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Published: October 1, 2001

 
 

Best Business Books: Beyond Business

The Well-Read Executive’s 12 Steps to Better Thinking

Some 20 years ago, the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of Cambridge University in England decided to investigate the possibility of offering a management course for senior executives during the summer vacation. Cambridge at the time had no business school within the university. The organizers asked me for a list of possible speakers and teachers, expecting, I imagine, a catalog of the currently fashionable globe-trotting gurus.

I suggested an alternative approach: The last things these already successful executives needed were yet more formulae for managing money and people. Rather, now that they were moving to the top of their organizations, they needed to focus on the trends and the domains outside their immediate world of business that could affect their company in the future. Executives needed to meet scientists, political theorists, cultural anthropologists, philosophers, creative thinkers, poets, and dramatists — people who could talk to them about emerging issues in their fields and expose them to different ways of thinking about the human experience. Cambridge, I pointed out, already had an abundance of teachers from a variety of disciplines. It needed no outside resources to offer the course I proposed.

Nonetheless, Cambridge rejected my suggestion and eventually created its own more conventional institute of management studies. Last year, however, the oil multinational BP, as part of its executive development program, arranged a seminar series at Cambridge for a select few future leaders that was much like the course I had envisioned.

Power, Responsibility, and Ethics
You do not, however, need to go to these lengths to meet such thinkers. You can read their books, even after they are long dead and gone! As an integral part of the yearlong Sloan course for executives I was responsible for starting at the London Business School, we structured an ongoing seminar based on books and readings on power, responsibility, and ethics. The perplexed executives were confronted on their first day in the classroom with two books: The Meaning of Company Accounts (1971), and Antigone, the Greek tragedy by Sophocles. Antigone, I pointed out to them, was faced with the choice of obeying the law passed by her uncle, the ruler of Thebes, or the religious laws of her gods. It was a choice between authority and conscience, and between two conflicting obligations, the kind of choice that confronts many executives at one time or another. Antigone went with her conscience and would pay for it with her life, but felt her choice was right. Should executives sacrifice career to family, or vice versa? Or is there a better path between two often conflicting duties?

Antigone, fascinating though it is, can be heavy going for those not accustomed to reading plays, particularly plays written in another age, language, and tradition. In looking for a selection of books to provide an alternative to the Cambridge experience, I avoided the temptation to recommend a list of Great Books, a mix of, for instance, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, and Stephen Hawking. Some people may believe these books encompass much of what we need to think about in troubled times. I looked, instead, to books that could be comfortably read over a free weekend.

Likewise, the books I chose to discuss in this essay are accessible yet thought provoking, enjoyable yet challenging — books that have forced me, in my own life, to look again at some of my assumptions and stereotypes. In total, I propose a selection of 12 books, enough for a year, perhaps.

Periscopes into Other Worlds
To enlarge my horizons, I started, as I now always do, with novels. Great novels act as periscopes into other worlds. No one, for example, can understand Europe today without appreciating what two devastating wars in the last century did to the minds and attitudes of its peoples. Sebastian Faulks’s riveting love story Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War (1993), set amid the traumas of the first of those wars, makes the huge statistics come alive in all their horror. It makes one aware, too, of how easy it is for those at the top of things to reduce humanity to numbers, and so to ease their consciences. Wars, of course, are not the only occasion when it becomes uncomfortable to put names and faces to those “human resources.”

 
 
 
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