Dec 2, 2019 | Leadership

After the presents are wrapped and before we ring in the new year, we’re looking forward to curling up on the couch with a meaty book on history, culture, or science to improve our leadership acumen. Here are the top picks that we’ve added to our holiday wish list this year.

1. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

What it’s about: Talking to Strangers is a classically Gladwellian intellectual adventure. Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

Why pick it up: For a challenging and controversial excursion through history, psychology, and scandals taken straight from the news. Gladwell revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal at Penn State University, and the death of Sandra Bland—throwing our understanding of these and other stories into doubt. In his first book since his #1 bestseller, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell has written a gripping guidebook for troubled times.


2. Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It by Felipe Fernández-Armesto 

What it’s about: Traversing the realms of science, politics, religion, culture, philosophy, and history, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reveals the thrilling and disquieting tales of our imaginative leaps—from the first Homo sapiens to the present day. Through groundbreaking insights in cognitive science, Fernández-Armesto explores how and why we have ideas in the first place, providing a tantalizing glimpse into who we are and what we might yet accomplish. Unearthing historical evidence, he begins by reconstructing the thoughts of our Paleolithic ancestors to reveal the subtlety and profundity of the thinking of early humans.

Why pick it up: A masterful paean to the human imagination from a wonderfully elegant thinker, Out of Our Minds shows that bad ideas are often more influential than good ones, that the oldest recoverable thoughts include some of the best, and that the pace of innovative thinking is under threat.


3. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

What it’s about: Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History, Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’ newspapers to write a biography of one of the greatest orators of his day and writers of the nineteenth century.

Why pick it up: A history professor at Yale who has long been a major contributor to scholarship on Douglass, slavery, and the Civil War, Blight portrays Douglass unequivocally as a hero while also revealing his weaknesses. At the same time, he speaks to urgent, contemporary concerns such as Black Lives Matter. Blight is a white man who has written the leading biography of the most outstanding African American of the 19th century. His sensitive, careful, learned, creative, soulful exploration of Douglass’s grand life, however, transcends his own identity. [excerpted from The Atlantic]


4. The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre

What it’s about: An unprecedented history of the personality test conceived a century ago by a mother and her daughter—fiction writers with no formal training in psychology—and how it insinuated itself into our boardrooms, classrooms, and beyond.

Why pick it up: Drawing from original reporting and never-before-published documents, The Personality Brokers takes a critical look at the personality indicator that became a cultural icon. Along the way it examines nothing less than the definition of the self—our attempts to grasp, categorize, and quantify our personalities. Surprising and absorbing, the book, like the test at its heart, considers the timeless question: What makes you, you?




5. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt

What it’s about: You don’t have to be racist to be biased. With a perspective that is at once scientific, investigative, and informed by personal experience, Stanford University psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt tackles one of the central controversies and culturally powerful issues of our time.

Why pick it up: To understand the neuroscience and social science about how racial bias works in our own minds and throughout society. Eberhardt’s research reveals critical information that can help leaders better understand how biases can impact our judgment and how we are perceived by those we lead.





6. The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek

What it’s about: In finite games, like football or chess, the players are known, the rules are fixed, and the endpoint is clear. The winners and losers are easily identified. In infinite games, like business or politics or life itself, the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind. Sinek surmises that many of the struggles that organizations face exist simply because their leaders were playing with a finite mindset in an infinite game. These organizations tend to lag behind in innovation, discretionary effort, morale and ultimately performance.

Why pick it up: To consider the perspective of adopting an infinite mindset as a prerequisite for how to leave your organization in better shape than you found it.




7. The Library Book by Susan Orlean

What it’s about: Orlean, a longtime New Yorker writer, has been captivating us with human stories for decades, and her latest book is a wide-ranging, deeply personal and terrifically engaging investigation of humanity’s bulwark against oblivion: the library. [excerpted from New York Times Book Review]

Why pick it up: Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.



Question: What books would you like to add to your leadership library this year?


Driven by the premise that excellence is the result of aligning people, purpose and performance, Center for Executive Excellence facilitates training in leading self, leading teams and leading organizations. To learn more, subscribe to receive CEE News



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