A Dean’s Summer Reading List for MBAs

Here are five books for summer reading for students:

1. “James Buchanan” by Jean H. Baker.  This is a short, engaging, biography of James Buchanan who is frequently ranked as the worst President in US history. Students (especially business students) can learn a lot from Baker’s discussion of Buchanan’s large flaws as a leader. And as we are observing the 150th anniversary of the onset of the Civil War, this book is a useful reminder of its causes and how feckless leaders can actually make a crisis worse.

2. “Tried by War,” by James M. McPherson.  A very well-written book about how Abraham Lincoln ran the Civil War from the Union side. It contains large lessons about crisis management, emotional intelligence, leadership of a losing (then winning) team, learning on the job, motivating subordinates with a sense of urgency, and the influence of politics in running an organization. Lincoln continued to change generals until he found a few who could actually win battles.

3. “Talent is Overrated,” by Geoff Colvin. Colvin makes the hugely important point that it’s not good genes or mindless hard work that produces high performance. Rather, it is “deliberate practice,” the kind gained by careful coaching, repetitive attention to one’s weaknesses, and so on.  It is not just what you learn, but how you learn it that really matters.

4. “The Rational Optimist,” by Matt Ridley.  The Subprime Crisis and ensuing recession produced dark misgivings about Capitalism that produced valuable reflections but also threatened to enervate students and executives.  This book is a stirring antidote, arguing that markets have produced a higher quality of life for everyone, even the poorest of the world.  Ridley presents the case that in the long run the human condition will improve.

5. “This is Water: Some thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion About Living a Compassionate Life,” by David Foster Wallace.  A very well-written and inspiring commencement speech given in 2005 (available for purchase in book form or free in a number of places online).   Wallace argues that the chief gift in a university education is the awareness of the world and the fact that you have choice about how to live in it.  A deep, provocative, and compelling piece of writing.


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