The Commanding Heights
How do you get to the commanding heights? It is pretty rare for an article in this publication to lead with a phrase popularized by that arch-critic of modern managerial capitalism, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He used it to refer to the group of key industries that make the economy function. Whoever dominates them, Lenin argued, calls the shots. But there’s another, more useful definition of the evocative term. Perched atop a redoubt, you have an effective defense against disruptive invaders and gain a 360-degree view of the territory. All of us, as we go about our work, whether we labor in politics, mountaineering, or logistics, seek to scale the commanding heights.
At strategy+business, we believe one way to stand a little higher than your peers is to spend some time mining insights from the large number of business books that are published each year. Whether they are distillations of theory or detailed playbooks, heavily documented historical investigations or futuristic manifestos, a stack of good books (or a queue of e-books on your reader) can provide a boost. Reading tests your priors and exposes you to new ideas. And, because business books in particular tend to focus on best practices and phenomenal success stories, they spur us to think about how we can raise our game.
Stacking the volumes that come through our office results in a mountain of no small height itself. In this, our 19th annual Best Business Books collection, we have the guidance of highly experienced Sherpas to lead us upward. As happens every year, we ask each of our writers to choose the three most compelling reads in one of seven genres.
Bethany McLean, a Vanity Fair contributor and author of Saudi America, highlights narratives that chronicle the vital role transport plays in our lives; these include a saga of the long U.S. railroad strike in the late 19th century, a biography of the design genius who gave General Motors its mid-20th-century swagger, and a look at the way driverless cars will transform the world in the 21st century. Sally Helgesen, an s+b contributing editor and coauthor of How Women Rise, writes that this year’s best talent and leadership books include two that focus on how companies and individuals can create safe spaces for risk taking and innovation, and one that raises an impertinent (and long overdue) question about men and leadership. Ryan Avent, a columnist at the Economist, finds promise in a group of books that take the mighty economics profession to task for its blind spots, whether it is ignoring the power of communities, failing to appreciate the role of women in propelling the West into modernity, or influencing public policy in ways that don’t always serve the common good. David Lancefield, an s+b contributing editor and a partner with PwC UK, found this year’s best strategy books all revolve around helping companies figure out how they can be viable in the future, by innovating to ward off disruptors, by harnessing data and technology to build enduring relationships with customers, and by detecting inflection points long before they materialize. Our contributing editor Theodore Kinni finds a diverse set of messages for managers in books that highlight the importance of friction, emphasize communication, and debunk the many lies we tell ourselves about how workplaces work. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, writes that this year’s best reads on technology and innovation grapple with fundamental challenges, such as how to drive radical innovation, how to manage the rise of ubiquitous machine intelligence, and how coders can make software that’s socially beneficial as well as lucrative. And Catharine P. Taylor, an editor at the marketing research organization WARC, reveals that this year’s best marketing books look at new ways to consider the customer experience, delve into the still-powerful role of agencies, and provide a realistic look at the immense potential of artificial intelligence.
There are no guarantees in life. But we’re confident that spending time with these essays, and the books they highlight, will provide a push to all the climbers.
s+b’s Top Shelf
Our picks for the best business books of 2019 in seven categories.
Talent & leadership
Tech & innovation