The 10 best Business and Leadership books of 2020
| IOP Desk - 20 Dec 2020

2020 can be defined as a pandemic year, a US Presidential race year and a year when the world took a pause. There were 6 or more books on the American Presidency in 2020!

By Shiv Shivakumar

“My list for 2020 has books on the US presidency, on people and on life after the pandemic,” says Shivakumar or Shiv (as he is popularly known) who is currently Group Executive President at Aditya Birla group for Strategy and Business development. Shiv has collected, read and recommends “The 10 best Business and Leadership books of 2020”.

I hope you enjoy the 10 books. I have deliberately not included the 5 outstanding summer books I recommended in 2020,” says Shiv, who has worked with over 50 brands in his career and seen many business transformations. He joined the Aditya Birla group (ABG) in January 2018. Prior to this, Shiv was Chairman and CEO for PepsiCo for four years and before that with Nokia as CEO for India and later emerging markets for nearly a decade. Shiv has been a CEO for half his career and was one of the youngest CEOS in India. Shiv worked in HUL for a number of years, mostly in marketing.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I picked this book for this list because it is one of the most authentic books on leadership that one can read, about leadership and the difficulties in getting alignment at every level. It is a fairy tale book, the story of a junior Illinois senator who within eight years saw Al Gore accept the nomination from an airport in 2000, delivered a stirring ‘We are the United states of America, we are not the blue states or the red states’ endorsement speech for John Kerry in 2004 and was the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. Obama outlines his struggles with his habits, his work ethic and his family in this memoir. I think Obama traces all his signature strengths and challenges candidly in this book, which is rare from a leader of that stature. If I had to find fault, it is too long, all of 899 pages and part 2 is on its way.

Lights Out Ted Mann and Thomas Gryta

This is a book from two Wall street Journal journalists, on how GE went from being an iconic, most admired company to obscurity in a very short span. I have read every book about GE and in a way, I think GE led management thinking and practice for a long time in the 90 s. GE was the gold standard! The book says that CEO Immelt’s biggest challenge was to step out of his predecessor Jack Welch’s shadow and that led to a lot of problems. History will judge if this is True or false. The book traces the problems of GE to GE capital (a black box), its rigid hierarchical culture and a place where telling truth to the boss wasn’t encouraged as bad news became the daily diet. This analysis just tells you that you need leaders who think of the institution ahead of their personal glory and lip service and slogans do not make an effective winning culture.

10 lessons for a post pandemic world by Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is the CNN host of GPS (Global Public Square). Fareed Zakaria calls the pandemic the third most consequential event after 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis. He sees the pandemic as a large systemic failure. Fareed feels the world has been in denial for a long time. We have taken to bashing the government and want a smaller role for governments in our lives. However, things like the pandemic require governments to step up and deliver. When a government is not involved, then few resources are allocated to pressing issues. Fareed also believes that in a crisis, leaders who are realists but idealists make the right combination. He gives the example of FDR, Truman Eisenhower as examples.

A world without work by Daniel Susskind

Susskind is an economist from the Balliol College, Oxford. John Maynard Keynes coined the expression ‘Technology Unemployment” in 1930. His prophetic label might come true by 2030, a hundred years later. When will machines replace the average worker has been a debate for the last century. Machines tend to replace standardized, repetitive work. We live with a paradox at work. Hard work has become a religion, yet engagement and job satisfaction at work are not where they need to be. We are in a world of job unhappiness, low wage growth and rising debt. Daniel Susskind feels that some form of Universal basic Income is needed because work is a social, economic and a psychological issue now. We have designed work policies but need to start thinking of leisure policies as we discuss concepts like a 4-day week.

Sizing people up by Cameron Stauth and Robin Dreeke

This is a book by an FBI agent Robin Dreeke who thought about this after 9/11 when he had to work with some Russian agents and also navigate the politics at the FBI. The authors argue that it is important to read people well in order to succeed. Reading people is about arriving at mutual goals, the longevity of relationships, the reliability of relationships, commitment to action, open communication and stability. The authors point out that anything to do with reliability, credibility and trustworthiness starts with you. You have a good chance of being seen as trustworthy if you are trusting yourself. A good way to build trust with people is to keep your ego in the background and be open minded.

Rage by Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward is the sage of presidential memoirs. He has written about 13 presidencies so far and all 13 are bestsellers. In writing this book about President Trump, Woodward had full access to Trump and all his aides. Woodward recorded every conversation with President Trump. Woodward gives the reader a great insight into how President Trump deliberates, executes and decides. President Trump was hoping against hope that Bob Woodward would write a positive book about him. The book traces a lot of important milestones like the Trump – Kim Jong Un meeting (Woodward had access to 25 letters between the two leaders), and ends with the Trump response to the pandemic. The book is meticulously researched, a Woodward hallmark and Woodward takes us through the Trump thesis on National security, Geo politics and the democrats. He describes the decision making in the Trump white house in great detail (chaotic, unruly, whimsical) and finally concludes that “Trump is unfit to govern USA”

Upstream: How to solve problems before they happen by Dan Heath

Dan heath is a fellow at Duke. This is about complex system interaction, like a business, a city etc. This book is about an everyday issue – problems – how to recognize them and how to deal with them before they happened. What if we could stop crimes before they happened? What if we could stop accidents before they happened? We tend to stumble on problems, stumble on answers and never really learn about them properly or don’t weed them out at the root. Dan Heath puts the issues onto two large buckets – the first being our inability to recognize a problem, and a lack of problem ownership and tunneled vision. In the second bucket he dwells on how to find the right people who unite people, changing the rules that create the problem, what is the point of leverage, what are the early warning signals, i.e. how do we look for data patterns that lead to a problem and finally how do you know you are succeeding in solving a problem.

Expert Understanding – The Path to mastery by Roger Kneebone

Roger Kneebone is a doctor and a professor at the Imperial College London, who has studied mastery. Many label him the expert of expertise. He starts by saying that becoming an expert is a basic human characteristic. There is no doubt we need experts and every professional wants to be seen as an expert in his/her field. The journey to expertise starts with being an apprentice, graduating to a journeyman, then taking responsibility and then becoming an expert and passing the craft and knowledge to future generations. He explores the characteristics in each stage. Roger Kneebone makes an interesting observation in the book – while the outcome is different in every filed, the journey to expertise is the same.

We need experts to make sense of what we don’t know, to help us when things have gone wrong.

Uncharted- How to Map the Future by Margaret Hefferman

Margaret Hefferman is a former CEO and a popular Ted Speaker. Margaret Hefferman says that we are all addicted to perfection and we want to know what will happen next with a degree of certainty. We want to face the future with some degree of confidence. She argues that life is never so easy and even the experts in forecasting do not predict more than 400 days out. She argues that in complex situations, being efficient is a problem, being robust is a better answer. She argues that being prepared or preparedness today is doing everything today that you might need for tomorrow. She goes through many examples of history, business and science to build her logic. The answer to things lies in creativity and humanity and not in technology. Technology she argues takes life out of life. Uncertainty is an opportunity and not a problem. Uncertainty gives us the freedom to try something. So, get comfortable with uncertainty.

The Wakeup call by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge

John is from Bloomberg News and previously the Economist, Adrian is from the Economist, two of the best placed to write this book. This book argues that the west has managed the pandemic far worse than the east. The pandemic taught us how important government was. Some good governments did well, some didn’t- this was the difference between living and dying. The authors believe that lack of investment in a state is an important variable. They do an interesting exercise of taking a combination of William Gladstone and Abraham

Lincoln, two leaders they thought reshaped government in their times. They then look at what’s worked around the world in the pandemic and then try and apply it to the USA via this new combination leader. They believe the South East Asia model is a good one and argue how one could get the best talent to be public servants a la Singapore. They feel that 40 % of computer systems in USA are legacy systems and need to be upgraded. They feel that the western ideology built on the concept of individual freedom and human rights, with lower investment in government might not be a model to tackle challenges like the pandemic.


Group Executive president, Aditya Birla Group for Strategy and Business development; has worked with over 50 brands in his career and seen many business transformations.Joined the ABG group in January 2018; Was Chairman and CEO for PepsiCo for four years; Was CEO for Nokia India and later Emerging markets for nearly a decade; Has been a CEO for half his career and was one of the youngest CEOS in India; Worked in HUL for a number of years, mostly in marketing; Shiv writes and teaches regularly on Innovation, leadership, Followership, Business Models, Digitization etc across the leading business schools in the world; Shiv is an avid sports watcher, a great fan of Manchester United and Barcelona football teams, John Mc Enroe and Roger Federer in tennis.

Shiv is a believer in giving back to society.Shiv has been on the Board of Governors of IIM Ahmedabad between 2012 and 2017; he was on the Godrej Consumer products Board between 2009 and 2017. He was the president of the All India management association in 2012-2013. He was Chairman of the mobile marketing association from 2014 to 2019 and Chairman of the Advertising standards council of India for 2018-19. He is currently on the board of XLRI and IIM Udaipur.

Shiv has been awarded many times in his career – Best CEO, Best brand builder, for leadership, for Turnaround etc.. The awards most dear to him are the two distinguished Alumnus awards he got from IIT madras and IIM Calcutta. He is one of twenty people in India to have distinguished alumnus awards from both IIT and IIM.

Shiv is married to Hamsini, who runs her own brand, innovation and Semiotics consulting company. 


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