By: Jim Flynn, clinical professor of management
While many are at home and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought we’d continue our recurring segment that shares what our Kelley School of Business professors at IUPUI are reading. We hope it inspires YOU to pick up a book when (or in some cases, if!) you find some free time.
My love for reading started at an early age – with magazines and newspapers. At home, we got the evening paper, and I remember I’d read the sports section first. Then, I’d read the editorial page to look for columns interested me (at age eight!)! My parents also had a subscription to Time magazine, so I’d read that, as well as Sports Illustrated.
My family was very interested in politics and economics when I was growing up, so I found myself interested in those topics as well. I’ve always loved reading about history, and as a management professor, I am intrigued by biographies about leadership, management and innovation and by books about events that shaped history.
Here are just a few of the books I’ve read and a few I’m still looking to read:
The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller: This is an easy-to-read book written by a history professor. His point is that we’ve gotten carried away with measuring things – which sets up incompatible goals as a result. I had students read part of this book for a class this semester. I think it’s interesting to consider: What are the most important things to measure in an organization? Are you measuring them with the right measures and is the resulting data helping drive your organization toward the correct end goal? Often, we don’t, which leads to suboptimal decisions and poor performance.
Put the Moose on the Table: Lessons in Leadership from a CEO’s Journey through Business and Life by Randall Tobias and Todd Tobias is very interesting. This is Randall Tobias’ biography. He’s the namesake for Indiana University’s Tobias Leadership Center and the Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development. (And he’s the former president of the Indiana University Board of Trustees). There are many good leadership lessons in this book – all kinds of little things he learned along his journey over three decades of leadership, including as CEO of Eli Lilly and Company. Here are two examples of the many takeaways from this book. First, early in his tenure as CEO, he sat down for lunch in the Lilly cafeteria. Many people were stunned that the CEO would eat with them. It had been a long time since a CEO had done that. It showed approachability. Second, the book explores his first meeting with the executive team at Eli Lilly. The day he started, there was a crisis at the company, and it explores how he handled that as a new CEO. It’s a very powerful story.
A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service by Robert M. Gates: Gates is an IU alumnus, and he wrote this book after he retired. It takes an approach many people don’t talk about – discussing leadership versus management. He notes how there is little leadership in organizations, but there is a lot of management. I recommend this book to anyone looking to gain more leadership knowledge.
My Life in Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way by Frances Hesselbien: Peter Drucker once called Frances the “best CEO in America.” This is a fun book reflecting on Frances Hesselbien’s life and leadership, including her 25-year service as the CEO for the Girls Scouts of America. Her autobiography shows how her life, her family and upbringing shaped her leadership. Frances not only advocates servant leadership and humility, but she is the role model for them. I have had Honors students read this book, and it’s truly worthwhile as a guide to consider the lessons we learned growing up and the lessons we are modeling to others.
When reading biographies and stories of major events and innovations, you begin to see common patterns in how problems emerge and effective solutions are developed. They can help us to understand events, forces and people around us. It’s also insightful to compare the events and people in them to your own leadership journey or to use these journeys and approaches in your own life.
The life of Chester Carlson, who invented Xerography (Copies in Seconds by David Owen), is an amazing story. He grew up in extreme poverty, and it took him years to sell his invention to companies. It’s just a fascinating story of a man whose invention created the term we use for a whole industry: “xeroxing.”
Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson: Ferguson is a history professor at Harvard. This book talks about how western culture evolved, and the six things the west had that he says spurred its dominance for some time. Those features are part of the implicit values and assumptions that many of us use daily.
This is one of the books I have started recently. Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou, is about the scandal at the now-defunct blood-testing startup Theranos. The CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, promised investors a technology (needing only a small amount of blood and tests could be completed quickly) that worked – but it turned out that it didn’t. As others have done, she kept putting out false statements until the company collapsed. Holmes is now facing federal fraud charges.
Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten: This is the story, also told in a movie two years ago, about Winston Churchill’s decisions and leadership early in World War II, during the fall of France. It focuses on the utter importance of the art of communication for leaders.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: This book is about Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who conducted many studies about decision-making processes and the human mind, creating the field of behavioral economics. Focusing on their friendship and partnership, this book focuses on their work that is reshaping our understanding of how people and organizations make decisions. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for this work. (Tversky had died by then and, therefore, was ineligible to also win the Prize.)
Al Capone and the 1933 World’s Fair by William Hazelgrove: This is about how Chicago, in the middle of the Depression and fighting organized crime, had the wild idea of holding a World’s Fair. The story of how Chicago’s public and private sectors managed to put together a highly successful fair under these circumstances is very interesting.
If one is working in any service business, Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace, by Ella Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin, is a very worthwhile read. The subtitle of the book, “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” grabbed my attention. It embodied Ella Brennan’s approach to her hospitality businesses. She was the leader of Brennan family, which is known for their world class restaurants, including Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s. Commander’s, her personal restaurant, is famous for its food, service and being the place where many famous chefs first gained public acclaim. She not only elevated the definition of service, but she also added the concept of an “experience,” something that is a model for any service firm.
The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield: This is the story of the Guinness brewery and the Guinness family that ran it for 250 years. They were progressive in their management philosophy and practices. This book combines strategy, management, leadership and socially responsible business practices. You don’t have to like beer to enjoy this book.
How Churchill Waged War by Allen Packwood: One of my sons gave me this book for Christmas. This book focuses on Winston Churchill’s decision-making processes during what he thought were five of the most important decisions he made during World War II.
As a lifelong learner, reading is one of my favorite pastimes. I think books and reading – even as technology changes around us – are imperative to learning, growing and seeing the bigger picture. Books tell a story; they can provide an escape from reality, and they provide insight into leadership struggles and decisions, as well as moments in time that otherwise wouldn’t be remembered and analyzed by us in the same way.