Getting to Know Me II

The Books that Inspired My Work

As I explained in last week’s post, the Medium folks reached out to one hundred of their regular authors to write posts on the following four topics to enable the Medium readers to get to know us better. I decided to publish them in conjunction with the May 3 release of my new book, A New Way to Think, and this is the second post in the series.

1. The Backstory on My Writing

2. The Books that Inspired My Work

3. The Process by Which I Write

4. How I Got Interested in My Subject Matter

Books that Inspired My Work

I probably have what could be described as odd tastes in books. First and foremost, I must make a confession: I read way too little. I write way more than I read and I fear that on my deathbed, I will wish that I had read more. But I love writing so much, and in my field of business most of what I read is so underwhelming, I can’t make myself read as much as I should, and I write instead. Certainly, now and again, someone sends me something they say I should read, and I do — and it is great and additive to my thinking.

But with that confession, here are the seven books that have influenced my writing most — and don’t laugh, the list is hopelessly geeky! I have laid out the list chronologically because there didn’t seem to be a better way.

Aristotle. Rhetoric (The original is circa 350 BC, but a popular English translation is George Kennedy’s On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1991))

This guy is so smart it is scary! We are talking 350 BC and he is more relevant today than even 2500 years ago. Credit Tony Golsby-Smith for turning me on to this particularly totally unread gem of his. In this, he describes how you should reason in what he calls ‘the part of the world where things can be other than they are.’ Sadly, the world has ignored his advice. It reasons scientifically — following his earlier work, Analytica Posteriora, which laid out the rudiments of the scientific method. But Aristotle was crystal clear: that reasoning method is for the part of the world where things cannot be other than they are. The father of science, Aristotle, would be a keen member of the modern anti-science backlash — because modern scientists (social and otherwise) are ignoring his advice. I don’t. And that is why in things involving human action/activity, I am careful to avoid predicting the future based on past actions/data.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience (Minton, Balch & Company, New York, NY, 1934)

Another seriously smart guy, but a painful, painful writer. This book is just plain painful — but brilliant. Dewey helped me be an experientialist. I understand better and maybe even ‘know’ through experience. And thanks to Dewey, I know that how I experience my experiences is critically important. I have the choice of experiencing them lackadaisically and learning nothing or reflectively and learning a lot. It is hard to tell whether he was a profoundly bad writer or just so damn brilliant that you have to read each paragraph of the entire book three times to get his meaning. But I soldiered through in order to glean as many insights as possible. Plus, I promised myself I will write to be read more easily — a lot more easily. But that might be because I am not nearly as profound!

Drucker, Peter. The Practice of Management (Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1954)

My hero. This is just a placeholder. It could have been any one of his 39 books — such as The Effective Executive. I pick this one because it is the first consequential book about business management as a subject. Yes, you could say Machiavelli’s The Prince was, but only metaphorically so. Peter is my model: a practitioner theoretician. He hung with CEOs, advised them, and wrote about his experiences. That is what I do. And every time someone compares me in any small way to my hero, it makes my week.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc, 1955)

This is the only work of fiction on the list. This book, which I read in secondary school, had a profound effect on me — that has progressively increased with life experience. The core point: leadership matters. In a vacuum of leadership, perfectly reasonable people can decide that sticking severed heads on sharp sticks is a good idea. But with good leadership, those things are recognized as just plain silly — for all involved. In whatever situation I am in, I never imagine that we are terribly far away from Lord of the Flies. Maybe that makes me morbid. But I like to think it makes me vigilant.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1962)

Until I read this guy, I thought I was weird. After, I just thought I was only a bit weird. He gave me a language system for understanding what I did in life. After Kuhn, I knew that I was asking normal scientists: “Seriously dudes, aren’t you a bit worried about this anomaly? What if it isn’t just one random anomaly? What if you are propping up a house of cards and this is the canary in the coal mine?” Before Kuhn, I was sheepish. After Kuhn, I have been more relentless — and have kept track of anomalies more thoroughly.

Simon, Herb. The Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969)

Awesome thinker, Nobel Laureate et al. So maybe this is disrespectful to say. But this guy gave me confidence that you could think rigorously about weird-ass stuff. Obviously, that is not the direct point of The Sciences of the Artificial. But it was my takeaway. I do love a thinker that isn’t afraid to take on a big subject: “How about we develop a foundational science for what? How about everything and anything ‘artificial?’ Okay. That shouldn’t be too hard.” Awesome stuff. The Design of Business made a list of the five most cited works in design thinking along with The Sciences of the Artificial. It was as if I had died and gone to heaven — being on a list with a demigod!

Argyris, Chris. Overcoming Organizational Defenses (Allyn & Bacon, Needham, MA, 1990)

Chris was my most important academic mentor. When I met him, he rocked my world. He basically attacked the logical structure and effectiveness of the model with which I conducted myself — a pretty good model I thought. He made me angry. But in due course, I realized that he was much more right than wrong — and he changed me profoundly, for the better. A lot of my work since has been oriented toward infusing his views of human behavior into how strategy should be done. The Strategic Choice Structuring Process would not have been possible without Chris’ influence.

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There you have it: a geeky list. I am sure that I have forgotten some books that mattered to me. But when I look back across the swath of my thinking life, these are the ones that have influenced me most. And I am thankful for the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of true giants like these.

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Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.

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Roger Martin

Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.

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