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Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (2013) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Research in psychology has revealed that our decisions are disrupted by an array of biases and irrationalities: We’re overconfident. We seek out information that supports us and downplay information that doesn’t. We get distracted by short-term emotions. When it comes to making choices, it seems, our brains are flawed instruments. Unfortunately, merely being aware of these shortcomings doesn’t fix the problem, any more than knowing that we are nearsighted helps us to see. The real question is: How can we do better?

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain (2014) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. With Think Like a Freak, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have written their most revolutionary book yet. With their trademark blend of captivating storytelling and unconventional analysis, they take us inside their thought process and teach us all to think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally—to think, that is, like a Freak. The authors offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms. As always, no topic is off-limits. They range from business to philanthropy to sports to politics, all with the goal of retraining your brain. Along the way, you’ll learn the secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a batch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they’re from Nigeria.

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2014) by Matthew D. Lieberman. In Social, renowned psychologist Matthew Lieberman explores groundbreaking research in social neuroscience revealing that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter. Because of this, our brain uses its spare time to learn about the social world – other people and our relation to them. It is believed that we must commit 10,000 hours to master a skill. According to Lieberman, each of us has spent 10,000 hours learning to make sense of people and groups by the time we are ten.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009) by Daniel Pink. If you’ve ever wrestled with compensation issues or wondered how to motivate folks in a time of shrinking resources or noticed that financial rewards often seem to backfire, here’s the why behind it all. Even though most businesses claim to be data-driven enterprises, this will make clear how little they’ve ever actually looked at the data on how motivation really works – some of the studies he talks about are fifty years old! They’re operating from what he calls “Motivation 2.0” (extrinsic motivation) when it’s time to move on to “Motivation 3.0” (intrinsic motivation.) Put succinctly, the carrot and stick don’t work much any more, and need to be replaced. Plenty of helpful suggestions about how to end-run the dinosaurs in your organization and get people re-inspired and moving again.

Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-year-old Company that Changed the World by Chris Lowney tells the amazing story of the Jesuits and their four leadership pillars: self-awareness, ingenuity, love and heroism.Written by a former Jesuit, it's a careful look at how the Jesuits have succeeded wherever they've gone for over four centuries, and what modern business can learn from them.

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (2008) by the five guys who wrote Crucial Conversations. The latter was not a favorite book of mine, and I don’t like the overreaching title, but this book is first-rate, a real contribution to the literature on change. If you’ve got a major influencing challenge, this is the book to read. They picked people who had accomplished truly remarkable changes (my favorite was the guy from Thailand who stopped the spread of HIV in its tracks) and deconstructed how they’ve done what they’ve done. Their model says this: in order to influence, you have to address two fundamental attributes – motivation and ability – and you have to address it at three levels: personal, social and structural. All are equally important and must be addressed. There’s no skipping the steps. The book has superb examples and stories that will give you hope for our collective future.

Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute. This is one of the most important leadership books in the last twenty-five years. It brilliantly illuminates the universal pattern of blaming others for our own weaknesses, and how to overcome it.

Leadership Without Excuses: How to Create Accountability and High Performance (instead of just talking about it) by Jeff Grimshaw and Gregg Baron. This a practical, how-to book on how to get your people (and yourself) to be accountable. It's full of actionable ideas, some obvious (once you've read them). some less so. If you are a leader whose people won't step up, this is a good read.

Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman (2009). This is a must read if you’re a parent, an educator or just fascinated by how children learn. Bronson & Merriman have gathered together fascinating research from neuroscience and the social sciences about subjects like: the negative impact of praise, the terrible effects of kids losing sleep, how to talk about race, why kids lie, at what age gifted kids can really be identified, why arguing is necessary for teenagers, how to teach kids self control and avoid peer pressure, and new ways to teach language skills. Fabulous stuff!

The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley by Victor Hwang & Greg Horowitt is hot off the presses, and well worth reading if innovation is a concern. Hwang & Horowitt are "extreme Venture Capitalists", who haste worked not only in Silicon Valley, but literally all over the world, growing innovation economies. Their insight into how fundamentally different the needs of innovation and mature organizations are is stunning-think industrial agriculture vs. rainforest.

Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx, is a the wonderful story of Joe Ehrman, former NFL football star, minister and coach for a high school football team. Ehrman's program is called "Building Men for Others; no player on the team is allowed to walk into the cafeteria, see someone sitting alone and ignore them to sit with their friends. If they do, they're off the team. He's trying to build a new definition of masculinity, one that includes accepting responsibility, leading courageously, enacting justice on behalf of others and expecting God's greater rewards. If you're raising boys, this is an important read.

Source: The Inner Path of Knowledge Creation by Joseph Jaworski. Jaworski tackles the big questions. The one he's looking at here is: How do you get entire organizations working in perfect & powerful harmony (the afore-mentioned "flow state")? His answer is, in part, through the power of love (a favorite theme of mine, as you know!) As he puts it: "the selfless investment of self can affect physical reality," an idea that both physicists and sages have come to over and over again. If the best and highest possible use of your self is of interest, read this one!

Stealth of Nations, the Global Rise of the Informal Economy, by Robert Neuwirth, is fascinating, especially if you would rather swim strategically in blue oceans of possibilities instead of hotly contested red ocean current marketplaces. It looks at the $10 trillion gray market - the second biggest in the world - one that exists just outside the peripheral vision of most established businesses (and economists). Written by a journalist, it's a provocative look at vibrant forms of economic exchange that result in full employment for all - along with rampant pollution and corruption. It altered my thinking on a number of subjects.

Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard (2010) by Chip and Dan Heath. I’ve saved the best for last. This is, quite simply, the best book on change I’ve read since I stumbled across William Bridge’s work, Managing Transitions some two and a half decades ago. Why? Because the Heaths have integrated a massive amount of neuroscience and social research into an exquisitely simple and usable model. To change anything, you have to make it work at three levels: the Rider – our thinking brains, especially the prefrontal cortex, that wants reasons and logic for everything; the Elephant – our emotional brains; and the Path – the external realities surrounding the situation.

The image of the Elephant and the Rider is so spot on in terms of the real power balance in our brains: what really controls us is our emotions, as the last couple years of the economy have demonstrated conclusively. Our “thinking brain” is usually saying “oh, right, I meant to go this direction!” as the Elephant lumbers off to get what it wants. (And we all know what happens when the Elephant sees the Reptile!)

With great examples, the Heaths list three steps for each part of the change process, ending with a very thoughtful piece on “Fundamental Attribution Error,” the way we attribute behavior to character, rather than the environment, reminding us always to look at situational forces for explanations of behavior. As in Influencers, structural issues must be addressed for change to take.

 

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