Below is a selection of books and articles I’ve come across over the years that have informed my thinking not just about business, but about the world, history, and my own preconceptions (which I try to be aware of so I can control). They aren’t listed in any particular order. The more I read, the more I know I have to learn.
Three Empires on the Nile; The Victorian Jihad, 1869 to 1899, by Dominic Green. “A secular regime is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers. Caught between interventionists at home and fundamentalists abroad, a prime minister flounders as his ministers betrays him, alliances fall apart, and a runaway general makes policy in the field. As the media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos, the armies of God clash on an ancient river and an accidental empire emerges.” Any of that sound at all familiar? The book also offers a disturbing but informative history of slavery in that part of the world. Sadly, the last sentence in the book, published in 2007, is “Today, the price of a child slave in Sudan is thirty-five dollars.”
The Psychology of Pandemics, by Steven Taylor, was published in 2019 before the pandemic. Which is what makes it such a good, short read. Bottom line, human nature has not changed one bit. It’s a very academic book, running just 158 pages- 47 pages of which are citations and references. His stories from other pandemics will sound familiar, as will his clinical discussions of why people act the way they do. But the section “A Portrait of the Next Pandemmic” in the final chapter will leave you laughing or shaking your head. Maybe a little of both. I got the book out of the library because it’s really expensive. You might want to do the same.
Winning and Losing in One-Click America, by Alec MacGillis, is about how Amazon grows and how it has impacted the people, governments, and companies it interacts with as it grows. In some ways for good. More often, not so good. The focus on how Amazon has changed the lives of individuals makes it a very impactful read. It’s relevant in thinking about income equality and how solid manufacturing jobs have been replaced by lower pay and benefit fulfillment jobs.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right is by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild and was published in 2016. The author spends a lot of time in Louisiana meeting, talking and making friends with people who’s politics put them on the far, though not necessarily extreme, right. She learns about their motivations, their concerns, and their fears. The lesson to be learned is that they are just people concerned about their families, friends and communities and feeling some trepidation about how their circumstances are evolving and having a sense that they haven’t always been fairly treated. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t agree with them on many issues, but I would enjoy having them over for dinner.
This is timely. Some of the books below- The Fourth Turning, The Storm Before the Calm, This Time is Different and some others- chronicle repetitive cycles of American history. Perhaps comfortingly, they tell us that in the past the crisis has come and gone, suggesting it will be that way again. But they aren’t prescriptive. They don’t tell us what to do or how the crisis will resolve itself. The Politics Industry, by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter, takes a shot at that, and I’m pretty convinced by what they say. Their suggestions for changing our political system, based on changes already underway in some states, seem grounded in reality. The description of how the progressive movement addressed similar political dysfunction during the guilded age will give you hope. It might even galvanize you to do something.
The Storm Before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 1920s, and the Triumph Beyond, is written by Stratfor founder George Friedman. The title kind of says it all. In a look at how this country was founded and evolved, George identifies, discusses, and retraces the remarkably similar cycles the United States has experienced before. History, as they say, may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. Trump didn’t get us to where we are and Biden won’t fix it. We the People will work it out, changing out institutions and social structure in the process. Because that’s what we’ve always done. The downside is that it’s going to take the 20s and maybe into the 30s to accomplish it. At least, that’s how long it’s taken before. Read the book. See how the dysfunction has crept in before and take some comfort from the fact that we have always managed to work through it.
Lords of Finance- The Bankers Who Broke the World, by Liaquat Ahamed, was published in 2009. It is about the events leading up to and culminating in the Great Depression as told through the personal histories of the heads of the Central Banks of the world’s four major economies at the time: Benjamin Strong Jr. of the New York Federal Reserve, Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Émile Moreau of the Banque de France, and Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank. It will remind you how little human behavior has changed and that perfectly rational individual behaviors can have catastrophic results when taken by many millions. The echoes from the past are obvious in our current situation. But my conclusion, and perhaps yours, is that as bad as our current recession is, it doesn’t seem likely to become a second Great Depression. In its description of the gold standard, the impact of World War I reparation payments, and the way the capital crunch spread across the world it provides excellent context and perspective on today’s environment, even as there are fundamental differences.
Given our current situation, I’m reading for the second time The Day the Bubble Burst; A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It was written in 1979. You can find it here on Amazon. It’s free if you’re a prime member as a kindle download. Read about the businessmen and bankers trying to get the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low and about the individual retail investors who had no idea what they were doing but thought, as the market went up, that it could never go down. And how they borrowed to invest with 10% margin and got wiped out. Learn about the embezzlers in a mid-western bank who were just about to pay back everything they had stolen to invest when the market crashed. Learn what Henry Ford, J.P Morgan, Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini were up to. The shoeshine boy who made some money from the tips (both money and information) his rich clients gave him. He lost a bunch of it, but when the book was written he was still there, shining shoes, to be interviewed. The book isn’t about finance. It’s about people rich and poor, known and unknown, and how they reacted as the market boomed and then went bust. When you finish it, you’ll think to yourself, “Not much has changed.”
There’s a lesson there somewhere.
I urge you to rush out and get Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History. Heard the term “magical thinking?” Somehow, people have decided they have the right to believe whatever they want to believe and that their belief is enough to make it true. The subject of climate change came up in a discussion I was having with somebody and at one point he said, “I don’t believe it.” Now, obviously it’s okay not to believe what somebody said. But it is not okay to use it as a defense of your own position or as some kind of justification for why the other person is wrong. How did we get so uncomfortable exploring information that is for or against a position and trying to reach the best conclusion we can? This books explains how it happened.
Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, is a fascinating and disturbing look at a business most of us are in. The bottom line is that the clothing business as presently structured can’t be allowed to continue. It is just remarkably destructive to people and to the environment. There’s a bunch of good news in the book about technologies that are starting to change that. But as those changes take place, we’re going to have to change too. Personally, after reading it, I’m planning to buy fewer, higher quality garments and keep them longer. And try to see they don’t end up incinerated or in a dump (which she says is what happens to 85% of clothing) when I’m done with it. Can’t wait to have my own 3D garment printer with cartridges of colored, recycled natural fabrics. Wonder what happens then to all the retail stores. Every see the list of what’s in the dye that is probably used to make your jeans?
China’s Vision of Victory, by Jonathan D. T. Ward, is a wake up call for the United States, and for our allies who share some to all of our values. To put it succinctly and perhaps a bit too dramatically (but maybe not), China wants to take over the world. They have been logically, consistently, persistently and in a coordinated way pursuing that goal since 1949. This is a wake up call. Most of us are not yet awake enough.
The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts. You’ve never heard of Andrew Marshall. He was a self-effacing genius who established and was appointed to head the Office of Net Assessments at the Pentagon in 1973 by President Nixon. He was reappointed by every president, of whichever party, through Obama. He retired at age 95 and died just a few months ago at 97. Best quote from him: “One man can only prevent so much stupidity.” He has had a lasting impact on U.S. military thinking including foreseeing the rise of China and the impact of technology on warfare. Much of his thinking is as relevant to running a corporation as to running the military.
Retail’s Seismic Shift, by Michael Dart, was suggested by a friend a year ago, but just made it to the top of my reading stack. I should have taken my friend’s suggestion sooner. There’s a good summary of the book at the link. In the last chapter, there’s an interview with former VF Corporation Eric Wiseman that you should be interested in if you’re wondering how VF is doing what they are doing. I probably like this book partly because it makes so many of the points I’ve tried to make, though with way better research behind it. Nobody, including the author, knows what surprises tomorrow holds, but if you don’t have your own list of probably changes and possible responses, this is a great place to start. The one thing they don’t address (which I think is very important) is how to make doing what they suggest in the environment they envisage financially viable.
Zero to One; Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel, was published in 2014. Peter is the founder of PayPal, and has a lot of interesting things to say about what allows you to create a successful business. He says you should try and avoid competition at all cost and notes that, “…if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.” That has never happened in the action sports, active outdoor business, right? Part of the reason it does happen, of course, is that “Entrepreneurs are always biased to understate the scale of competition, but that is the biggest mistake a startup can make.” His discussion of why you want to avoid competition at all costs in at least insightful and may be brilliant.
Notes On a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, by Suzy Hansen was published in 2017. It tells the story of Ms. Hansen living in Turkey and traveling in Greece, Afghanistan, Egypt and Iran in the post 9-11 world. She describes how she went from naive to perhaps realistic about how other countries think about the United States and why we, as Americans, are so completely out of touch with that thinking. How have we deluded ourselves into believing we’re a shining beacon of freedom and justice while helping to overthrow elected leaders, and providing the tools and support the dictators who supplanted them need?
A Fine Mess- A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System, by T. R. Reid, is an intriguing read about about the condition of our income tax system and what has been tried in other countries; sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It won’t surprise you to learn that our tax system is a mess. In some countries, filing your tax return takes half an hour or less. It probably also won’t surprise you to learn that the fixes are conceptually simple and most of us would agree generally on what should happen. But then there’s politics and money and interests wanting to preserve or expand their special interests. It should make you mad as it does me.
Fed Up– An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America, by Danielle DiMartino Booth, is a look at the Fed through the eyes of an insider who was never co-opted by its insular and arrogant culture. Danielle had to work hard to get herself taken seriously because she didn’t have a PhD. When you finish reading the book you’ll understand why she left and why there’s not a chance in hell she’ll ever be back there. You should also be concerned, though that isn’t a strong enough word, about what the Fed is doing and what they believe. This is not the kind of stuff you learn in the popular press. Highly recommended.
Economics in One Lesson was written by Henry Hazlitt and published in 1946. Henry was a business journalist for around 35 years before he wrote this short, common sense book. He doesn’t have a PhD in economics. To me, that’s one of the things that recommends the book. The Federal Reserve has 750 of them. How’s that working out?
But I digress. What Henry wants you to understand is that economics is the process of looking beyond the obvious impact of a an economic change, policy, or circumstance to the hidden and long term results. So whether we’re talking minimum wages, farm price supports, tariffs, price controls or other forms of market manipulation, the impact is not just what the supporters of the policy want you to focus on. It is long term and ripples through the economy. What somebody gets, somebody else loses and there’s no way to get away from that.
It’s simple and it’s commonsensical (no PhD!). And you can get it for free in PDF form at this link.
Coming Up Short; Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, by Jennifer M. Silva, was published in 2013. Through interviews with 100 young adults, and a review of other research, it addresses how the economic and social instability they have faced shapes them. It talks about how the markers of transition to adulthood have changed, and how young adults have changed as a result. If you’re trying to sell product to this group, you might care about this.
Essay on the Nature of Trade in General, by Richard Cantillon, was written, they think, around 1728 but not published until 1755 after his death. He was one of the first to get rich off possible the first bubble in financial markets (John Law’s Mississippi system). Some suggest he is the father of political economy. His essay is as relevant now as when it was written. If you get nothing else out of it, you’ll come away convinced that nothing much changes in human nature. Here’s the last paragraph of his book.
“It is then certain that a bank, in concert with a minister, is able to increase and support the price of public stock and to lower the state’s rate of interest with the consent of this minister, when these operations are discreetly managed and in this way free the state of its debts. But these refinements, which open the door to making great fortunes, are rarely managed for the sole benefit of the state, and those who operate them are often corrupted. The excessive banknotes that are created and issued on these occasions do not disturb the circulation because, as they are employed for the purchase and sale of capital stock, they are not used for household expenditure and they are not converted into silver. But if some fear or unforeseen accident drove the holders to demand silver at the bank, the comb would explode, and it would be seen that these are dangerous operations.”
It’s translated from the French, and the language is a little archaic, but you just can’t read that without thinking of the actions of the Federal Reserve, the asset bubbles they’ve created and the inherent and continuing dangers of the fractional reserve banking system we have.
The more things change……………….
What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn was published in 2014. I met Denise when I was in the San Diego area to make a speech and talk to a company about some consulting. Honestly, I don’t read business books as often as I used to (which explains why this page isn’t updated more often) but Denise sent me a copy so I read it. I’m glad I did.
I’ve discussed from time to time the importance of having a clarifying set of goals and objectives so that people know WHAT TO DO and WHERE TO FOCUS. My point, made in a general strategic sense, is that this makes the organization not just more competitive, but more efficient. I believe that efficiency saves money, or at least helps assure you spend it in the right place.
Denise wouldn’t disagree with anything I’m written (I hope), but she is way more specific in applying these concepts to branding. The examples she uses and the process she outlines is rigorous, but very doable. Now, there are lots of books on branding out there, but her book catches the things of importance that have changed in branding recently that we are all generally aware of, but often unsure how to manage.
You certainly know that advertising and marketing are no longer an adequate description of the tools you need to use in brand building. Denise tells you what the new tools are and how to utilize them. If you don’t understand the concept of “brand as business,” you will after you read this book.
The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail was written by Clayton M. Christensen and first published in 1997. The book is about how high tech companies have responded, or failed to respond, to disruptive technologies. The current edition has been updated but even if it hadn’t been, it would be well worth your time. Action sports/youth culture is not exactly a technology based industry. However, the discussion of organizational change and paralysis will strike a chord with you no matter what industry you’re in. The importance of taking risks, but not risks that bet the farm, is highlighted. And I find the idea that just because a market for a product can’t be identified and quantified doesn’t mean there isn’t a market intriguing. It’s also well backed up by examples.
The New Rules of Retail, by Robin Lewis and Michael Dart (2010), describes unequivocally how the traditional relationship between brands and retailers is breaking down and what’s replacing it. I’ve referred to the book in a couple of my articles. They talk about the imperatives of 1) providing an experience for the consumer that literally makes a neurological connection in their brain, 2) having preemptive distribution and 3) controlling your value chain. And, by the way, they note that operating really well is not an advantage- it’s just the bar you have to get over to even have the chance to compete. If what they want you to do is a bit intimidating, it’s also compelling. As usual, the bigger the challenge the greater the opportunity for those who rise to it. Their discussion of VF Industries may be of special interest to my readers.
John Mauldiin’s Endgame, published in 2011 is the easiest to read, most straight forward explanation of what’s going to happen, and is happening, as the world economy deleverages from its debt buildup I’ve seen. Get the book.
Published in 1997, so written before that, is The Fourth Turning; What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. Here’s what authors William Strauss and Neil Howe say in their first chapter. “Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire. Yet this time of trouble will bring seeds of social rebirth.” If you first think they are a couple of gypsy fortune tellers, their analysis of history will convince you otherwise. We have, on a regular basis gone through long cycles of Highs, Awakenings, Unraveling and Crisis. Our last crisis was the Great Depression and Second World War (though there doesn’t necessarily have to be a war) and we are due for another. Because that’s the way it happens as the generations roll along and interact with each other. Not to trivialize what they are saying, but if you, as a business person, can capture the market implications of the evolving social context, you might sell a bunch more. You need to read this one.
I’m in the middle of reading This Time is Different- Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. It was published late in 2009 and you can find it here. heir conclusion, of course, is that it isn’t different, and hardly ever is. They’ve been reasonable rigorous, so there’s a lot of data, charts, and explanation. But chapters 13-16 can be read on their own and will tell you all you need to know about our current economic and financial circumstances.
Tom Hayes’ Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business(2008) is an easy, interesting read that will make you think about the future of advertising and promotion. The key point I took away from it is that our attention is becoming a valuable commodity. Here’s a link to it.
The Black Swan- The Impact of the Highly Improbable came out in 2007. Talk about good timing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes compelling arguments that so called highly improbable events aren’t improbable- they are just hard to imagine. This is relevant to markets, business, and investment and is particularly fascinating to read after our financial meltdown. It’s not an easy read. This guy is really smart and uses about twice as many words as he needs, but it’s worth it. Here’s the link.
“Disruptive Change- When Trying Harder is Part of the Problem.” Harvard Business Review, May 2002. Interestingly enough, trying harder is a problem when the business environment changes because of the tendency to do more of the same thing you’ve always done. Typically, those things are not the right things to do anymore. As I’ve written, this corresponds to my own experience doing turnaround work. You can get a copy at the HBR site if you want it.
CHANGE- Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. By Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland, and Richard Fisch (1974). These guys are academicians with an interest in how people perceive and solve problems. For somebody like me who’s done some work with financially troubled businesses, this is practically a bible. It’s only around 150 pages and doesn’t talk about a single business situation. But the insights it gives into why people behave the way they do in circumstances of stress and change are invaluable. You can get it here. Look, it’s still in print so it must offer some value.
Competitive Strategy- Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. By Michael E. Porter. First published in 1980, it’s been revised and is its 60th printing. The chapters on competitive strategy in emerging Industries, the transition to industry maturity, and competitive strategy in declining Industries still have something to offer. I think it’s safe to say that Professor Porter had never heard of action sports, but that makes his analysis all the more interesting to those of us who have been in the industry a while. I imagine you’ll recognize some of the trends and patterns he discusses. Take a look.
And if Porter doesn’t convince you that there’s nothing new under the sun in business cycles, read Edward Chancellor’s Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation. Published in 1999, it will convince you that fundamentally, the internet bubble or the housing bubble was no different from the South Sea schemes of the early 18th century. The statistical concept of regression to the mean rules- in financial markets or industries. What goes up must, indeed, eventually come down. Buy it here.
Kellogg on Integrated Marketing. Edited by Dawn Iacobucci and Bobby Calder. Published in 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. This book was like a whack on the side of the head for me. Skip some of the chapters that go into extreme detail on some approaches to marketing and market research if you like. But when you read the chapters on how information how moved down the food chain, changing marketing and markets, you’ll say, like I did, “Hell, I knew all that- why didn’t I ever put it all together and do something about it?!”
Okay, here’s a really weird one. Bruce Catton, the noted Civil War historian, wrote a three volume centennial history of the Civil War. The second volume, called Terrible Swift Sword, was published in 1963. I’m kind of a Civil War nut, so I recommend all three volumes, but all I’d really like you to read is pages 308-321 on The Seven Days battle. If you think of Robert E. Lee as the entrepreneur who didn’t allow his preconceptions to limit his options and Union General in Chief McClellan as a CEO who was paralyzed by perception and fear, you have one of the best business stories I’ve ever read.
Relevance Lost- The Rise and Fall of Management Accounting.Written by H. Thomas Johnson and Robert S. Kaplan and published in 1987, it’s still relevant given all the creative corporate accounting we’re confronted with today.