As many of you know, I am an avid reader, and 2021 was a year of A LOT of reading. I am already building out my 2022 reading list, but as we close the year, I thought I’d share the best five books I read in 2021.
1. CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break Leaders by Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer
The CEO Test is part manual, part experiencing sharing. The authors line out seven tests that examine what makes CEOs excel and what traps they can fall into that cause failure. The tests involve developing a simple strategic plan, creating culture, building teams, leading transformation, developing listening skills, handling a crisis, and managing the conflicting demands placed on and within leaders.
2. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations by Berne Brown
Dare to Lead compiled Berne’s past writing and new research on vulnerable, empathetic, and daring leadership. She gives specific examples of what successful empathy looks like and what it does not, which was very helpful, even though I consider myself an empathetic leader. Berne encourages leaders to take responsibility for finding the potential in people – a message that resonates strongly with me as this is my purpose as a leader. My executive management team read this book together and held teambuilding activities around it, which allowed us to develop stronger relationships. All around, a must-read.
3. Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Inventor’s Dilemma, 2nd Edition by Charles A. O’Reilly and Michael L. Tushman
Lead and Disrupt is one of the most influential books I’ve read in a long while. This book is a must-read if you want to grow your business in these volatile times. Filled with excellent examples of how some companies got disruption right and others failed, it unveils the secret of ambidextrous leadership and why the best leaders know how to exploit their core businesses while exploring new businesses simultaneously. What I like best about Lead and Disrupt is that the authors give you a framework to use to grow your company – one that I have already begun implementing.
4. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste has to be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read. Isabel Wilkerson masterfully shines a light on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways racism and the caste system are used to hold people of color back, even though many can’t (or don’t want to) see it. I appreciated her historical approach and how she made me question my views. It’s not an easy book, and much of it made me uncomfortable. And I didn’t agree with all of it. But it’s in discomfort where we grow, and it’s good to read books that challenge your thinking and beliefs. I have a much broader perspective on systemic racism and my role in it. Even though it’s a tough book and has made many people angry, it’s worth reading.
5. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant
I am a huge Adam Grant fan, and this is my favorite of his books yet. Adam dives deep into how we value intelligence and go beyond the ability to think and learn. The value of intelligence in today’s age is our ability to unlearn and rethink what we think or believe to be true. Everything in this book validates what I try to do daily – apply counterfactual thinking. According to Wiki, “counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; something that is contrary to what happened.” Some call these alternative facts, but I use counterfactual thinking to challenge what I believe to be true, just in case it’s not. Adam gives practical advice on how to talk to people who believe differently than you in a way that creates an open dialog, not one where each side is trying to win an argument. He challenges you to see things from different perspectives and take time to understand what the other side cares about. He walks you through the process of why we need to think about our brief systems, our confidence in certain subjects and use this in business and our social life. If we all thought more deeply about why we believe what we believe, it would help us understand other people better. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other side, but it’s helpful to find common ground. It’s the only way we can get ourselves out of the mess we are in as a society.
Okay, I have to throw in a fiction book or two, even though I read very little fiction. I loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material Trilogy. Let me start by saying that these books are not easy “sit by the beach” reads. They are thought-provoking, and you must pay close attention to the details. I would describe these books as a cross between Sci-Fi and thriller genres, and the writing is a true creative genius. The story’s main characters are children who learn how to travel into multidimensional worlds to save their homes and each other. This is a spellbinding series, and I am glad I read all three books.
Reading 50+ books each year has shaped my critical thinking. If you want to read more on why I think critical thinking is important, check on this blog.