Back to School: Books to Make You Think

Back to School: Books to Make You Think
Fall 2016 by Sara Lawson

I love this time of year. Crisp nights, turning leaves, and a lively anticipation about what’s ahead. The back-to-school energy of fall is still in my bones. What will I learn this year? Who will be my teachers? And I have a steadfast fondness for the promise of new school supplies: a fresh notebook, a special pen, and books filled with ideas that I’m about to discover, debate, and test out.

As an avid reader and voracious skimmer, I’m always sharing book recommendations, and there are a handful that I pass out like candy. I am repeatedly recommending certain books because they address recurring themes that come up with my clients, either individual or organizational. In case you’re looking for a good book for your colleague, your boss, or to feed your own curiosity, here are a few suggestions. And while any list of recommendations is inherently subjective, the books on this list have–in my view–most or all of the following qualities:

  • The concepts in the book shifted how I thought about something, in some substantive way.
  • The authors wrapped language around ideas and experiences that we humans often wrestle with.
  • The authors made it easy to see their ideas in action and/or included useful tools.
  • The books are well written.
  • I keep returning to them, rereading or skimming, to deepen my understanding.
  • Each one addresses some facet of a topic related to leadership.

Here are the current top recommendations, in no particular order. Some of these are newer finds, some are old chestnuts.

CONFLICT AND COURAGE: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, by Patterson et al. As the authors say, “strong relationships, careers, organizations, and communities all draw from the same source of power—the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics.” This book will challenge your thinking AND give you practical steps to prepare for and navigate a high-stakes conversation.

LEADERSHIP, CONFLICT, AND PEACE: The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by the Arbinger Institute. This book addresses some big questions: “What if conflicts at home, at work, and in the world stem from the same root cause? And what if individually and collectively we systematically misunderstand that cause, and unwittingly perpetuate the very problems we think we are trying to solve?” The authors take a story-telling approach to bring some powerful and challenging ideas to life. It’s a quick read, and the stories make abstract concepts accessible. I’m not always in love with the “business fable” format, and the dialogue can be stilted. In spite of that, I keep coming back to this book because it contains invaluable ideas that feel particularly relevant in our world today.

TRANSFORMATIVE ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURES AND CULTURE: Reinventing Organizations, by Frederic Laloux. WARNING: This book starts off as a slog. I’ll be thrilled when the 120-page version comes out. In the meantime, this is a heady, sprawling, worthwhile slog. (As one of my colleagues suggested: “If you can get through the first 180 pages, it’s a readable treasure.”) The author’s point of view is thought-provoking. Actually, it’s beyond thought-provoking. It is thought-confronting. And the case studies—which feature twelve pioneering organizations from around the world—are incredibly inspiring. If you’re curious about how we approach our teams and organizations so that we can access the strengths and best efforts of the people with whom we are gathered, this is a fascinating exploration.

WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP: Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr. This book offers practical tools to help women quiet self-doubt, identify their callings, “unhook” from praise and criticism, unlearn counterproductive good girl habits, and begin taking bold action. The author and I both trained at the Coaches Training Institute, and our approach is closely aligned. Lots of big ideas made accessible and actionable, and tons of thought-provoking questions.

LEADERSHIP AND EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, by Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee. Leadership that is self-aware, empathic, motivating, and collaborative is powerful and necessary in a world that is increasingly complex and volatile. The 2013 edition is an updated classic.

THE POWER OF COMPASSIONATE AND COURAGEOUS CONVERSATIONS: Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, by Margaret Wheatley. As she says, "I believe we can change the world if we start talking to one another again." With this simple declaration, Meg Wheatley proposes that people like us—regular people—come together with their colleagues and friends to create the solutions for real social change, that are so clearly needed both globally and locally. She asserts that these changes won’t come from governments or corporations, but from the courageous process of people gathering to think together in conversation.

Enjoy! And please let me know what you think.

YOUR TURN: What books, videos, or articles do you find yourself recommending repeatedly? What are you reading, and what’s next on your list?

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