experiments towards parity are worth trying.
While many folks influence my thinking over the last couple of decades, from Tom Friedman (The World Is Flat, Thank You for Being Late) to Simon Sinek (Start with Why, The Infinite Game) to Brene Brown (Daring Greatly, Dare to Lead, The Gifts of Imperfection) to Jim Kouzes (The Leadership Challenge), here are the 10 books whose covers I posted and why I selected them.
This is the little-known story of how the Visa credit card was invented in 1968. It is a tale of early networking thinking by a pioneer who believed that the most resilient structures are not top-down hierarchies but rather collaborative systems of agreements like those found in nature. Dee Hock, the founder of the modern credit card, calls these systems “chaordic” because they exist between chaos and order and operate by shared agreements of purpose and practice. Hock sought to create an organization bigger than himself and quietly stepped down from the CEO role in 1984, believing that if he had created a resilient and sustainable organization it would not be dependent on his engagement. Hock chose to live a life of quiet anonymity on a ranch on the Pacific coast, which is why you have probably never heard of this visionary.
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I believe the future of work is learning and adaptation. Our identities are deeply entwined with our ability to adapt because to unlearn and adapt one must have comfort with not knowing, comfort with vulnerability. This is nearly impossible if you you’re your core personal identity is under threat. Shifting cultural changes are resulting in identity crises for some, about which I spoke in 2018. I can think of no more difficult and honorably brave personal transformation than relinquishing an extreme belief system that is the foundation of one’s family and community. Doing so is the ultimate in unlearning, vulnerability, and courage. Equally impressive are the students at New College who led with empathy to guide Derek Black (godson of KKK Grand Wizard David Duke) out of radicalization through love and acceptance.
3. Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The Art of War is a Chinese military strategy document attributed to Sun Tzu and believed to have been crafted in about the fifth century BC. Its thirteen chapters, each detailing a different military scenario, read as true today in our modern world of business as they did to warriors twenty-five hundred years ago. I marvel at the longevity of this ancient text and its relevance to various forms of competition, from sports to business.
4. Phil Jackson, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior
Coach Phil Jackson, with eleven NBA championships as a coach (and two as a player), is rated as one of the best coaches in NBA history. Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers and managed personalities from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O’Neal by promoting the “we” over the “I.” Jackson’s unconventional approach included meditation and readings to help players mentally prepare to engage with their best collective selves in service to the team. Though it was written twenty-five years ago, this book is a fantastic guide to modern leadership in the fourth industrial revolution.
5. Julia Butterfly Hill, The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods
Julia Butterfly Hill climbed up a redwood tree for what was supposed to be a one-day protest sit but ended up lasting 738 days (more than two years!). In her story, Hill shares her growing empathy with the loggers who tried to remove her from the tree as she began to appreciate that her environmental protest was a threat to their way of life. May we all find this level of understanding of our perceived enemies in this time of extreme political polarization.
6. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work encourages us all to persist through failure to continuously learn and adapt. In this seminal book, she describes the power of a growth mindset. According to Dweck, a fixed mindset lives in a binary world of absolutes with failure as a stopping point rather than a friction point in the resilient pursuit of learning. A fixed mindset views ability as settled, while a growth mindset views people as works in progress. Dweck suggests that we embrace the concept of “yet”: you have not found the solution “yet” rather than “you failed.” This book showcases the research that backs up the perspective attributed to Thomas Edison: “I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”
Creating presentations is part of work for a lot of people, many of whom find it daunting at best and paralyzing at worst. Dan Roam is a master at simplifying the process of organizing your thoughts in order to build and execute a comprehensive and coherent presentation. This a highly visual quick read that can be used by almost anyone, from a high school student to a senior executive.
8. Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changes, and Challengers
Before Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur offered the elegant simplicity of the business model canvas, most companies struggled to articulate their existing business model, let alone strategize how to pivot to their next. This highly visual four-color book includes case studies and exercises to help teams work collaboratively to understand their current, and chart their next, business model. The team behind this book has also created companion books: Business Model You, Value Proposition Design, and Testing Business Ideas. (Disclosure: This book was co-created by 470 “Business Model Canvas” practitioners from forty-five countries, of whom I was one. I do not receive now, nor have I ever received, any remuneration for this engagement.)
9. Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth
Knowledge work is now a collaborative act. Research published in Harvard Business Review in 2016 found, “As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success. According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.” If organizational success now depends upon effective collaboration and if, as I propose, the future of work is learning and adaptation, we need to better understand how to create teams that are adept at rapid learning. Research by Alison Reynolds and David Lewis published in Harvard Business Review reveals that teams that are superior at problem-solving share two traits: cognitive diversity and psychological safety. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson conducted almost thirty years of research into team dynamics and found that the highest performing teams enjoy psychological safety, a term coined by Edmondson in her 1999 paper “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” In 2012, Google’s Project Aristotle, a two-year study of 180 internal teams, also found psychological safety to be the number one determinant of high-functioning teams. The Fearless Organization is a quick read and a practical guide on how to establish psychological safety at work.
10. David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
As a speaker who relies on synthesizing often disparate pieces of information and whose career has spanned product design, design strategy, management consulting, investment banking, and academic curriculum building and strategy, I am a big fan of career exploration. In my work as a future-of-work strategist and speaker, I warn that our obsession with career specialization and occupational identity is a trap that prevents us from adapting to changing market conditions and finding opportunities that align with our innate passions. It turns out that specialization, especially early specialization, often does not result in superior achievement as we have come to believe it does. In this fascinating book, Epstein uses examples from sports to business to music to demonstrate that career exploration builds a wealth of analogies and experiences to bring to our occupational self-expression. As I have said, let’s stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. Epstein tells us why amassing a range of experiences early is a great investment. People who specialize early in university may get a salary premium, but those who wait to specialize and experiment first make up for that salary difference over the long haul. And do not be so quick to assume that start-up success is the domain of youth as Zuckerberg suggested: research from Northwestern, MIT, and the U.S. Census Bureau found that the average age of the most successful entrepreneurs is not twenty-five but forty-five.
Reflecting on this list I would not change a single one of them, but I do note that I only have three female authors on this list and that is abysmal. I defer to my friend and colleague, Rachel Happe, who, in response to years of reading the “31 Most Influential Business Books” or the top “101 Business Books of All Time” crafted her own list “60 Strategy and Leadership Books Written By Women.” My hope is that we keep reading; we continue to share what inspires us and why; we continue to experiment; and, eventually, we begin to both hear and read greater diversity in those voices.