Kevin and I were talking about what business leaders could learn from history and he asked me to come up with my five best books as preparation for a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world.
#1: The Fall of Constantinople by Steven Runciman. The punchline here is that Constantinople (or Byzantium) was besieged and captured by the Ottomans in 1453, but the really interesting story is how did this eastern half of the old Roman Empire last 1000 years. Part of the answer is the rather unfashionable truth that it had a complex bureaucracy and very sophisticated diplomatic service at a time when its enemies were successful warlords, here today and gone tomorrow.
#2: 1929 A Year of Conflict by Hillel Cohen examines the causes of the rioting that broke out in Palestine in 1929, which might seem a rather narrow incident but Cohen’s bigger idea is that “all history is constructed” – which is why there’s a Jewish version and an Arab version of what happened. What he brilliantly shows us is how those two parallel but competing narratives have been created – useful for anyone who has to weigh up competing arguments and make a decision.
#3: Russian Voices by Tony Parker. In 1990 Parker visited the USSR as it crumbled and interviewed a wide range of ordinary people about their uncertain future. Well, thirty years on we know. Uncertainty created opportunities of enormous wealth to a few who grabbed the chance, but for the great majority they exchanged too much certainty for too little certainty. There are lessons here about managing change.
#4: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg is her account of her life as an English woman married to a German bringing up three children in Berlin in WWII, and what happens when her husband is arrested by the Gestapo after the July bomb plot. It’s about surviving and playing the cards that are dealt you, even if it looks like a losing hand.
#5: Ill Fares the Land by the late great Tony Judt. Published in 2010, this a historically-based argument that the economy should be run for society, not society run for the economy. This truth that resonated this year in the former industrial towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania.