5 books every manager should read

May 20, 2016 | 0 comments

3 minute read

As you perhaps know by now, I am not a fan of management advice books.

So it should come as no surprise that when I put together a must-read list for managers, not a single one of them was on it.

That’s right – nothing by Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Peter Senge, or Kenneth Blanchard. Nor Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Howard Schulz, or any of them. In my opinion, all that stuff is…well, at the risk of repeating myself.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some excellent books out there worth a read (or two) – especially if you’re a manager, or hope to become one someday.

So kick back in your favorite hammock, or close your office door (or just hunker down in your cubicle); here are my top five books that I think everyone—especially managers—should read at least once in their lifetime:


1. The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) by James Surowiecki

Simply put, this may be the greatest book ever written on the merits of democracy and collective decision-making since Alexis de Tocqueville penned Democracy in America back in 1830. When it comes to making good decisions, the “wisdom of crowds” is unequaled under the right circumstances – and yet the continued inability of most companies to tap in to the enormous intellectual potential of their very own employees is perhaps the single biggest missed business opportunity of the last several millennia.


2. The Lucifer Effect (2007) by Philip Zimbardo

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Zimbardo’s text all but proves. This harrowing tale of authority gone awry (which seduces Zimbardo himself, to his own humiliation) is a stark and in some instances brutal reminder of the human animal’s inability to cope with authority. And as such, it should serve as a cautionary tale for any organization—for-profit or otherwise—that makes the profound mistake of organizing by hierarchy.


3. Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) by Jared Diamond

Diamond’s text opens with a question that is perhaps more uncomfortable than it is important: How did Europeans come to “settle” the Americas, as opposed to Native Americans sailing their own boats across the ocean, and “settling” Europe? Diamond’s successful quest for an answer to this question provides a unique and powerful lesson in critical thinking from which every manager will benefit (spoiler alert: it’s not because 15th Century Europeans were any smarter than Native Americans.) And it serves as an excellent reminder that we only stand to gain when we face—rather than avoid—those questions which make us uneasy.


4. The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair

Sinclair’s epic, fictionalized tale of corruption and worker exploitation in Chicago’s meat-packing plants is still the original—and extremely relevant—depiction of the everyday mistreatment of workers – particularly those at the so-called “bottom” of the organizational pyramid. Nothing can compare, of course, to the physical abuse to which some workers were subjected in that era (in fact, many of the conditions that Sinclair describes are now simply unimaginable), and Sinclair’s own solution to this sort of institutionalized cruelty is not to be taken seriously. However, it is worth remembering that the hierarchical management philosophies and top-down methods of control that resulted in the very real mistreatment of workers over a century ago remain fundamentally unchanged today.


5. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (2001) by Barbara Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich’s insightful text, which might be considered a non-fictionalized update of Sinclair’s classic, offers a unique glimpse of low-wage life in America. In subjecting herself to a unique experiment—work, and attempt to live off of, various minimum-wage jobs—Ehrenreich conveys what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bad management policies with journalistic precision. The grueling work and sometimes shockingly demeaning treatment to which she submits, and so deftly portrays, seems to have been an eye-opener for many Americans. But make no mistake, the experiences she describes are the rule, not the exception, for millions of workers – and the direct consequence of presumptively “modern” management practices.


Do you agree? Think I’ve missed anything? Shoot me a message at insubordinate@insubordinationblog.com.


Otherwise, see you next week.


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