Our most memorable 2020 reads: IMD professors pick the best books of the year

One positive side-effect of the COVID lockdowns and the general isolation of 2020 has been the surge in book sales reported in some markets. But what should you read?

Below, IMD’s experts on management, leadership, strategy, and finance pick their favorite books of the year. These may not be light reads, as you’ll see from the descriptions. Often gritty, they span social studies and bitesize philosophy. There are few novels on the list, though – perhaps not a great surprise in a year that seemed even stranger than fiction.

Here are IMD professors’ recommendations:

Professor Sameh Abadir recommends...

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‘Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work’ by Jennifer Petriglieri

Many couples today must strike a balance between nourishing the different stages of the couple’s life and keeping growing together. We often teach sound principles in the classroom but are unable to apply them to our personal lives – myself included. Exceptional leaders give their partner the time, space and support they need to flourish, and this may also ring true when juggling the demands of your career, your partner's career and your relationship –  as this book reveals.

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Professor David Bach recommends...

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‘How to Be a Liberal: The Story of Liberalism and the Fight for its Life’ by Ian Dunt

Liberal ideals are at the heart of much of what we take for granted – democracy, free enterprise, market competition, civil liberties and the rule of law. But they are under threat, not just from external forces such as the growing influence of Chinese-style authoritarianism, but also anti-liberal movements that have sprung from Western democracies. Dunt sketches out how liberalism is fighting for its life and what those of us who believe in it can do to defend and future-proof it. The book also contains a chapter on Benjamin Constant – a central, fascinating and not particularly well-known figure in the history of liberalism,  who was born in IMD’s hometown of Lausanne.

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Professor Heather Cairns-Lee recommends...

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‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ by Charlie Mackesy

This isn’t a business book; it’s an illustrated fable about four characters and their conversations. As a group, they represent the different kinds of people we meet in life, or indeed the different parts of ourselves: the fearful, the funny, the gentle and the wise – each needing acceptance. The book is full of take-away sayings taken from conversations such as the importance of having the courage to ask for help; knowing that we are enough as we are; and realising we can make a difference with small acts of kindness to ourselves. It appeals to children and adults alike through its simple words and drawings. Perhaps such fundamentals are more important than ever this pandemic year, as we seek to foster inclusive and caring communities.

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Professor Albrecht Enders recommends...

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‘The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient’ by William B. Irvine

Irvine’s is a lovely, well-written book on stoicism with very concrete recommendations on how to apply stoic thinking to day-to-day situations. Reading and excerpting it helped me to gain perspective and calm during the many challenging situations we faced in 2020. I am sure I will pick it up again many times in the years to come. A definite keeper.

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Professor Stéphane Girod recommends...

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Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini

Something big is happening in how big companies are working, and this book documents how. It hones in on the magnitude of organizational change underway amongst non-digitally native companies, including Nucor and Haier. The book is both a call to action and a way to learn how your business can tear apart the complexity of its own bureaucracy and unleash the collective power of its employees instead. Remember: innovation is not just about fancy AI. It’s also about how you unleash the productivity of your workforce by innovating to thrive and prosper. So, in 2021, be bold and innovate to create the next competitive advantage within your organization.

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Professor Susan Goldsworthy recommends...

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‘The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough’ by Alex Evans

There’s an expression: ‘while facts prove, stories move’. This short yet powerful book shares data about the ecological challenges we are facing. With more than twenty years of experience as a political adviser in climate and development policy, Evans focuses on the idea that rather than people shaping stories, it is our stories that shape us as people. He challenges us to use our powers of collective storytelling to imagine a narrative where we can live within environmental limits, sharing dialogues of redemption, restoration and renewal, to help us navigate our way in uncertain times. This book reflects the value of combining head (facts), heart (emotions) and hands (action) so that we can come together to create the future for which we yearn.

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Professor Öykü Isik recommends...

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‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ by Shoshana Zuboff

The main argument in this book is that a lot of companies, especially digital giants such as Google and Facebook, have so much behavioral data on us as consumers that it is leading to an unprecedented level of manipulative power. It is a dark book that is difficult to read; the author is clearly sceptical and afraid of big tech and data analytics. And yet, her well-supported arguments raise some important questions surrounding how we still haven’t managed to regulate big tech properly. She also believes that we still haven’t managed to create a good level of public understanding about how behavioral data collection may lead to the manipulation of our behavior, without us even realizing.

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Professor George Kohlrieser recommends...

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‘The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life’ by Edith Eger

Recently published as the sequel to the powerful ‘The Choice’, this book by Eger draws on her incredible journey from one of the most traumatic events in modern history (the Holocaust) to an extraordinary life’s work spreading a message of positivity. Edith’s 12 lessons are an exceptional example of leadership, illustrating the power of our mindsets and how everything that happens to us in life can be transformed into sources of inspiration. And that includes painful and traumatic experiences. She encourages focussing on what is possible instead of all that is impossible. Eger says she learned all there is about life in Auschwitz, her best “classroom,” and sees the experience as a gift. Interwoven throughout the book are stories from Eger's life and career as a clinical psychologist and the lives of her patients.

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Professor Niccolò Pisani recommends...

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‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’ by Caroline Criado Perez

The book was a finalist for the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year and it’s a must-read for understanding how gender bias in data gathering and statistics can exacerbate gender inequality. The author discusses an impressive series of examples in which data is biased against women, documenting how this gender data gap can turn into policies that are insufficient or even incorrect when it comes to ensuring gender equality. The importance of the data-driven approach illustrated by Criado Perez has become paramount since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as women have been shown to be significantly more exposed than men to the negative social consequences of COVID-19.

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Professor Richard Roi recommends...

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‘Dual Transformation: How to Reposition Today's Business While Creating the Future’ by Scott D. Anthony, Clark Gilbert and Mark W. Johnson

This book provides valuable insight for businesses looking to reposition themselves in this new normal while creating their future. Strategic dilemma involves how to simultaneously reposition core business to ensure performance, and create new business. This dual transformation challenge requires a fundamentally different view on leadership success, leadership development and leadership practice. Many case studies from organizations from Xerox to Johnson&Johnson and Amazon are cited. They serve as are practical examples from which we can learn how to respond to disruption. Disruption is imminent, and organizations must find a way to be more resilient as they step forward into growth, and implement their transformation efforts.

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Professor Karl Schmedders recommends...

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‘Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism’ by Anne Case and Angus Deaton

This is a disturbing book. In the US, the average life expectancy of white citizens without a college degree has fallen since the 1990s. This stands in stark contrast to other industrialized countries. The reason is a drastic increase in death rates due to drug overdoses, suicide and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis. A few years ago, the authors coined the expression "deaths of despair" for this phenomenon. In these pages they identify rising income equality and the failure of the US healthcare system as causes for the disturbing development. An increasing number of US voters, particularly younger ones, interpret the situation as capitalism simply failing them. Suggestions are given to modestly reform US-style capitalism, in order to preserve it for the future.

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Professor Ina Toegel recommends...

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‘Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces’ by Karen Catlin

Many organizations aspire to become more diverse and inclusive, yet the pace of change is disappointingly slow. This is rarely because of a lack of goodwill on the part of employees. Too often, it is simply a reflection of a collective inability to put small practices in place. This book focuses on the notion of allyship and offers everyday actions to create inclusive and engaging workplaces. It emphasizes the importance of spotting situations where an individual can create a more inclusive culture in the name of  concrete actions. Catlin offers tips on how to be a better ally in areas such as hiring and retaining a diverse workforce, amplifying and advocating for others, giving effective and equitable performance feedback, and using more inclusive language.

Read more about Professor Ina Toegel