by Jean Edward Smith. Simon & Schuster (April 9, 2009), 784 pages.
This extraordinary biography of Grant has much to teach to the modern executive. Grant’s focus on the essential, calmness in delegation, and insistence of looking at each new day as a new opportunity are simply stunning.
The maritime history of Massachusetts: 1783-1860
by Samuel Eliot Morison. Nabu Press: May 14, 2010. 524 pages.
Clearly I am not the only one who finds this book remarkable. It was first printed in 1941, but was recently reprinted for the first time in over twenty years. As a young scholar, Morison painstakingly examines the inner workings of the Massachusetts maritime economy. In the process, he reveals the modern American economy in its infancy. How did early ship owners accumulate capital and diversify risk – and establish “corporate governance” over an asset they might not see for three years running? How was a seaman paid, and how did his family survive in his absence? What was the “profit sharing model” that governed the relationship among ship owner, captain, officers, and crew? There is much insight we can gain about these modern issues from seeing how New England addressed them two hundred years ago.
The Revolutionary War Memoirs Of General Henry Lee
by Henry Lee. Da Capo Press: Mar. 22, 1998. 652 pages.
This book, I will confess, is the hardest read of all the books listed here. And it may only be appropriate for those with a special interest in history. But consider this extraordinary fact. The father of Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from 1862-1865, was eventually a general with George Washington during the War of Independence eighty years earlier. Even more extraordinary, this Lee wrote his memoirs while in confinement in a debtor’s prison. (It is in fact astounding to learn how many prominent participants in the Revolution passed through – or died – in such institutions.) When one reads the amazing reflections that Henry Lee has upon his experiences during the Revolutionary War, it is no longer difficult to imagine how his son could have been such an amazing general. The dinner time discussions he must have had with his father! From a managerial perspective, Lee’s ability to think strategically and his proclivity to act is matched only by his good natured acceptance of how even the best laid plan can be thwarted by the simplest of human errors. And rather than dwell on such indicidents of bad luck, he simply moves on. Time and time again.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster: 2005. 944 pages.
Not a day goes by that we are not reminded of our hopeless fantasizing that someone is actually in charge. As anyone who has sat in the corner office knows, there is a world of difference between “being in charge” and “getting things done”. In Goodwin’s portrait of Lincoln, we see a leader who understands better than anyone around him the severe limitations of “legitimate” power, and how things get done only by figuring out how to work through others – even others who may have coveted the very chair in which you sit. It matters not if you have more money, more people, more weapons, more factories, better transportation, and world opinion behind you. One still must organize the effort and get things done, overcoming all the pettiness that defines us as a species. Essential reading for the myopic. Highly recommended for everyone else!
Washington: The Indispensible Man
by James Thomas Flexner. Back Bay Books: February 22, 1994). 448 pages.
There has been so much good work on Washington of late, it is impossible to pick “the best” biography on this extraordinary person. But anyone seeking to understand the American “system” without a solid grounding in Washington’s biography is wandering in the dark. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and the rest all made intellectual and political contributions. But it was Washington who created substance from this collective imagination. Along the way, he shows the importance of keeping day to day events in the perspective of the greater plan, and how resiliency trumps strategic brilliance time and again.