When I was first approached about writing an article suggesting books to stimulate students’ minds during the summer season, I jumped at the opportunity. The key reason for my enthusiasm is the importance of reading excellent books and developing strong reading habits early in one’s career. In reflecting I was reminded of a quote from the very wise old sage Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s sidekick, when he said the following at the Berkshire Hathaway 2003 Annual Meeting:
I have said that in my whole life, I have known no wise person over a broad subject matter area who didn’t read all the time—none, zero. Now I know all kinds of shrewd people who by staying within a narrow area can do very well without reading. But investment is a broad area. So if you think you’re going to be good at it and not read all the time, you have a different idea that I do. You’d be amazed at how much Warren [Buffett] reads. You’d be amazed at how much I read.
Despite the “humiliation of the word” in our postmodern culture, the reality is that reading good books must form a substantial portion of a one’s life if one wants to maximize the gifts and abilities God has given. As Munger points out, successful people are seldom aliterate—that is, a person who can read but does not want to. Mark Twain commented on aliteracy in this way: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” In his Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986), Neil Postman argued what most of us in the business world see every day: that people who read and focus on print media possess a more “typographical mind,” giving them a more “sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and the abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” The bottom line is that reading good books makes a difference in the development of a well-rounded person, particularly if they have any aspirations to leadership in our world.
What books should you consider this summer that will help expand your thinking, anchor your principles and provide practical wisdom to help you become a cultural leader? I have arranged my reading list in four general categories: philosophy and worldview, leadership, real-world examples, and (my favourite) investment books.
Philosophy and worldview
One of the most influential persons in my life has been the philosopher Francis Schaeffer. My brother, Stephen Wellum, who is a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, introduced me to the writings and tape ministry of Schaeffer in the mid-1980s. This introduction shaped much of my theology and worldview and enlivened my Calvinistic upbringing. Even though he wrote more than three decades ago Schaeffer’s message is powerfully relevant because it is thoroughly rooted in biblical truth and shows how Christianity is to be lived in all of culture, including politics, the arts, philosophy, and day-to-day interaction with our neighbours.
One work by Schaeffer that stands out is True Spirituality. According to Schaeffer himself this was his most important and foundational work. Schaeffer makes it clear that Christianity is not merely an intellectual belief, nor simply a cultural responsibility, but first and foremost being born again on the basis of the historical, substitutionary and finished work of Jesus Christ. Schaeffer makes it clear that Christianity is the reality of communion with God in the present life.
After reading Albert Mohler’s blog which recommended Nancy Pearcy’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, I immediately ordered the book from Amazon. I found it to be one of the very best books on the whole subject of the Christian worldview that I have ever read. Given that Pearcy studied at L’Abri in Switzerland under Francis Schaeffer it should not have surprised me that her lucid and practical unfolding of the Christian position would come across in such a powerful and comprehensive manner. In a nutshell the book is a manifesto for Christian worldview thinking in the 21st century. It is a masterpiece of cultural analysis and intellectually engaging. Her commitment to the Lord of Truth is clear and unambiguous and speaks to one of the biggest needs of our time. Her book takes the reader beyond simply intellectual truth, which is absolutely imperative, and emphasizes that we must be those who live truth in all areas of life, since Christ is Lord over all His creation. How are we taking the truth of Christ into all aspects of our life so that we can truly be agents of change?
A good friend of mine recommended The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell to me a few years ago. Although I disagree with some of his conclusions, many of his basic points are quite valuable and thought provoking. The tipping point is that critical moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire through the society. For me, the book underscored two key points: how little things can make a big difference over time, especially when aggregated; and how human beings are profoundly social beings, heavily influenced by other human beings—sometimes for good and sometimes for evil.
The Long Trail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson is a fascinating book that looks at the implications of a “wired” world where almost everyone is hooked up to the internet and how this is making impact on our decisions as a society. Anderson’s thesis is that our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the top of the demand curve, toward a much larger number of niches spread over the tail (along the distribution curve). As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all boxes. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other distribution bottlenecks, narrowly targeted goods and services can be economically feasible, and create new market opportunities for adept companies. The music industry is one of the industries most profoundly influenced by this development, and many other industries are and will be affected in the future. This is one book that really challenges one’s thinking: to look at the world from the perspective of the internet, digitization, and the increasing impact choice will make on retailing decisions. I love to read books that shake up your paradigm and help you think outside the box.
Another book that really took me out of my comfort zone and encouraged me to think further about the impact of the internet and digitization is Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. It is a very recent publication based on a $9 million research project looking at how the masses of people can take part in the economy like never before. Millions of connected people can now actively participate in innovation, wealth creation and social development in ways never thought possible only a few years ago. The implication is that for many companies to succeed, leaders must think differently about how to compete and how to be profitable and embrace a new art and science of collaboration which the authors call “Wikinomics.” The book goes beyond open source, social networking ideas and focuses on some of the deep changes in the structure and operations of the corporate entity and our economy, based on some of these new competitive principles such as openness, peering, sharing and acting globally. Even traditionally mature and stodgy companies such as Procter & Gamble and BMW are taking advantage of Wikinomics in order to cut costs, innovate faster and co-create with customers.
One last book I would recommend to the very serious student who is looking for the ultimate book dealing with issue of Christianity and pluralism is D.A. Carson’s book entitled The Gagging of God. Carson responds comprehensively to one of the most pressing questions of our day, “Is Jesus the only way to God?” If one wants the best work dealing with this crucial question, this is the book to buy and read and re-read.
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner are excellent authors when it comes to the importance of leadership. I recommend two of their books, The Leadership Challenge, written in the mid-1990s, and a more recent book, A Leader’s Legacy. Everyone can benefit immeasurably by thinking about what it takes to be a leader. Each of us will in one form or another act as leaders and, therefore, leadership is everyone’s business.
Leading at a Higher Level: Blanchard on Leadership and Creating High Performing Organizations by Ken Blanchard, the co-author of The One Minute Manager: The Quickest Way to Increase Your Own Prosperity. Blanchard and his colleagues at The Ken Blanchard Companies have spent more than twenty-five years helping good leaders and organizations become better. I found this recent book to be an excellent summary of their work where they focus on showing managers and leaders how to go beyond the short term and zero in on the right target and vision. They also describe how companies can empower people at various levels in the organization and dramatically increase the effectiveness of the company. I met and heard Ken speak recently at a conference in Toronto and appreciated his message. When considering any books on leadership it is always important to mention that the defining work on leadership is ultimately the biblical text and our ultimate example remains our Lord Jesus.
Real world case studies
Roger Lowenstein’s book, When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management, is a “must read” because it shows how educated and highly intelligent people can through arrogance and greed shake the global financial system. Lowenstein captures the roller-coaster ride of Long-Term Capital Management in detail! Founded in 1993 by notoriously successful bond arbitrageur John Meriwether the company was hailed as the most impressive hedge fund in history. The firm boasted a partnership that included two Nobel Prize-winning economists and a cadre of Wall Street’s best and brightest elite traders. After four years of incredible success they suddenly suffered catastrophic losses that jeopardized not only the biggest banks on Wall Street but the stability of the global financial system. Unbridled hubris and arrogance in the hands of exceptionally bright people is one of the greatest risks we face in our financial system today. Students will find this a compelling and riveting read and better appreciate that pride goes before a fall, and that principles and ethics really do matter.
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . And Others Don’t by Jim Collins is a wonderful book that should be read to understand some of the differences between good and great companies, and how a mediocre company can be transformed into a great company. One powerful and thought-provoking point Collins makes is that “good is the enemy of great.” Let’s never be satisfied with less than our full capabilities! Collins and his team start with a universe of 1,435 companies. After analyzing and studies the companies that made the greatest improvements in their performance they hone in on the business practices of only eleven businesses. What they find is that these companies share common patterns of success.
When one talks about investment books there is no better place to start than with the “investment guru” himself, “the oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffett. Although there have been many books written on Buffett, the best by far is Warren Buffett’s own four-page booklet, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: An Owner’s Manual. It is the simplest and clearest explanation of what investing is all about.
Peter Lynch’s One Up on Wall Street: How to Use What You Already Know to Make Money on Wall Street is another classic read and, most importantly for students from various disciplines, simple to read, very entertaining, and highly informative. One of Lynch’s classic ideas on investing is to get out of your home (university dorm) and check the world out for yourself. Why do you shop at the store you do? Why do you buy certain products and services? Maybe there is an investment opportunity by simply reflecting on your own behaviour and the behaviour of those around you!
Another great investment book is Philip Fisher’s Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits. It’s extraordinary in a way that would not register with most people especially today in our digital, over stimulated age. Philip Fisher looked upon the investment advice handed out by the professional investment community with disdain, and he dedicated his life to gathering physical facts, first hand. Unless one stops for a moment and thinks about this you will not realize how different this is. Nearly all investors today think information equals blips on screens or ink dots on paper. Only a handful of investors go to the source of information, to the companies, to the people in the companies and to others in the know—something Fisher described “gathering scuttlebutt.” For Fisher being a great investor means swimming against the current but only because you are armed with the information that justifies this contrarian behaviour!
The last and perhaps the best investment book one could read is Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor: A Book of Practical Counsel. This is not an easy read, and is more for the hard-core investor or business student. Warren Buffett has said repeatedly that this is by far the best book on investing ever written. Since its original publication in 1949, Graham’s book has remained the most respected guide to investing, due to his timeless philosophy of “value investing” which helps protect investors against making short term decisions based on fads, trends, and momentum instead of on the substantive long-term value of a business.
So now you have my list. Take the time this summer, on a daily basis, to read as many great books as you can. Vary your reading and ensure that you are reading books on as wide a platform as possible. Read books outside your chosen area of study!