The best book I read this year about leadership and careers unexpectedly was The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It interweaves biographies of two presidents and friends, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, with the growth of what she calls the Golden Age of Journalism, the rise of the muckrakers associated with McClure’s Magazine.
It’s an inspiring counterpoint to today. With the rise of populist progressives, their ally Mr. Roosevelt worked hand-in-hand with the muckrakers against the political and corporate bosses, as compared with today’s presidential enmity to the media.
But it’s also Shakespearean in telling of the relationship between the two presidents. Mr. Roosevelt mentored Mr. Taft to be his successor in 1909, gave him room to be his own president by taking a one-year safari to Africa, and yet, on his return, slowly began to undermine his friend, eventually running against him for the Republican presidential nomination and, after losing, formed his own party. By splitting the vote with Mr. Taft, he helped to elect Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
Mr. Taft, ironically, never wanted to be president; he wanted to be chief justice of the United States but was pushed in the political direction by his abilities and Mr. Roosevelt, although later in life he was chief justice, a testament to life’s twists. The book is about careers and power, friendship and mentors – and ego and betrayal.
I missed it on publication in 2013 and, while recommending it fervently if belatedly, I also have, more traditionally, 10 noteworthy offerings from this year’s crop of business books for your holiday season reading:
- Great at Work: Morton Hansen, a University of California Professor and co-author with Jim Collins of Great by Choice, tested various personal productivity possibilities and came up with seven for our consideration. Among them: Do less but obsess on your priorities and test new approaches for your work every day, learning from the results.
- The Book of Beautiful Questions: Journalist Warren Berger offers a litany of questions that can help you improve decision-making, creativity, connecting with others and leadership. The book separates the questions into lists but the author also guides you through them with explanations of where they stem from and how to employ them.
- It Doesn’t have to be Crazy at Work: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of the Basecamp software company, have an iconoclastic approach to running a company and building a culture. The book is a series of jolts to our conventional thinking, from shunning goals to warning the shared work calendar is one of the most destructive inventions of modern times.
- When: Writer Daniel Pink takes a trip through what science can tell us about time, looking for practical tips to handle mood swings through the day, restorative breaks and building group timing.
- Back to Beer … and Hockey: Executive coach Helen Antoniou takes us into the Molson family and their business ventures as she tells the story of her father-in-law Eric Molson. It’s a solid look at a solid guy, who believed in restrained, humble frayed-collar leadership – a wealthy man who made sure his clothes were well worn and others were given a chance to shine. It’s humane, inspirational, richly detailed, at times puts him in a less-than-favourable light and, at least for this reader, surprisingly gripping.
- Mind Tools For Managers: Consultant James Manktelow and London Business School Professor Julian Birkinshaw offer 100 tools to know yourself, manage your career, manage your time, work efficiently and solve problems effectively. The book is a series of rapid-fire, eclectic ideas and charts – not something you can read for a long time in one sitting, but a valuable prod and resource.
- Leadership in Turbulent Times: In her latest effort Ms. Goodwin draws lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s transformational leadership with the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt’s crisis management of the 1902 coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt’s turnaround leadership in his famed first 100 days, and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s visionary leadership on civil rights. Those lessons won’t apply easily to your work and there are too many of them, but it’s an inspiring, thoughtful work.
- Costovation: Consultants Stephen Wunker and Jennifer Luo Law show how to combine cost-cutting with innovation, eliminating frills but in a deliberate (rather than delusional) attempt to wow customers.
- The Challenge Culture: Nigel Travis, chairman of Dunkin Brands, uses examples from his own 40-year career to show how to build a company in which pushback is encouraged as long as it is civil debate in line with the shared purpose.
- The Only Certain Freedom: Toronto consultant Patrick O’Neill’s paean to the freedom of entrepreneurship, sharing the ups and downs of his personal journey.
- Two honourable mentions: Dying for a Paycheque: Stanford University Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that today’s white-collar jobs are often as stressful and unhealthful as manual labour or blue-collar work but there are few protections so companies are harming and even killing employees. Rocket Billionaires: Quartz reporter Tim Fernholz takes us behind-the scenes on how entrepreneurial wizards Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are competing in a new space race to replace NASA.
- Financial Times' best business book of the year is Bad Blood by John Carreyrou on the rise and scandalous fall of Theranos, the blood-testing company. Runners-Up: Capitalism in America by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge; Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money; James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj; Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything; and Jeremy Heimans' and Henry Timms’ New Power.
- Strategy+Business’s best management books for 2018 are Humble Leadership by Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein, Mr. Hansen’s Great at Work and Heidi Grant’s Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You.
Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.