At the start of the year, in preparing for a part-time MBA, I absorbed as many leadership, strategy and management books as palatable – not bad for one’s general reading but certainly enabling a head start.
This included revisiting Peter Thiel’s Zero to One but also exploring the less well-known Parag Khanna’s The Future is Asian, and William Thorndike’s even less known but excellent The Outsiders – a book on unorthodox CEOs that good friend Jordan Shopov kindly gifted me.
Indeed, The Outsiders was fascinating.
In an era when we singularly lionise CEOs like Warren Buffett and other charismatic celebrity-types, or elevate trendy corporate concepts, Thorndike shows us the importance of linking leadership and humility to capital allocation and per share value.
While Buffett is impressive it was Singleton, from 1963 to 1990, that returned an astounding 20.4% compound annual return to shareholders.
He spent comparatively little on business development, corporate affairs, centralisation and, importantly like other CEOs profiled in this book, avoided spending large sums of essentially shareholder money on lavish headquarters.
For a non-business mind The Outsiders was a refreshing – and demystifying – read on getting back to basics.
Aside from business books, a mid-year trip to the Middle East prompted me to discover the late Colonel David Smiley’s Arabian Assignment. This was an excellent find.
Smiley – a WW2 British military and intelligence officer – is a late writer I now put in the same category as Patrick Leigh Fermour, given his ability to have not only been a highly skilled physical soldier but able to possess a clear mind and good turn of phrase.
His accounts commanding the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces and helping lead the SAS against rebels in the Dhofar campaign (1963 – 1976) reminded me of a leadership discipline and hardships of different era. This was especially as we motored around the endless opulent stream of Bentleys and Rolls Royces in the neighbouring modern UAE and Bahrain.
It showed how different the Middle East has become and, indeed, another book that spoke to contrasting regional change – of the political kind – was Jarod Kushner’s Breaking History, where Kushner discusses the backroom and personal motivations – amid a few other bits and pieces – behind the Abraham Accords.
Whatever one’s politics, it is an interesting insight into the White House from 2016 to 2020, where someone with little background in policy or process came to the office with a mind toward delivering on commitments.
Anyone interested in public policy, and even the changing dynamics of Middle Eastern leadership, from someone with a truly unique level of political access, will find this book insightful.
Another interesting read was James Wolfensohn’s A Global Life – something I’d been meaning to read for over a decade.
Wolfensohn, who had very meager beginnings in Sydney, fenced at the Olympics for Australia, studied at Harvard, became a successful investment banker and, in the 1990s and early 2000s, headed up the World Bank.
Driving his early success, aside from some obvious intelligence, he said, was “a mixture of fear of failure and a desire to excel at my job.”
Toward the end of the book, noting his time at the World Bank, Wolfensohn noted something that I strongly agree with from my time in attempting to develop institutions and working in international aid. “Without respect for cultural continuity and for social institutions, I felt certainly, there could be no true development.”
Joe Hockey’s Diplomatic, where the former Treasurer records his time as Ambassador to the United States, was also another decent and entertaining read.
Hockey – a unique type of personality with equally unique connections – did well to build relations between Turnbull, Morrison and Trump.
“Diplomacy, like politics, involves an enormous amount of intrigue,” notes Hockey. “The trite aphorism is true: most of the action in politics and diplomacy is what you don’t see.”
In a Brisbane second-hand bookstore, I also pulled off the shelf Neil Postman’s 1989 Conscientious Objections, a book as insightful in its cautions of technology and human development then as it is now.
Two great takeaways from the late Postman:
“Sometimes it is great fun to complain and, in America, it can even be profitable. But unless one’s complaints are grounded in a sense of duty to one’s country or to a recognizable humane tradition, they are not worthy of serious attention.
I am an optimist because I think it might just be possible for people to learn how to recognize empty, false, self-serving, or in-humane language, and therefore to protect themselves from at least some of its spiritually debasing consequences.”
In terms of a more modern releases, I borrowed Dambisa Moyo’s How Boards Work, which successfully catalogues the series of pressures corporate boards now find themselves under – a contrast to Thorndike’s work but none the less interesting.
In terms of self-development, Stanford’s Anna Lembke – who does very little to self-promote – wrote Dopamine Nation, which highlights some of the effects of dopamine on modern minds and how we might be able to mitigate by finding balance.
Speaking of balance, former prime minister John Howard’s A Sense of Balance provided a commentary on modern trends like Brexit and Trump, carefully and fairly avoiding any real time commentary on the future of the modern Liberal Party, except perhaps noting that being alive to everyday people’s genuine concerns is a driving force for democratic success and longevity.
Howard’s book did not receive more airtime due to being released only moments before the Queen’s passing.
In the realm of fiction, I sceptically dipped my toe in the water, reading John Faunt’s Ask the Dust that, while not bad, secured my sentiment that the American reception of literature has a certain rhyme to it, contrasting significantly to any British or Australian work.
As a short read, I encourage anyone to give Faunt’s book a go to see my point.
Finally, P.J. O’Rourke’s death in February 2022 prompted me to buy his 1993 Give War a Chance. O’Rourke was a truly once in a generational writer and character. Reading this work prompted similar laughs from his truly memorable Holidays in Hell – a book I have noticed is shared across more bookshelves across the globe than any other I’ve seen.
Happy reading in 2023.
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