These are my top five books not traditionally considered in the business and leadership genres that have had significant impacts on my approach to life and business.
#1 - Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May — September 1787 (Catherine Drinker Bowen)
The ability to be genuine is not only a difficult quality to hone, but one that often gets lost in the shuffle of budgets, timelines, and board meetings.
Every once in a while, I will come across a line of text that stamps itself on my mind. One of those quotes is from Miracle at Philadelphia which puts forth an engaging narrative of the Constitutional Convention.
The author discusses the roles of James Madison and George Washington and comments on their serious dispositions:
“One rejoices that these men felt no embarrassment at being persistently, at times awkwardly serious, according to their natures.”
Self-improvement is such an important thing. Especially in the age of emotional intelligence awareness, so much growth is possible with a little honesty and effort.
But we must be careful not to change parts of ourselves merely because they are different from others. Sometimes our differences are not flaws or faults, but unique strengths worthy of just as much time and attention as our shortcomings.
When we are genuine, natural confidence naturally follows. Our ability to lead by example increases, and our efforts to lead by exhortation gain credence.
Madison and Washington were not short on faults or failures, but their commitment to being genuine even in difficult circumstances is worthy of appreciation and emulation.
#2 - The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation (Frans Johansson)
The Medici Effect may have a focus on innovation, but the potential applications are nearly endless when examining the benefits of looking outside of fields of expertise. A macro perspective is often filled with answers that might otherwise elude us, but at the very least it contributes to an expanded knowledge base for future questions.
The author looks at a colorful combination of people and ideas, remarking on the results from people who merged together ideas not thought to be related. He writes, “When they did, they generated ideas that changed them, their organizations, and, ultimately, a part of our world.”
Indeed they did.
But their achievements in no way restrict us from making similar headway in our relatively small endeavors.
What prevents us from using principles from the nonprofit sector to understand challenges of government bureaucracy, historical trends to understand what applies to modern market challenges, or even bullet-points from executive training to become a better ground-level HR specialist?
Specialization is a near necessity in today’s marketplace. But specialization without expanded knowledge is restrictive—both to ourselves and to those we can influence.
A combination of specialization in micro-level relevance and macro-level applications provides us with a unique ability to make a difference everywhere we go.
#3 - Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Joshua Wolf Shenk)
Abraham Lincoln is a recognized example of determination and dealing with failure. But his life holds more subject matter than his political efforts alone.
Lincoln suffered severely from depression—referred to at the time as “melancholy.” Interestingly, depression was seen far differently in political life than it is now. Rather than a stigma or a deal-breaker, depression was widely recognized as a painful price certain people paid for insight into an essential but challenging aspect of humanity.
Yet the benefit of deeper knowledge alone was never enough to comfort Lincoln.
Lincoln fought political battle after political battle, losing time after time after time. But he also fought a much harder internal battle day after day—even hour after hour. Like his political life, his personal life was not short of failures in relation to depression.
But he kept pushing on. When it wasn’t crippling, depression was fuel to do better the next time around.
We face similar opportunities in our personal and professional lives. Failings at work and outside of work do not have to define who we are. It is the response to our failures that determine our own greatness.
#4 - Les Miserables (Victor Hugo)
Victor Hugo’s masterpiece could be on any number of book lists. One reason it appears on this one is because of its ability to provoke compassion and awareness.
In America, we often refer to the book and the musical in shortened form, “Les Mis.” But the plurality of the title is what makes it so meaningful in this context.
Here we have a tragic story with tragic characters. Some find redemption, others find love, still others waste away. What they all seem to have in common is a claim on being the most “miserable.”
As a teenager, I related most with the lovebirds and how awful it was to have unrequited love or be separated from someone I cared for. With age, other characters began to battle in my mind for the title of the most miserable. It did not lessen my compassion for characters I previously best understood, but it opened my eyes and my heart to the struggles of others.
The ability to sympathize is powerful. It is one thing to understand someone in our own situations just like I understood the young love angst of a Marius or Eponine or Cosette. It is a wonderful feeling to help a client, employee, or boss struggling with something we know all too well.
But we can have so much more influence as we expand our compassion from those whose struggles we know from experience to those whose struggles we never want to experience — whether that is a personal struggle or a professional challenge.
#5 - Heroes & Villains: Inside the Minds of the Greatest Warriors in History
As it turns out, the greatest warriors in history share an essential characteristic with those considered great it almost any field.
The author of this book writes that “if asked to pin down one essential prerequisite for all successful warriors, I would reply that it is an extraordinary capacity for dealing with simultaneous and accumulated stress.”
Who has not been in a situation where what once seemed impossible morphs into a memory than seems enviable?
For example, it is one thing to be approaching a major deadline too fast. It is another thing to pass the deadline, and another still to pass the deadline and face the reality that the work still needs to be done but you forfeit all compensation.
But even that situation is enviable when your reputation is damaged and you cannot secure more work as a result.
Coming up quickly on a deadline pales by comparison to being unemployed and losing your home. But each stage from beginning to end feels oppressive in the moment. The person who can manage any one of these challenges deserves appreciation.
The person who can handle one on top of the other, however, is a very rare find. Becoming unflappable is a status that can only be attained through a great deal of experience. The ongoing result, while difficult to achieve, is one of great capacity and influence—in things small and large, personal and professional.
Each of these books contain principles that can be applied in the business world. We do not need to be James Madison to embrace genuineness when it is so much easier to conform. Global results are not a prerequisite for using macro-level principles to better our micro-level worlds. Depression or political ambition are not required to deal successfully with our failures. Personal experience does not have to set the boundaries of our compassion. And compounded challenges can be much more than mere descriptions for times in our lives that crush us.
Business principles are everywhere to be found - including in sources not so traditional.