Summer Reading List: The B-School Edition

Reading books can give managers and aspiring managers a new perspective and insight into the human condition that drives their businesses. "Reading will make you a better businessperson and a better, happier person," says Erik Gordon, associate director of the Zell-Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business (Ross Full-Time MBA Profile). "Students don't want to hear it. They want to know the magical formula that will get them rich tomorrow, but we have a duty to try and convince them."

In fact, Gordon and his colleagues at the Zell-Lurie Institute came up with a summer reading list focused on inspiring the entrepreneurial spirit in students. Whether you are holding down an internship, writing a business plan, or lounging by the pool, reading is an investment that pays big dividends.

Business lessons can continue long after the classroom doors are closed for the summer. That's why BusinessWeek asked professors and students at top business schools to share the five books they'd put at the top of their personal summer reading lists. Titles ranged from the classic novel to contemporary nonfiction, but when read together create an encyclopedia of leadership, just the thing to productively while away a summer as the financial crisis continues. A rundown of the most popular picks follows. For the complete list, visit "Summer 2009 Books: MBA Reading List" on the Getting In blog.

challenging ideas of success

It comes as no surprise that Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown & Co., November 2008), by Malcolm Gladwell, appeared on more summer reading lists than any other book. Its subject, after all, is one that's near and dear to B-schoolers' hearts: success and how to achieve it. To explain what separates the extraordinarily successful from the also-rans, Gladwell examines personal stories and histories of entire populations. For example, he traces the Asian history of working in rice paddies to explain the work ethic that leads Asians to score higher on math achievement tests.

Readers find the book appealing because it challenges traditional notions about what success is, says Kevin J. Martin, executive vice-president of the student association at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile). Americans like to think hard work is all it takes to achieve great things, says Martin, but this book shows that circumstance, knowing the times in which you live, and getting help when you need it also makes a difference.

Sometimes the greatest lessons, especially those about leadership, are gleaned from role models of the past. One of Gordon's top picks, The Aeneid (Penguin Classics, January 2008), by Virgil (with a translation by Robert Fagles and introduction by Bernard Knox in this version of the book), is a classic that reads like a modern-day work. Readers follow Trojan warrior Aeneas as he goes from defeat on the battlefield and a doomed love affair in Carthage to the founding of what would become the first Roman settlements and, ultimately, an empire.

advice for troubled leaders

Gordon is struck by the temptations and sacrifices that Aeneas faces in his journey. "It's about a guy who's a fabulous role model for entrepreneurs," says Gordon. "You're a human being. You're not a superhero. Your heart will be troubled." Indeed, Gordon's favorite quote from the book offers advice for troubled leaders: "And though his heart was sick with anxiety, he wore a confident look and kept his troubles to himself." Words to live by, whether you're a Trojan warrior or a business leader.

Books that seem to be all about fun and games can have deeper meaning if you read them closely. Poker Winners are Different (Lyle Stuart, March 2009), by Alan N. Schoonmaker, is great for those who want to win at playing poker, but it can also offer advice on how to be a winner in general. "This book will help you become one of that small percentage of winners. If you are already winning, it will help you win more," according to the book. "You will see how winners and losers think, feel, and act; then learn what to do to increase your profits."

Leadership is on the minds of many these days. What does it mean to be a leader? Who will lead the world moving forward? As James W. Dean Jr., dean of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School (UNC Kenan-Flagler Full-Time MBA Profile), prepared for a trip to South Africa, he read Long Walk to Freedom (Steck-Vaughn, September 2000), the autobiography of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years during apartheid. Passionate about his causes, the Nobel Prize-winning Mandela persevered, but he also admits to his shortcomings, says Dean. He hopes his students recognize that leaders are not perfect, but they are persistent.

simplifying economics

Taking advantage of the resources available to you is another sign of leadership. In Yes We Did! An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand (Voices That Matter) (New Riders Press, May 2009), author Rahaf Harfoush, who spent three months with Obama's New Media Team in Chicago, describes the campaign's use of technology—particularly blogs, social networks, Twitter, and SMS messaging—to win. Whether you're selling soap or a Presidential candidate, knowing how to effectively use the technology at your fingertips in the service of brand-building is a necessity, and this book offers insight into doing just that, say readers.

You might think the nation's business school students would have had their fill of economics after Econ 101, but you'd be wrong. Many are picking up Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (W.W. Norton & Co., September 2003), by Charles Wheelan. Ceri Evans, a liberal arts major and former high school teacher now enrolled at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management (Rotman Full-Time MBA Profile) counts herself among Wheelan's fans. "It explained the principles of economics," says Evans. "It's a textbook with the readability of a novel or newspaper." The book simplifies economics—from gross domestic product to inflation—and discusses issues such as what good can come of government regulation, and the pros and cons of taxation.

To be a winner, it helps to be on speaking terms with one's inner loser, which is what Pat Conroy attempts in My Losing Season (The Dial Press, August 2003), a book that appears on Dean's list. The title refers to Conroy's losing basketball season in his last year as a cadet at the male-dominated Citadel in the 1960s. For Conroy, the experience of loss and humiliation held powerful lessons. "The basketball coach shows how very poor leadership can be so demoralizing and demeaning to players that it can cause terrible outcomes for the team and personally," says Dean. It's a book that teaches aspiring managers what not to do.

learning from Buffett

Warren Buffet is an undisputed winner in every sense of the word. For a fuller picture of the man, a good place to start is The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life (Bantam, September 2008), by Alice Schroeder. The title comes from one of Buffet's favorite sayings: "Life is like a snowball, and all you need is wet snow and a really long hill." Schroeder had unlimited access to Buffet and interviewed him endlessly, rummaged through his files, and talked to his friends and family to share his life story in a narrative form. "He's the biggest business name of our generation," says Martin. "I think everyone should know his story." What Martin took away from the book, he says, was how this socially awkward numbers guy made lots of money, but put it to good use and was quite charitable because he'd rather leave behind a better world than lots of material goods.

In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, April 2007), Nassim Nicholas Taleb thrashes MBA-toting and Nobel Prize-winning experts who use economic models to predict the future. A financial trader, Taleb looks at unpredicted events and phenomenon, such as why a book becomes a best-seller, to show that things aren't always what they seem. "Life does not behave with regularity. Those who think it does, Taleb says, will always be tripped up by the unexpected," writes Ninad Shinde , a student at London Business School (London Business School Full-Time MBA Profile), in an e-mail about his reading list. "Black Swan extends that idea beyond the financial markets he concentrated on in Fooled by Randomness to just about all walks of life."

Some managers fail to realize how important it is for them to have a basic education in psychology. Reading about psychology is at least a start. Stumbling On Happiness (Vintage, March 2007), by Daniel Gilbert, offers a fascinating—and sometimes even humorous—look at how humans are different from other animals because they try to predict the future in search of happiness. "[This is] an absolutely fantastic book that shatters our most deeply held convictions about how our own mind works," writes Shinde. Why people try to predict the future, and why they rarely succeed, are the focus of Gilbert's book—and not a bad thing to ponder poolside as the summer of our economic discontent continues.

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