Do leadership books matter?

Where do you go for leadership insights? What makes a good biography? Why does everyone seem to be talking about meaning and purpose? A discussion on books and some recommendations

Founding Fuel

Every year D Shivakumar, president (corporate strategy and business development) at Aditya Birla Group, puts together his picks of the best books on business and leadership published during the year. This is the fifth consecutive year that he has done this for Founding Fuel. (You can read Shivakumar’s Top 10 Business and Leadership Books of 2022 here.)

In this Twitter Spaces chat, Shivakumar, Aparna Raje Piramal who is a writer, speaker, and educator, and TN Hari, co-founder of Artha School of Entrepreneurship, probe the selection—the threads that connect the 10 books, what his criteria for selection are, and why he left out some popular choices.

What was meant to be a discussion on books, builds into a rich debate on the value of biographies, whether a book on leadership is the best way to get leadership insights, why the current trend for meaning and purpose, and a lot more.   

Here are some snippets:

On biographies

Aparna: The people who write biographies have to have the ability to really immerse yourself in the subject, and then also step back and examine that person with a more critical lens

Hari: They sometimes idolize a person. And there are no superheroes in this world. Everyone is a hero and everyone has a story worth writing about. It just needs a person who can tell it with empathy and love.

On leadership insights

Hari: Leadership is something that's best experienced by observing people around you experiencing tough situations, and figuring out leadership insights for yourself.

Shivakumar: Very rarely do you get a book which will have 100 insights. If I get five insights from a book, that's absolutely fantastic… While you can have the ability to watch leaders, you can read about people who've had the ability to watch leaders

On meaning and purpose

Shivakumar: I think 90% of CEOs don't know what they're talking about. 

Hari: The idea of purpose has suddenly become very important because people are stuck in boring jobs. When that happens, you need to look for fulfillment outside of your work.

Shivakumar: The idea of a corporation as a living entity is no longer true in anybody's mind. In 1935, the average age of a company was 90 years. In 2020, or 22, it is less than 15 years. So, whom do you stay with? Who gives you meaning?

On Indian authors

Aparna: We really don't have enough books coming out of India or from the global south in general

Additional book recommendations

From Shivakumar

  • The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom (P Sainath)

From Aparna

  • How Will You Measure Your Life? (Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon)

From Hari

  • Indica (Pranay Lal): A fascinating account of the natural history of the Indian subcontinent right from the era when the world was just one continent (Pangea).
  • Jobonomics (Goutam Das): A gripping account of India's employment crisis and what the future holds. Goutam has tied the different pieces of a complex topic into an eminently readable masterpiece.
  • The Trial of the Maharaja (Debleena Majumdar): A well-researched story of a niche, but defining, aspect of the history of Bengal, and the nature of British rule in India.
  • A Thread Across the Ocean (John Steele Gordon): An engaging story of one man's (American business man Cyrus Field) epic struggle to connect the New World to the Old by laying the first transatlantic cable. It's a story of tenacity.
  • Cubbon Park (Roopa Pai): No other city can boast of 300 acres of verdant splendour at its very heart. The book is a beautiful story of Cubbon Park in Bangalore, its artefacts, and the profiles of individuals who have defined the Park.
  • Hidden Brain (Shankar Vedantam): A collection of compulsively readable narratives through the latest discoveries in neuroscience, psychology and behavioural science to uncover the darkest corner of our mind and the decisive impact on the choices we make as individuals and as a society.
  • Collection of Jack London’s Short Stories: London's stories are raw and intense, and transport the readers to the exotic isles of the Pacific, the voluptuous valleys of California, the icy cold mountains of Alaska, and to the wildness of the high seas.
  • The Art of Bitfulness (Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani): Social media has positively impacted the way we live, but it has a dark side. We are in a toxic relationship with our devices. The book explains how we can create healthy boundaries between us and the floodgates of the internet.
  • The Maratha Century (Uday Kulkarni): A fascinating account of the rise of the Marathas to supremacy from the 17th century to their eventual downfall in the 19th century. It was the first indigenous empire after centuries of foreign rule, and the last before the British took over.
  • Deep Thinking (Garry Kasparov): The book is an impressively researched history of AI. Kasparov also tells his side of the story of his shocking defeat by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in May 1997.
  • Taming the Infinite (Ian Stewart): A highly readable history of mathematics starting with the first Babylonian symbols and concluding with Fermat's last theorem and Chaos theory.

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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