A room without books is like a body without a soul.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero

Leadership & Culture

Tim Hwang (2020)

Subprime Attention Crisis

As digital advertising has become the dominant revenue model for everything happening online, from journalism to media and entertainment, programmatic buying and selling of ad inventory has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar business. Algorithms on virtual marketplaces now negotiate within fractions of a second to determine the ads each of us sees whenever we open a web page or conduct an online search.

Author and researcher Tim Hwang makes an intriguing observation about these markets: He sees some structural weaknesses reminiscent of the financial markets prior to the crashes that led to the 1929 and 2008 crises. Hwang argues that the assets traded are often “toxic” (i.e., their underlying value is much lower than what both buyer and seller believe), the markets are highly opaque, and they are fueled by perverse incentives that benefit all parties involved.

Hwang poses a thought-provoking question: What if we were to witness a crash similar to the 2008 financial crisis, but this time caused by programmatic ads instead of subprime mortgages? Such a scenario, driven by a ten to a hundredfold decrease in click prices, could wreak havoc on countless business models. Ad-funded journalism, already facing threats, would become entirely unsustainable. Widespread layoffs and a recession in the media business might follow, potentially triggering an uncontrollable downward spiral for the entire economy. To avoid this unpredictable burst of a bubble, the author proposes a “controlled” deflation of the programmatic ad markets, with a key role assigned to regulation and independent oversight. Unfortunately, as of now, neither of these solutions is on the horizon in the United States or the European Union.

One does not need to be an expert in the digital advertising domain to appreciate Hwang’s argument and feel some concern about the potential implications if he is right. Although his prediction of impending doom, made in 2020 when the book was published, has not yet materialized, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of it happening at some point in the future.

Xiaowei Wang (2020)

Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China's Countryside

Technology in China is a captivating subject for numerous reasons. However, outsiders often perceive the massive country and its vibrant tech scene only through the narrow lens of big, corporate conglomerates located in metropolitan areas like Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. But it’s crucial to remember that, despite significant migration towards cities, rural China still boasts a population of almost 500 million people, surpassing both the European Union and the United States.

The impact of 5G internet access, e-commerce, AI, and blockchain on those living the countless small towns and villages all across China’s huge countryside lies at the heart of Xiaowei Wang’s collection of stories. As the book unfolds, it becomes evident that China’s rural population is neither solely a passive victim or a fortunate beneficiary of these innovations. Quite the contrary, the creative ways in which farmers, families, village administrators, and many others utilize technology shapes its future just as much as the tech influences people’s lives.

The stories recounted by Xiaowei Wang are equally fascinating, inspiring, and unsettling. They showcase how ambivalent and nuanced one has to discuss the consequences of, for example, an entire village suddenly embracing the mass-production of cheap goods that end up on Alibaba.com: On the one hand, this leads to drastic improves in the quality of life as poverty diminishes. On the other hand, the environmental footprint of such operations is huge. And people’s sense of autonomy can be greatly dampened when they feel reduced to mere cogs inside a global economic machinery. Furthermore, what happens when it’s not just one or two villages who jump on the Alibaba bandwagon, but hundreds or thousands at once? As the author keeps reminding us, everything that happens in China happens at a scale that’s unimaginable for most outsiders.

While Xiaowei Wang flavors the book with personal history and firsthand experiences, the narrative never veers into sentimentality. Some scenes and descriptions however bound so much on the poetic as to make the reader question whether the book really belongs on the “non-fiction” shelf. Nevertheless, the work maintains a constant sense of truthfulness and objectivity, despite being comprised primarily of anecdotes and observations. Such as, for instance, the eponymous tale of the clever chicken farmer who conjured up a unique value proposition for their organic chickens: Allowing consumers to track their origin via tamper-proof, blockchain-backed certificates and 24/7 video surveillance.

Overall, Xiaowei Wang’s book provides a captivating exploration of technology’s impact on rural China, shedding light on both its positive and negative consequences. It challenges readers to reflect on the intricate relationship between technology and society, leaving them with a deeper understanding of this multifaceted topic.

Simon Sinek (2014)

Leaders Eat Last

It’s a common conception that leadership equates to power and privilege: Those at the top rake in all the perks while the ground troops rarely receive the appreciation their hard work deserves. Good leadership though, Simon Sinek suggests, should be the exact opposite. As leaders, it’s our foremost duty to support those under our command and not the other way round. The title of Sinek’s book thus refers to a common practice observed in the US Marine Corps: The higher up one ranks in the food chain, the later they get served in the mess hall.

As this anecdote suggests, Sinek often draws on examples from the armed forces: Fighter pilots in Afghanistan and commanders of huge Navy ships help to illustrate what would otherwise make a quite mundane point: Organizations in which people trust each other, and where leaders tend to serve, rather than dictate, consistently outperform others. They achieve better results at lower costs. Their employees are happier, healthier, and less likely to make bad decisions.

The author furthermore underpins his argument with two intertwined strains of reasoning: How brain chemicals, particularly endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, largely drive individual behavior on the one side. And how, on the other, macroeconomic developments, including the rise of neoliberalism, the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomer generation in managerial positions, and the breathless pursuit of empty “shareholder value” in recent decades, have cultivated a toxic environment which rewards selfish actions more than altruistic ones.

This might sound a bit gloomy and pessimistic, but Sinek does not leave the reader entirely without hope. He brings many examples, also non-militaristic ones, to the table that show that as individual leaders, we have the choice to change things for the better within our own spheres of influence. Even if we can’t swap out the operating system of our economy—or that of our brains for that matter.

Despite my wholehearted support for Sinek’s argument and my general admiration for his writing and his talks, I’m not completely enthusiastic about “Leaders Eat Last”. For example, some of his anecdotes (such as the one that lent the book its title) somehow seem like they’re lacking a punch line: Yes, we now understand that leaders in the Marines do eat last. And that’s pretty much all we learn about that. But it feels like there should be a lot more to say about the practice, shouldn’t there? At other times, particularly when he embarks on his crusade against corporate layoffs, Sinek unfortunately tends towards oversimplifications: Neither are all companies which at some point lay off a fraction of their employees driven solely by short-sighted profit goals nowadays. Nor was such a behavior never the case before the reign of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And equating those who have to make such tough decisions with parents who “put the car before the kids” does, in my view, not help to foster a healthy debate. Instead, the book would have benefitted from a more nuanced discussion of workforce reductions that serve the greater goal of keeping an organization afloat, as well as how to manage their inevitable consequences in a humane way.

All in all though, I do recommend “Leaders Eat Last” for anyone who has the honor of formally or informally leading others. I would, however, caution against taking all of Sinek’s points at face value. And I would ask you to turn a blind eye at some of his more awkward metaphors—human beings, for instance, hardly ever equate to “a snowmobile in the desert.”

Julie Zhuo (2019)

The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You

Despite its odd title, Julie Zhuo’s “The Making of a Manager” is not just a step-by-step guide for how to grow in a management position. It’s more of a survival guide for those who are new to leading others, a map for the uncanny territory of building, developing, and leading teams of people towards a common goal.

The author herself was one of the first product designers at Facebook and, as the company rapidly outgrew its startup structures, also one of the first to lead a team of designers there. In her own words, the book aims to cover everything she wished someone had told her back when she first took on that challenge: Advice ranging from how to handle the awkwardness of suddenly being your former peers’ supervisor, the difficulties in giving (and receiving!) feedback in a useful way, how to deal with the raw stress induced by everyone now demanding their share of your time, how to run effective meetings, and the thorny topics of hiring and firing.

One certainly doesn’t have to be a fan of Facebook’s culture or products in order to benefit from Zhuo’s writing. While she does occasionally refer to some of the companies’ high profile managers, including Sheryl Sandberg and of course Mark Zuckerberg, she elegantly sidesteps most of the controversies that enshroud the social media industry. Instead, she focusses purely on the practicalities of managing in high growth environments, including the added challenges that arise from leading teams of managers instead of individual contributors.

Honestly, I hesitated for a long time whether or not to pick up “The Making of a Manager”. The term management itself after all has become slightly tainted in recent years, with much more emphasis now being put on leadership—the difference between the two often being blurry of course. Also, the author’s Facebook background had me cringe quite a bit. Nevertheless, I’m happy that I gave the book a chance: It is indeed a treasure trove for anyone who’s put in charge of leading groups of people to achieving results. And while there’s a bit more meat to the bone for formal managers for sure, including how to hire, fire, promote, and develop, informal leaders such as product managers, scrum masters, or lead developers can also take away a lot from Zhuo’s writing.

Neil Postman (1985)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

One could easily dismiss an almost 40 year old book about “modern” media as completely outdated by now. How could one man’s rant on 1980s television be relevant in a world of TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram? However, when the late Neil Postman set out to examine how strongly culture and society are shaped by their media landscape, he looked far beyond the immediate implications of “The A-Team” or “Dallas”.

With impressive lucidity, Postman foresaw the danger that liberal democracies, the American first and foremost, were at the brink of drifting off into a subdued state of suppression. Serfdom would would not, however, come in the form an omnipotent Orwellian surveillance state. Quite the contrary, he argued, America was on its way towards a Huxleyan dystopia, one in which the populace was free in principle, but so preoccupied with shallow entertainment that it had lost all interest in civil discourse and meaningful political discussion. Society, he said, was literally about to amuse itself to death.

Over the course of 200 pages, Postman builds a coherent argument about the way in which mass media had demolished societies’ ability to have profound collective conversations on important topics. A prime reason he states for this unfortunate development is McLuhan’s observation that a medium, in this case his in the peculiar form of the entertainment-focused television news broadcast, constrains what type of content it allows to transmit. It is hardly possible for example, in the span of a 30 second segment on the Vietnam War, to examine even the most superficial details about the Vietcong, the grounds for the conflict, or wether or not Americans had any business fighting in it. But back in the heyday of long-form journalism and feature-length debates, say in the 18th and 19th century, ample room had to be alloted to background, logic, and coherence. Postman underscores this with snippets of debates and articles by rhetorical titans such as Abraham Lincoln or Daniel Webster.

The fact that society, by and large, has survived Postman’s “Age of Show Business”, could of course be used as grounds to dismiss his argument. Television had not, in fact, numbed us so completely that we sleepwalked into dictatorships on a large scale. But many of his objections against TV hold true today and are only exemplified by its offspring, including social media. Their impact on our attention span, on our ability to concentrate, and on our liberal democracies at large is possibly even more profound than what he foresaw about television. On the contrary, modern media have even fostered a small renaissance of the profound intellectual discourse that Postman was longing for. Without a doubt, he would be awed by some of the great debate formats that thrive on various podcasts, for example.

Is Postman relevant today? Yes, and I would argue more than ever. But, reader beware, many of his references are not so easily deciphered for someone who is not immersed in 1980s television trivia. However, the overarching themes he’s pointing to have to be part of any criticism of our modern-day media environment as well.

Raymond M. Kethledge, Michael S. Erwin (2017)

Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude

The privilege to lead comes with great burdens: An effective leader has to make tough decisions which directly affect the lives or livelihoods of countless others. It’s essential, therefore, to bring utmost clarity of thought, deep creativity, emotional balance, and moral courage to the table. But how can one genuinely do that when surrounded by flying bullets, detonations, and wounded or dying friends and companions? Or, as is more common these days, by constantly buzzing and chirping smartphones and a non-stop onslaught of e-mail, instant messages, and breaking news?

Kethledge and Erwin set out to answer that question and to understand how particularly outstanding leaders dealt with their most challenging situations. Thereby, they uncovered a surprising common thread: Time spent alone, without “input from other minds”.

Regardless if it’s the courageous strategies with which Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant prevailed throughout the U.S. Civil War, the boldness with with T.E. Lawrence fought in Arabia in 1915-18, or General Eisenhower’s all-or-nothing decision about the launch of the Normandy invasion that would liberate France in 1944—none of these endeavors would have succeeded hadn’t the protagonists engaged in productive solitude.

While it feels like that at times, the authors don’t solely focus on the military though. They also portrait Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr, Marie Curie, and Jane Goodall, among other historical examples, as well as lesser known contemporary practitioners of solitude. But their argument holds true in the civil world as well as on the battlefield, and in the 1800s as well as today: In order to effectively lead others, one has to learn to lead oneself first which is impossible without time for reflection and deep thought.

Admittedly, this insight may sound a bit superficial, partly even self-evident. But the way in which the authors chose to present their case, with detailed example after detailed example, definitely reinforces an already interested readers’ determination to spend more time in solitude. However, the book would have benefitted from more specific practices that one can try. While I personally can relate to the example set by co-author Michael Erwin who uses long runs for thinking and strategizing, or by Churchill’s practice of understanding through writing, these may not resonate so well with a more skeptical audience.

Jason Schreier (2021)

Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry

Working in today’s video game industry, according to Jason Schreier, combines the worst of two worlds: It comes with the insecurity of being an artist as well as the stress and pressure associated with big-business. In his new book, the author of the much acclaimed Blood, Sweat, And Pixels once again shines a light on how poorly the creators of some of the world’s most beloved pastimes are treated.

Schreier portraits the rise and fall of well known game studios, such as 2K Marin and Big Huge Games, and details the experiences of some of their employees. Designers and developers themselves report how they were in high demand one day, laid off without warning the next, only to be re-hired by another studio within the same corporate behemoth (but located at the other end of the country) a few months later. For many, this boom-and-bust cycle of appealing creative work followed by burn-out inducing “crunch” was the main reason why they quit the jobs they once thought would be life’s calling.

Schreier also tries to outline potential solutions to the most pressing problems of the industry. Unionization, more remote work options, and a move towards smaller, independent studios taking on outsourced projects do sound like they could address some of them. But it’s hard to believe that these changes will fundamentally move the needle. As long as games are made the way they are, corporate incentives don’t change dramatically, and so little awareness exists for the perils of creators, it’s unlikely that circumstances will materially improve any time soon.

Kim Malone Scott (2017)

Radical Candor

Kim Scott led outstanding teams at both Google and Apple. Whilst the culture at these companies couldn’t be more different, they have a lot in common when it comes to great leadership. According to Scott, one’s ability to have radically candid relationships is the key to that, not only in Silicon Valley.

In her 2017 book, she explains how balance “caring personally” about each and every person on the team with “challenging directly” in order to help them grow. While it’s clear that the intended audience are upper and middle management of tech companies, the insights and techniques she presents can be applied in many other contexts. You don’t have to have direct authority in order to lead others, for example. An being radically candid—rather than “obnoxiously aggressive” or “ruinously empathetic”, as she would say—will improve any relationship, not only those at work.

Adrian Daub (2020)

Was das Valley denken nennt: Über die Ideologie der Techbranche

In his short book, German-born Stanford literature professor Adrian Daub takes a critical look at the predominant ideology in his adopted Californian home turf. Despite the risk of overgeneralizing, his perception of the visions and motives that drive Silicon Valley’s most prominent figures certainly ring true to anyone familiar with the thinking of Peter Thiel and others.

Daub’s Book grants us unexpected insight into the people behind the handful of companies which shape so much of all of our lives. Their leaders, as well as the rank and file, seem torn at times between visions of an Ayn Rand-ish dystopia and all-out egalitarianism. Which of these views, if any, ultimately will prevail is impossible to predict. Nevertheless, deepening our understanding of the cultural tides that sweep the Valley is indispensible if we want to partake in civil discourse about innovation, tech regulation, and individual and collective liberties.

Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan (2006)

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done

How is it that some organizations consistently achieve the things they set out to do, while others struggle so much? In Execution, former CEO Bossidy and business consultant Charan explore this question by analyzing leadership behavior. They argue that leaders who get the “three core processes of execution”—the people process, the strategy process, and the operation process–right have a much higher chance of success than others.

The examples used in the book are mostly taken from large enterprises like General Electric or Honeywell (both of which Larry Bossidy was CEO or Chairman at times) and might not always immediately resonate with the reader. However, if one is willing to cut through a bit of blunder and tries to relate billion dollar issues with those that are equal in structure at smaller teams or organizations, a lot can be learned.

Jocko Willink, Leif Babin (2018)

The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win

Frank Arnold (2011)

Der beste Rat den ich je bekam

Michael D. Watkins (2003)

The First 90 Days

Mary L. Gray, Siddharth Suri (2019)

Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass

Matthew Skelton, Manuel Pais (2019)

Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow

Read my full review over here.

Peter Thiel, Blake Masters (2014)

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Greg McKeown (2011)

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Paul Jarvis (2019)

Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business

What if growth wasn’t the goal? What if you would build your company in such a way that it would ultimately sustain you, and your family, but would never scale into an unmanageable behemoth of an enterprise?

What sounds counterintuitive at first might actually be the solution to more of our problems than we think. Economies consisting of many small companies—companies of one in the extreme—are much more resilient than those with just a few which are deemed “too big to fail” out of sheer necessity.

You don’t have to become an entrepreneur to enjoy Jarvis’ book, though. Much of his thinking (asking “How can I make this better rather than bigger?” for example, or reducing distraction and focussing on what’s truly important) can be applied successfully in a corporate context just as well—and ultimately also in life.

Jocko Willink, Leif Babin (2015)

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

David Graeber

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Dan Senor, Saul Singer (2009)

Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle

Satya Nadella (2017)

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone