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Susan David’s Required Reading

The author of Emotional Agility recommends four books that leaders can read to better understand and harness their own and others’ emotions.

“Emotions can be harnessed to live and lead in better ways,” says Susan David. “For so long, we’ve treated emotions in organizations as warm, fluffy, and disruptive. Now we’re recognizing how powerfully they affect outcomes.”

A psychologist at Harvard Medical School, cofounder and codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, and CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, an organizational development consultancy, David is a leader in the effort to transform how we view emotion in the workplace. This is especially important in business today, as organizations face unprecedented complexity, competition, globalization, and disruptive technologies. Managing in this context requires the ability to adapt and flourish in changing circumstances. “The truth is,” notes David, “that organizations can never be truly agile unless the people who work within them are agile — and more specifically, emotionally agile.”

David introduced the concept of emotional agility to the business world in a 2013 article, written with Christina Congleton, in Harvard Business Review, which heralded it as a “Management Idea of the Year.” Her acclaimed book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life (Avery, 2016), outlines how to identify and accept our emotions and respond to them in ways that ultimately make us happier and more successful. (You can assess your emotional agility here.)

When I asked David about the books that influenced her thinking on emotional agility and that executives should read to learn how to effectively use emotions in leading themselves and others, she responded with four titles.

“We’ve treated emotions in organizations as warm, fluffy, and disruptive. Now we’re recognizing how powerfully they affect outcomes.”

“The first step in developing emotional agility is creating mental space to make effective choices about how to act,” she explains. “That thread connects these books. They can help leaders — and anyone else who reads them — to shift perspective and move forward in a way that is authentic and aligned with their values. These books teach the power of emotions and the importance of meaning, and how both can be used to achieve profound workplace change.”

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl (Beacon Press, 1959). “This is one of the most important books of our time. Often in life and work, we get hooked on our emotions and our stories, and they start dictating our actions. Leaders, especially, can get hooked on the idea of being right. What’s remarkable about this book is its message that there is a space between stimulus and response, and in that space lies our power and our freedom to choose. Frankl also speaks to our fundamental need to be seen, to experience a sense of meaning and purpose, to activate our own levels of courage, and to treat ourselves and other people with compassion. These are key lessons for executives, because understanding what it is that drives people is essential to effective leadership. Lastly, Frankl teaches leaders that success is not a goal — it is a by-product of understanding and moving in directions that are concordant with their values.”

Pilgrim, by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2012). “The poems in this book are about the transitions — the seasons — in people’s lives. I chose it because leaders often become overly focused on the mechanistic aspects of outcomes and organizational processes. This can lead to a loss of connection with the beauty and inspiration at the heart of life. Whyte’s poetry reconnects us to human truth in ways that can be very uplifting and hopeful. It offers leaders perspective and enables them to find inspiration in their journey.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012). “I love this book because it exposes one of the most common biases in Western society — placing extroversion on a pedestal. Cain questions that bias and the power that it holds over leaders. She shows how leaders can categorize people in ways that don’t necessarily serve them or their organizations. Leaders who read this book will learn how to find value in the unique perspectives that different personalities bring to the workplace.”

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris Anderson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). “All leaders need to be effective speakers, but Anderson’s message is that persuasive speaking is more than glossy production; he teaches that you can’t persuade people unless you start from where they are, and then take them on a journey. The book is filled with eminently practical tips — avoiding jargon, building concepts, etc. But it also has a deeper message, that creating emotional resonance in people is necessary for them to travel with you. For me, this book is a metaphor about taking people on a journey in which they become invested and choose to make key changes in their lives and organizations.”

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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