10 Books for Managers to Read in 2021

The year 2020 brought many challenges of the unknown with its scope and gravity. For some, it became a treadmill of frustration, yet it opened new opportunities brought upon by circumstance on a short notice. Opportunities to rethink our perspectives, lives, and enduring practices at work. To slow down a bit, reflect and catch up with ourselves thusly.

When drawing inspiration to reinvent ourselves, where else to start if not by reading books? It is of common knowledge that reading is a great concern to managers, leaders, entrepreneurs, and anyone who seek to bring new ideas into their domain. Moreover, among all the words that have resonated in our minds through 2020, there was one that offered a temptation to act — adaptivity.

We all have experienced many hasty changes with quite a few question marks, and for managers it has become a norm — we have to be adaptable and extremely flexible to keep up. And in order to do so, we need to expose ourselves to new ideas and practices, but most importantly, we need to explore new ways of thinking.

Therefore, if your New Year’s resolution is to read more, here is a list of 10 books (out of ~50 books I read in 2020) that got my utmost attention in terms of their convenience, and that could be of particular interest to anyone who engages in subjects like management and self-improvement.

Self Improvement Books

If you are interested in personal development, this one is definitely a must-to-read book, which became the main source of inspiration for my previous article about long-term productivity.

Primarily, it points out that you should treat energy as your most precious resource, and not your time. It‘s filled with excellent ideas on how to get your energy organized and kept in balance, also mentioning the importance of healthy lifestyle and underlining stress as the key to grow, if balanced properly with the process of recovery.

The book is very specific about mental energy and the balance itself, as being derived from 4 dimensions (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual). Last but not least, mutual relationships at work are also considered as one of the key factors for performance and productivity. That’s all there is to it — energy, productivity, performance, relationships.

Intended for: anybody who wants to manage their energy more effectively, from white-collar managers to people leading eventful or uneventful lifestyle.

Inspiring lines from the book:

We grow at all levels by expending energy beyond our ordinary limits and then recovering. If we want to grow our muscles, we need to systematically stress it. Yet, too much energy expenditure without recovery leads to burnout and breakdown.

The best moments usually occur when our mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

No single factor more clearly predicts the productivity of an employee than his relationship with his direct superior.

A relationship in which you do most of the giving and receive very little in return ultimately prompts a sense of deficit and emptiness.

If you can feel a certain resistance to not read it, this book is definitely for you. Ryan Holiday did a great job in addressing such a mind-twisting subject, leaving many strong testaments and quotes by Isocrates, Churchill, Lao Tzu and the like. The book provides a great lesson of how to live a stoic life by letting go of your ego, which is put as something always negative and destructive. Moreover, the usage of high-vocabulary in the book is simply astonishing.

Intended for: all people that are delusional in a sense that they are somehow special.

Inspiring lines:

Self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.

The number of stars on your shoulder or your job title or the size of your paycheck could easily be confused as a proxy for real accomplishment.

You will be stunned to find out how empty it is at the top.

If you decide you want to let go of your ego, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

In fact, many self-improvement books are revolving around the same list of buzzwords — smile more, contribute more, forgive more,… This book is quite different in the way how it makes its point. It tries to be so detached from greatness and all those aspects we all know by the term “American Dream“, that it actually implicates greatness in its very interpretation, but on a different scale.

This book just doesn’t give a f*ck. Thus, it doesn’t offer any hope, it simply tries to make you re-evaluate your perspective and start thinking clearly about what you choose to find important in your life. And it does it in an outstandingly entertaining way. Needless to mention that it points out Charles Bukowski as an appropriate reference who took great pleasure in not giving a f*ck.

Intended for: people who seek to build self-awareness around lifestyle that will make them happy in the long term.

Inspiring lines from the book:

Our culture is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations — be happier, be healthier, kiss your selfie-ready spouse every morning along with two and a half kids, and fly to your fulfilling job.

“The smallest dog barks the loudest“, a truly confident man doesn’t feel a need to prove that he’s confident.

The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.

The only way to overcome pain is to first learn how to bear it.

Business Books

Okay, sauce aside. I have read this book 5 times already. It’s from 3 authors who devote themselves to Lean Software and DevOps, which clearly indicates the scientific nature of the book. It’s all about principles and processes behind building high-performing IT organizations.

The main message is to deliver more values quicker and better, which I find decidedly convenient as many enterprises have proven themselves failing in such an effort. The book tries to express itself as a practical textbook, leaving not much space for delivering touching messages or entertainment. There are not many ground-breaking revelations, nor any correlation between technologies and processes. Still, it’s a great inspiring book that gives a clear structure and covers many interesting topics, such as Westrum’s company cultures and their aspects (power-oriented, rule-oriented, performance-oriented), factors that can lead to employee burnout (taken from Leiter and Maslach), characteristics of transformational leaders, and the importance of cross-functional teams.

Intended for: CEOs, decision-makers, and strategists, who have no shortage of initiative

Definitely not intended for body-shopping agencies, as the ownership of the lead time is imperative for smooth acceleration.

Inspiring lines from the book:

Delivery teams must be cross-functional, with all the skills necessary to design, develop, test, deploy and operate the system on the same team.

Work environment must support experimentation, failure, learning and allow employees to make decisions that affect their jobs.

People are an organization’s greatest asset — yet so often they are treated like expendable resources.

Knowledge is power, and you should give power to those who have the knowledge

No ground-breaking revelations, yet it’s a great reminder of the importance of evolution in growing business, and we can expect that its significance will become even more accentuated in 2021. It explains how to build a startup with ExOs characteristics, while focusing on existing organizations and pointing out a few interesting ideas — the examples are the redeeming quality of the book, especially the ones about frivolous decisions that led to massive failures (e.g. Nokia acquiring Navteq and being outscored by Waze soon after, or the launch of Google+ at a time Facebook already dominated the market).

Another interesting topic the book tackles is the sharp contrast between linear and exponential organization, and the breakpoint where the exponential one takes the lead. It doesn’t go very deep into the subject, therefore it’s more of an introduction.

Intended for: junior managers that have just entered the business and are trying to cope with the enormous heap of information from each direction. Also, fresh startups and anyone who would like to get to know how the „a“ game is played.

Inspiring lines from the book:

Many S&P 500 companies have a short lifetime, since many are annihilated overnight by a new breed of companies that harness the power of exponential technologies.

When you think linearly, and when you measure your performance and success linear, you will end up with a linear organization.

Massive Transformative Purpose (what the company aspires to in long-term) is so inspirational that a community can form around the ExO and spontaneously begin operating on its own, ultimately creating its own community and culture.

Holacracy is a book about authority within an organization, where the hierarchy is flattened, and accountability is distributed throughout an organization. It’s of common knowledge that the authors have been inspired by another book, Getting Things Done by David Allen, wrapping its principles in an organizational structure.

The book itself offers an interesting and prominent model for teal organizations (the ones that try to facilitate employee autonomy), yet it requires a very strong determination to tone down the doubts and try to implement something different. The book is very descriptive about the process of transformation, yet it doesn’t give much explanation about conflict resolution and performance, while pointing out that you can’t adopt only parts of Holacracy, but it has to be implemented in full-scale.

Still, it’s a great book, full of inspirational advice.

Intended for: small startups that have developed a great deal of trust

Inspiring lines from the book:

Every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity per resident increases by 15 percent. But when companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee goes down.

The biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is that they get stuck working in their business rather than on their business.

Corporate leaders are expected to be bold generals who forecast the future, devise grand strategies, lead their troops into glorious battle — and then are fired at the first lost skirmish.

Leadership Books

Dave Ramsay is a great writer. His books are worthy reading just for the sake of entertainment he is capable of providing. No high vocabulary, no buzzwords, but a plethora of takeaways you will take great pleasure in reading. The book goes through marketing, sales, accounting, financing, illustrates how to hire employees, how to train them, how to communicate, encourage, and even let go.

One of the most helpful book on business that gives confidence in decision-making while being explained by someone who has practical experience on running a successful company.

Intended for: anyone, even people who claim to have known their domain inside out

Inspiring lines from the book:

Trust only principles you have discovered by experience

Leading by fear and anger is not leading — it is bad parenting of two-year-olds. And if you lead like this, your company will perform like scared two-year-olds

Every leader needs to have a servant mentality — you are serving your team by leading them, just like you are serving your children by parenting them, you are serving them for their good and the good of the company

There is only one way to avoid criticism — do nothing, say nothing, be nothing

Why most employees aren’t loyal to their company and leadership? Because their company and leadership aren’t loyal to them

Know your teams, know their kids’ names, their wives’ names, their dreams, find out their story

If you came to like the EntreLeadership book, you will love this one even more so. 20 years old, yet still very topical. And this is what I like about books from this domain — they simply hold up and withstand the test of time, in sharp contrast with technical books that reach the end of their usefulness a few years after release.

While reading this book, you may find quite a few sentences related to your own case at the company you work for. The name of the book implies it’s main topic — five dysfunctions of a team, namely, absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, inattention to results, each of which being identified, analysed and unscrambled in terms of how to recognize and avoid it.

Moreover, all concepts are introduced through a storyline of a fictional organization — a CEO Katheryn, who takes over a company struggling with its profit. Very accurate in the root case, illustrative, and pervasive. Amazing book!

Intended for: anyone who is managing a team

Inspiring lines from the book:

Teamwork begins by building trust — the key is to make the collective ego greater than the individual ones.

The higher you go up the management chain, the more you find people spending inordinate amounts of time trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any great team

When team members do not openly debate and disagree about important ideas, they often turn to back-channel personal attacks, which are far nastier and more harmful than any heated argument over issues

It is good to make a decision boldly and be wrong, and then change direction with equal boldness

David Marquet, a retired navy captain, former commander of the USS Sante Fe submarine, wrote this outstanding book about leader-follower to leader-leader transformation in one of the most ossified kinds of management — the military. You definitely don’t need to be a submarine enthusiast to get to like this book, since the military aspects are set in the background.

The book tries to point out the importance of investment in leader development, in order to change the collective experience. It’s packed with many points to consider while managing a team, as well as the explanation of their outcome (e.g. usage of “I intend to“ instead of “I would like to”), while maintaining a clearly neutral attitude to the reader, which discerns it from this-must-be-done-this-way kind of books.

Entertaining style, meticulous structure, awesome takeaways. Read it!

Intended for: team leaders, scrum-masters, directors,…

Inspiring lines from the book:

When the performance of a unit goes down after an officer leaves, it is wrongly taken as a sign that he was a good leader, not that he was ineffective in training his people properly.

People who are treated as followers, treat others as followers when it’s their turn to lead

Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information

Don’t preach and hope for ownership. Implement mechanisms that actually give ownership

Gamification

Before we jump to the final book, I would like to add on a personal note, that one often finds the greatest source of inspiration on the most unexpected places. T-shaped people who pursue interests from multiple domains, eventually find out that many patterns they have acquired here and there, can be almost equally applied elsewhere. One of them is gamification.

As I teach a class on video games, this book is the one I added to my syllabus. It’s about game design, but it’s rendered in a very casual style that doesn’t go much into details, making the content more philosophical and abstract. The author tries to connect games and arts and fun, which can be easily spilled over into gamification — an application of gaming principles into non-game contexts that can boost productivity, pure joy, employee recruitment (attraction), education, and the like.

It plays nicely together with the the flow theory by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who drew a line between anxiety and boredom, where pleasure itself stems from a well-balanced ratio between challenges and abilities. And those principles can be applied to employee experience. All psychological elements that capture peoples‘ attention, can have their parallels in non-gaming companies, and this book provides a great source of inspiration on the subject.

Intended for: managers who love the idea of gamification

Inspiring lines from the book:

When you play something you’re good at, you get really far and do really well, then you get bored!

Noise and chaos is a pattern we don’t understand

Having fun is a key evolutionary advantage right next to opposable thumbs in terms of importance

Summary

It’s all connected — becoming adaptable, being a great leader, seeing the bigger picture, even maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Management is a skill that is not granted, and reading about new ways and concepts may help you get a new perspective — in your life, at work, everywhere.

If your success lies in your hands, just put some books in them and read something!

“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid.” Proverbs 12:1

I make apps plus bake cakes.