This week marks National Book Lovers Day 2023, in which bibliophiles everywhere pause to celebrate their favorite books.
Last year, we here at Insight Experience celebrated by taking a look at some of our favorite evergreen books about leadership, at least one of them written as far back as 400 B.C. This year, we cast our eyes to the more recent past by looking at newer books that are not explicitly about leadership development — but that, in one way or another, sparked our thinking about the work that we do in this field.
Leaders are readers, after all. Reading can equip leaders with knowledge, expose them to diverse perspectives, improve communication skills, and enhance critical thinking. It also challenges their assumptions, sparks creativity, promotes continuous learning, builds empathy, and so much more.
Let's dive into some recently published titles — ones from various disciplines — that engaged, delighted, and motivated us.
Expand Your Thinking on Thinking
Does great thinking happen beyond the brain? In The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, published just last year, science journalist Annie Murphy Paul dives into the cutting-edge research and practices of neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, educators, and leaders to explore how we can focus better and comprehend more deeply when we, as the subtitle suggests, get outside of our own heads.
That is, the key to better thinking might lie in using our brains less. The author encourages readers to tap into what she calls "extra-neural resources" — ones that involve moving our bodies (what she dubs embodied cognition), changing the physical spaces we work in (situated cognition), and the other minds with which we interact (distributed cognition).
Laurel Tyler, facilitator, consultant, and designer, highly recommends this book. The author, she says, "challenges the common notion that the human brain operates like a computer processor. Ms. Paul uses current research to show how the brain uses external systems to make sense of the world — from gesturing, to nature, to surroundings, to human interaction. Rather than the brain as a processor that defines an individual’s view, the brain becomes a collector of concepts created, honed, and tested outside of it. She argues that we are made richer and wiser by exercising and expanding these mechanisms."
All in Good Time
Oliver Burkeman (who just a couple of weeks ago wrote this New York Times piece on the pressure to multitask) doesn't mince words in his introduction to Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, published in 2021, when he titles it: "In the Long Run, We're All Dead." He writes: "The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short," adding that, assuming you live to be 80, "you'll have had about four thousand weeks" on this planet.
Move over, productivity apps. Given our brief timespan, should we really be making more to-do lists, obsessing about our work-life balance, answering more emails, and struggling to avoid distraction? These provocative questions, pertinent to leaders everywhere, are ones that Burkeman poses in this New York Times bestselling book.
"Burkeman would have us all embrace our very finite, remarkably short lives," says Associate Consultant Julie Danielson, "by accepting that efficiency can be a 'trap,' by thinking about so-called time management in all new ways, and by generally deciding to make the most of our 4,000 weeks. He encourages readers to seek more wonder, and there's something freeing about being reminded to face 'the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things' and seeing 4,000 weeks as 'an astonishing gift,' as he puts it."
But the book is more than just rhapsodizing about wonder and our brief time on earth. Here's an example of a practical tip from Burkeman:
Procrastination of some kind is inevitable: indeed, at any given moment, you'll be procrastinating on almost everything, and by the end of your life, you'll have gotten around to doing virtually none of the things you theoretically could have done. So the point isn't to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you're going to procrastinate on, in order to focus more on what matters most. The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.
Needless to say, Burkeman isn't a fan of productivity experts, whom he calls "enablers of our time troubles." He even takes on Stephen Covey's well-known rocks-in-the-jar parable. (He's not a fan: "The real problem of time management today," he writes, "isn't that we're bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It's that there are too many rocks—and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar.")
Three of us here at Insight Experience — Krista Campbell, Associate Director; Bethany Bremer, Senior Associate Consultant; and Leah Carey, facilitator, leadership coach, and designer — recommend The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, published three years ago. Written by facilitator Priya Parker, the host and executive producer of the New York Times podcast Together Apart, the book explores a new approach to how we gather at work, at home, in our communities, and more; it's for anyone seeking to create purposeful gatherings. Parker challenges traditional approaches to hosting events, encouraging readers to think more intentionally about the purpose and design of gatherings.
Krista found both inspiration and practical guidance in the book:
The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker explores why some gatherings leave us feeling energized and inspired, and some leave us trying to sneak out the back door early — or simply have no impact on us at all. … Gatherings come in all shapes and sizes — dinner parties, family barbeques, standing meetings at work. Parker pushes readers to really consider the purpose of the gathering/meeting and to craft all elements of it to support those objectives — essentially, to consider the why. One of my favorite tips from the book: Consider using a cold open, like in a TV show — start the meeting, conference, or training with a thought-provoking question or an interactive activity and then tell people where the bathroom is and what time lunch is. Get your participants engaged as fast as possible.
Beyond practical tips for meeting organizers and hosts, Krista adds, Parker explains the critical role of participants in a meeting and explores their power. "Whether you are a leader working to design more meaningful meetings with your team or working to plan a team off-site — or even if you are in charge of the next family reunion — this book is for you."
For Bethany, the book shifted her perspective on the importance and purpose of both professional meetings and personal gatherings. "Parker helped me see," she says, "that a small amount of planning and intentionality can help others find meaning and connection in even short or formal interactions." Leah says that Parker, in a gentle yet powerful way, reveals a simple truth: "Everything is a gathering. Any time we get together with others, whether casually and socially or at work or in classrooms, we are part of an event. Her book helps us looks at the entire event, none too small or insignificant, and make the most of it. We learn how to create a vision and then use the power of connection to make every gathering meaningful for everyone who is part of it."
Krista, Bethany, and Leah agree: Anyone regularly in front of a room or facilitating gatherings in all their many forms will find this book enlightening and transformative.
Daniel Kahneman Goes to Your Head
Finally, facilitator and consultant Thaddeus Ward recommends the award-winning Thinking Fast and Slow, written by Daniel Kahneman in 2011.
Kahneman, a psychologist and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explores humans' systematic thinking, cognitive biases, intuition, and the two systems of our brains — one more overt and conscious; the other, quicker and more automatic. He asserts that our highly evolved brains work with tremendous efficiency yet are subject to behavioral missteps and unclear thinking. We can be "blind to the obvious," Kahneman writes, "and we are also blind to our blindness." This meticulously researched book also addresses the economic and political implications of Kahneman's research.
"The book," Thaddeus says, "highlights the flaws in what otherwise seem to be logical processes. It demonstrates the limits of how much data we can process and the kinds of shortcuts we are prone to take. Being aware of these weaknesses provides leaders (and all people) with an understanding of where shortcuts are the most efficient path and where seemingly intuitive conclusions need to be questioned."
These books, gateways to knowledge about neuroscience, psychology, social psychology, time management, and much more, prompt and enrich our thinking about our work in leadership development.
What are you currently reading that informs your thinking in this field? Do tell us in the comments.
Julie Danielson is an Associate Consultant at Insight Experience, an award-winning global leadership development company with an expertise in business simulations. Julie works as a project manager across various learning experiences. She is also a member of the marketing team. You can often find her copyediting, creating content, and researching publishing opportunities.