Learning from The Best Business Books of 2020: A fireside chat

In Founding Fuel’s learning session, D Shivakumar, in conversation with R Sriram, discusses what’s different about his best books selection this year. He also shares some of his superpower secrets about how he is able to nurture the discipline to read in the midst of a busy professional life

Founding Fuel

Summary by R Sriram

I was recently in conversation with D Shivakumar (Shiv) about his curation of the best business and leadership books of 2020. Our conversation was based around the following themes that emerged from his selection.

One, about the pandemic and its lessons for countries, organisations, leaders and citizens.

Next about leadership, and where it is headed now, including lessons from GE’s decline and fall, as told in Lights Out by Ted Mann and Thomas Gyrta.

Another was about the increasingly digital world, and its impact on organisations and people, as well as the way ahead.

Shiv’s list also featured two books on US Presidents, and the subject of leadership at the highest levels, in the world’s leading economic power, was another theme. 

I also discussed the subject of learning from books, and importantly, how to apply this learning.

On his selection process and criteria

“I look for new concepts, or something that makes me think differently about something I knew.”

“I read books to reflect, to be inspired, to learn and teach.”

“I love biographies, they tend to have depth.”

On why there were no Indian books on his list

“While I have featured Indian books in the past, I typically find them to be too sycophantic, or too negative, and not balanced. They also tend not to be thoroughly researched. I like books to provide new insights or concepts or fresh perspectives.”

The pandemic

10 Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria

  • This crisis is far bigger than 9/11, and the global financial crisis. Security changed after 9/11, banking regulation and rules changed after the financial crisis, I think the attitude to health will change after Covid-19.
  • We seem to have developed fatigue, but the virus does not have fatigue.
  • We havent learnt from failure, we are in denial about it.
  • We have always ridiculed large government as being not necessary, but small governments can’t solve such a crisis and we just dont have the private enterprise means and attitude to handle such a crisis.
  • The greatest leaders are those who confront reality as it is and yet are idealistic in what they shoot for and the time it would take, and points to Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower.

Dig Deeper:

  • Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World | LSE Online Event

The Wake Up Call: Why the Pandemic has Exposed the Weakness of the West and How to Fix It by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

  • They emphasise the importance of governments in responding to the crisis.
  • A good government has been the difference between living and dying.
  • They point to the significant difference in Covid-19 deaths per million population in Asia versus Europe and the US.
  • Countries like Singapore try to get the best talent into public service.
  • Learn from what the best countries do and apply it.
  • Western governments have focused on individual rights, welfare state, etc. but have not invested in ecosystems to protect their citizens from such crises.

Dig Deeper:

We have had several black swan events this decade, with Covid-19 being the biggest of them. Can organisations prepare for them, and if so, how?

  • Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld spoke about the known knowns, and organisations tend to prepare for these.
  • Margaret Heffernan, author of Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together, says none of the predictors predict beyond 400 days. But conceptually every company and manager wants certainty about the future. This certainty doesn’t exist today.
  • Agility becomes very important in the way you manage companies, and the way you manage yourself and your teams to respond to such black swan events.

Dig Deeper:

  • Margaret Heffernan on How to Map the Future Together | RSA Replay


  • The first thing the pandemic has taught us is that we need to be present, and we need to show up.
  • In the early days, people pointed to how women leaders—from New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Taiwan, etc.—were handling the pandemic better and it is a fact. But to say that all women would manage the pandemic better than men would be to take it too far.
  • What we can learn from such wonderful women leaders: they were empathetic, they followed rules—which is a sign of strength and not weakness, they relied on experts and on science, they took great pains to explain and communicate to their community what they were doing and got buy-in, they didn’t bother who got the credit.

Lights Out by Ted Mann and Thomas Gyrta

  • Jack Welch, who was CEO of GE for 20 years before Jeffrey Immelt, was named ‘Manager of the Century’.
  • Welch moved the company into financial services and media and underinvested in manufacturing.
  • The 2008 financial crisis hit GE’s financial services business very hard, and it couldn’t recover from it.
  • A cultural aspect at GE—the inability to deal with bad news—was a big problem.
  • Immelt’s trait of personal aggrandisement was also a problem. When he used to fly, another plane would follow his plane, in case anything happened to it. When the board got to know, he offered the excuse that he had asked the airline team to fix it, but they didn’t.
  • Immelt focused too much on increasing the stock price through stock buybacks and dividends.
  • Immelt’s expansion into the oil and gas services business was mistimed, and he over-paid for the Alstom acquisition. His digital push did not succeed.
  • In the US, whistleblowers like Harry Markopolos are rewarded by the government for a share of up to 30% of the monies recovered. This encourages forensic reporting and financial scrutiny of companies.
  • The big lesson from GE is that organisations need to be agile, be adaptive, keep learning.

Dig Deeper:

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath

  • Truth always exists at the edges of an organisation, and in its ecosystem. By talking to one’s customers and other stakeholders, we can learn many things, more than those inside it.
  • Society tends to cheer and applaud people who solve problems.
  • But we tend not to applaud those who prevent problems before they arise.
  • Take road accidents for example. If we look at the data about which stretches have most accidents, we can take relevant steps to prevent them and save lives.
  • Middle management knows a lot of the problems faced by the company, and if they stood up to senior management with data, they can solve many problems before they arise.
  • Former Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) pioneered the mid-day meal scheme in schools and addressed the problem children being used as cheap labour and that of low school enrolment, leading to generations of educated children.
  • Here is a one-page summary of the book with the 7 key questions to ask and 3 barriers to overcome to solve problems before they happen. 

(Note: You can download the pdf from the resources section (needs registration))

Dig Deeper:

  • Dan Heath about his book ‘Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen’

Digital Impact

  • The pandemic has accelerated digitalisation, impacting almost all aspects of our lives.
  • It has become imperative for all businesses to have a digital business model.
  • Consumers have changed faster than leaders and corporations in adopting digitalisation.
  • Consumers have also started paying for a range of digital products and services.
  • Digital education and re-skilling will accelerate from an employee point of view.
  • Relationships between doctors and patients, the legal profession with digital courts.
  • Some key digital principles are that discoverability has to be easy, it should be frictionless, enable contactless engagement and take the brand directly to the consumer.

A World Without Work by Daniel Susskind

  • In the coming decade, more and more jobs will be automated.
  • Most countries are going through a recession, and this means job losses and increased automation.
  • There is growing inequality around the world and universal basic income will become prevalent.
  • People have derived their identities from being gainfully employed, they will have to adjust to the condition of being gainfully unemployed.
  • As four-day work-weeks become more common, companies need to think through good leisure policies, as with good work policies.
  • Work has been the source of purpose for many people, and in a world without work, new sources of purpose need to emerge.

Dig Deeper:

Presidents and Leadership

  • Barack Obama emphasises the importance of leaders who led 'not by polls, but by principle…not by calculation, but by conviction.’”
  • Obama states that, I saw the possibility of practicing the values my mother had taught me; how you could build power not by putting others down but by lifting them up.”
  • Obama’s book is very authentic and balanced and provides a great glimpse into his life.
  • His story of becoming the President is a most unlikely one. He is humble, down to earth, and holds himself to account as he narrates a number of incidents in the book.
  • Getting the right alignment between various people in an organisation is extremely important.
  • He shares the struggles of his family in coping with the Presidentship, the struggles of trying to win the Republicans, as well as numerous stories, some humorous, some serious, all of which reveal the many aspects of leadership.

Dig Deeper:


Early experiences can be transformative. Obama shares that, The reading habit was my mother’s doing, instilled early in my childhood—her go-to move anytime I complained of boredom, or when she couldn’t afford to send me to the international school in Indonesia, or when I had to accompany her to the office because she didn’t have a babysitter.”

Go read a book, she would say. Then come back and tell me something you learned.” (A Promised Land)

  • Shiv emphasises the need for learning every day, to be future ready’ rather than past perfect.
  • Leaders need to stay relevant as the world is constantly changing. And if a leader does not learn, she or he will not remain relevant.
  • No. 1 reason companies fail is due to arrogant leadership.
  • No. 2 reason companies fail is due to the inability to learn or unlearn.
  • Strong company cultures can prevent them from finding new ways to do things, from innovating.
  • Companies need to learn to change—keep some things that work, drop things that don’t and experiment with some things and pilot them.
  • It is leaders who need to spur learning and unlearning in organisations.
  • Shiv’s dad used to ask him to copy the front pages of the newspaper and underline the words he didn’t know and look them up in the dictionary or ask him. This helped him develop the reading habit.
  • He read Enid Blyton and other children’s fiction as he was growing up and then turned to biographies, books on business and leadership as he started working.
  • Inculcating the reading habit is important to keep learning.
  • It is important to be reflective, to step back and learn from books and others. This is challenging in this era of addictive smartphones.

Dig Deeper:

  • Talk by Roger Kneebone on his book ‘Expert: Understanding the path to mastery’


  • The healing power of reading (Michelle Kuo | TEDxTaipei) (h/t Deepa Soman)

Shiv’s Responses to the Rapid Fire Questions

  • Fiction or non-fiction? Ans: Non-fiction
  • Print or digital books? Ans: Mostly print.
  • One book at a time, or multiple? Ans: Multiple books, but one book at a time.
  • Favourite place to read? Ans: Airplanes, airport lounges, while traveling.
  • Career or calling? Ans: Career
  • What is your superpower? Ans: Ability to manage time.

Audience Questions

What personal behaviour has Shiv changed due to insights from books he has read? (Ajay Kelkar)

Shiv: Many, but the ability to be reflective is one of the big ones from reading books, the ability to say there’s another point of view on the same matter is something I have learnt again and again and has helped me through life.

When is Shiv coming out with his book? (Soundari Mukherjea)

Shiv: My book ‘The Right Choice: Navigating 10 Career Dilemmas For Extraordinary Success’ will be available for pre-orders in January and be released in February.

Can you pick three leadership principles from all that you have read and experienced? (Parag Shah)

Shiv: 1. Authenticity—leaders must be authentic, stay firm to a set of values, repeatedly focus on them. 2. It is the leaders job to raise the bar, help people improve. 3. Good leaders must communicate non-stop, explain why you do what you do.

Curated Comments from the Live Audience

(Lightly edited)

Manish Pajan: Micklethwaite and his co-author also wrote a terrific book The Witch Doctors - a brilliant takedown of management consultants. ...

The Indian Boss At Work - Steve Correa.. well researched, insightful book on the indian traits of corporate and business leaders…

Kanchan Dwivedi: Have liked reading Zero to One, Hard Things About Hard Things, Influence, Trust, Saying No to Jugaad, The One Minute Manager, Hooked & Atomic Habits.

Amit Gadkari: Another outstanding book I read this year was The Splendid and the Vile.....on how Churchill led during his first tumultuous year as PM during WWII

Atul S Nath: Jack [Jack: Straight from the Gut] and Winning were massive bestsellers which made it even harder for Immelt

Venkat Raman: Covid has necessitated some bold decision making. However it is likely to lead to rise in autocratic leadership in the name of effective decision-making. What impact this is likely to have on the domain of 'leadership'?

(Note: Founding Fuel may earn commissions for purchases made through the Amazon affiliate links in this article.)

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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