Wanting For What To Learn Subsequent? Right here Are My 2020 High Reads

If you need some inspiration compiling your reading list for the New Year, here are my top reads that I came across in 2020 concerning mainly leadership and history:

A view of a selection of books for Christmas gifts, including ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama, … [+] published today, on November 17, 2020. It is the first of a planned two volumes that Obama has written following his tenure as President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. On Tuesday, November 17, 2020, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NurPhoto via Getty Images

“I do intend to… see that the rich man is held to the same accountability as the poor man” – Theodore Roosevelt, 1899

Incredibly well written and researched, this book follows the early 20th Century feud between President Theodore Roosevelt and financier JP Morgan as the young president takes it upon himself to address the social ills of the Gilded Age. 

I’ve always been fascinated by Roosevelt with his larger than life persona and his many contradictions. On the one hand, he was an ultra unilateralist when it came to American foreign policy, being an ardent supporter of Empire building projects in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war (another book I read last year, Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag documents Roosevelt’s ‘imperialist’ tendencies). Yet when it came to domestic affairs Roosevelt cut a lone figure in the Republican Party of the late 19th and early 20th Century with his staunch opposition to the growing consolidation of big business, which was rooted in his belief that such monopolies ran counter to the public interest. Exploring, first, the coal miner’s strike of 1902, The Hour of Fate culminates in Roosevelt’s attempts to prosecute JP Morgan’s Northern Securities – which consolidated huge swaths of American railroad lines – on antitrust grounds. The case set a powerful precedent and marked one of the first times antitrust law had been invoked against corporate interests (up till that point antitrust suits had mainly been brought against labor unions). 

The book’s backdrop of economic inequality, powerful big business and public debate around the proper role of government in regulating the worst excesses of capitalism is of course highly relevant still in 2020 as we grapple with tax avoidance, tokenistic gestures of philanthropy (with a few notable exceptions), and rising poverty both globally and in the US. Roosevelt, for all his flaws, in taking on the titans of wall street and powerbrokers in his own party demonstrated an act of political courage and bravery so desperately needed today. Having succeeded to the presidency after William McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt made it clear he was there to get things done even if it meant only being a one term president (he wasn’t of course).

In terms of what drove Roosevelt, Berfield sheds some insight. As a New York City police commissioner in the mid-1890s, he saw firsthand the unimproved living conditions of the underclasses. After the celebrated reporter Jacob Riis published a particularly raw and damning account of poverty in late 19th century, New York, How The Other Half Lives, Roosevelt is said to have sent Riis a card saying he had read his book and had “come to help.” And so he did. 

Probably most booklists of 2020 list this book, or at least they should, so I won’t go into a lengthy summary. Personally, what really stood out to me wasn’t just the insane amount of issues thrown Obama’s way in his first few years in office – the global financial crisis, domestic automobile industry in crisis, stalled climate negotiations, more financial trouble with the Greek Crisis of 2009, one of the biggest oil spills to occur in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arab Spring – but it was also his ability to at all times retain a calm, cool focus, deal with the crisis at hand while also not missing an opportunity to move his own agenda forward, however painstakingly each step took. So the bailing out of the automobile industry emerges into an opportunity to seek strict new efficiency standards, while the Congressional lameduck session following his party’s pummeling in the 2010 midterm elections gave him a key opening to finally secure the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And the Arab Spring accelerates the brief he had previously given Samantha Power, namely making human rights and democracy a key pillar in US foreign policy however – as Obama himself acknowledges – imperfectly executed that approach might be.

The moments which really stayed with me after finishing the book though were the personal moments Obama elaborates on. The parts hidden to most, away from the camera. There is the moment Obama takes a break from the campaign trail to visit his dying grandmother just as he’s on the cusp of victory (you can read an excerpt of this section here). The moment he is sat on a couch next to his mother in law watching the networks call the 2008 election for him, and both feeling overwhelmed by the moment. And, finally, there is the moment when he comes face to face with Donald Trump to deliver his infamous rebuke of the so-called birther conspiracy theory at the 2011 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, while at that very moment – beneath the surface – dealing with the stresses of a Navy Seal operation that would ultimately result in the death of Osama bin Laden less than 24 hours later. 

Despite its length, I raced through this book in no time and highly recommend it to all those wanting a more comprehensive history of the racial hatred and injustice that has defined America for 400 years. At the heart of the book is the thesis that discriminatory practices – from slavery to mass incarceration – are not born per se from racist ideas, but rather the reverse. That is, racist ideas are themselves developed to justify established discriminatory practices in a bid to consolidate power and preserve long standing inequities. According to Kendi, racist ideas go back to the 15th century when the Portuguese justified slavery based on a biblically enshrined racial hierarchy. Told through the perspective of five so-called tour guides – historical figures from five different eras of American history – the book outlines the ensuing history of three distinct categories of racial ideas as they each vie for attention in American political thought: assimilationism, segregationalism, and anti-racism. 

The book challenges the popular conception of American history as following a neat linear line of progress. Rather than ever being fully discarded, as racist ideas became outdated and no longer socially acceptable, new ideas sprang forth in their place, each based on a new theory but still all too often at their core either assimilationist or segregationist; and in either case, still racist. In this vein, the book argues, many of the early anti-slavery abolitionists were in fact still racist to some degree, either believing freed slaves could become like the White Man or that they should be allowed to form their own segregated colonies. Even the idea that parts of society had become post-racial, where racial hatred had supposedly been transcended, was in part, according to Kendi, aimed at preserving the status quo, namely the socioeconomically segregated communities that still exist across much of America today.

Whether you are newly arrived to America or have lived here all your life, this is a book well worth reading. It will challenge your own preconceived notions of what constitutes racist and anti-racist behavior. In the end. It’s only through such self awareness and reflection that we’ll eventually overcome the worst forms of racial discrimination and injustice.

I had the pleasure of reviewing this book over the holiday period, which was written by a former Secretary-General of Junior Chamber International (JCI) who I served on the board of the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens with. The book’s central premise is: “individuals, businesses, and organizations that focus on their challenges are defined by their challenges, while those that focus on their opportunities are defined by their opportunities.” Drawing on his 17 years of experience with JCI, Arrey offers multiple suggestions on how organizations can fulfill their potential while not losing sight of their opportunities through getting bogged down in day to day challenges and processes. 

The book reminded me of our own experience founding Global Citizen, especially his description of “naive audacity”, namely one’s ability to visualize AND, crucially, communicate an outcome “so clearly that it overshadows the obstacles in the way of accomplishing such an outcome” even when you do not have experience in the expected outcome. In communicating the outcome sp clearly, Arrey purports, “others can see your imagination, believe in it, and embark on its accomplishment.”

The first campaign I ever ran with Global Citizen as a 23-year-old was The End of Polio, which sought to raise at least $50 million for global polio eradication efforts at the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting being held in Perth, Australia. At the time, we did not know exactly how we would achieve this outcome, but we believed that if we could demonstrate significant public support, and make polio one of the most visible issues in the lead up to the summit, then leaders would be forced to at least respond and, hopefully, pledge dollars. A chance encounter with then Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, (itself the result of her staff being intrigued by the idea after I expressed it in a letter to her) convinced us this campaign might just work. She, after all, no doubt desired a concrete outcome from the summit, which had been dismissed as an expensive talkfest, and making it the turning point in the fight to make polio just the second human disease in history to be eradicated was about as concrete and impactful as you could get. The ‘naive audacity’ of the idea and Gillard’s validation quickly inspired others to come on board, including my friend Lindsey Hadley who would later tell me that she turned down a raft of much better paying job offers (indeed, it was not clear how much or if we could even pay her at all!) to join the campaign because she was inspired about the potential of what we could achieve together. Looking back I am convinced it was the naive audacity of our idea as well as our clarity of purpose that, through the support of people like Lindsey, soon led foundations to also jump on board along with artists, including the likes of John Legend, local Rotarians like my mentor the late David Goldstone, more than a few members of the Australian Parliament and innovators like Californian born Ryan Gall who provided the campaign model that allowed us get so many sign-ups to our petition. Just 6 months after that initial meeting with Gillard all of this support would culminate in The End of Polio Concert taking place the day before the summit and which in the end saw leaders in attendance pledge AU$118M for polio eradication efforts. The lessons from that campaign, including the novel idea of incentivizing civic engagement through rewards such as concert tickets, would pave the way for the first ever Global Citizen Festival, which took place in New York’s Central Park just 9 months later.

Giving proof to Arrey’s thesis, having clarity of purpose has been a key ingredient to Global Citzen’s most successful projects. Our CEO and co-founder, Hugh Evans, will often lament that “there is mist in the pulpit, fog in the pew” if we cannot clearly communicate an idea. This is because he understands the power that comes from being able to communicate a clear outcome in a way that produces an ‘aha moment’ in the respective audience, whether it’s artists, citizens, potential partners, or even our own staff. 

Arrey’s emphasis on being opportunity focused and not letting challenges get in the way of a good idea, even if the context you’re operating in is one of chaos, is also reflected in our own experience this year. Like many organizations, we had to cancel/postpone plans due to the pandemic, learn to quickly pivot and come up with a way to galvanize our stakeholders around a new plan in support of our mission. Just a few weeks into the initial lockdown in April we produced one of our most successful events – One World: Together At Home – which helped secure $127M in support of frontline health workers, the WHO and local relief efforts. And through the learnings from that event, and three other big campaigns we ran this year, we have now developed a new model for reaching millions of people in over 150 countries around the world that is not entirely dependent on in-person live events such as concerts.

Arrey’s book, The Opportunity Gap, launches on February 4 and will be available on Amazon as well as bookstores like Barnes & Nobles.

5/ 1865 by Wondery

So this is technically a podcast rather than a book but in reality, it feels more like a well produced radio drama and is well worth a listen if you want to understand the immediate impact of Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865. With a stellar cast, the podcast literally begins the very night Lincoln was shot at Ford Theatre by James Wilkes Booth and follows the ensuing feud between Lincoln’s close ally, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and his successor as President, Andrew Johnson, as they debate the future of the nation. Underscoring the nonlinear nature of progress in American race relations, it does not take long before Johnson, sympathetic to southern interests, tries to roll back Lincoln’s work, including his pledge to provide forty acres and a mule to freed people, in spite of staunch opposition from Stanton. The tone of the series and much of its plot echoes with our own times with allegations of fraud, impeachment trials, high profile attempts to fire officials, and no shortage of conspiracy theories. But above all else, as Stanton increasingly resorts to any measure necessary to stop Johnson and the nation teeters once more on the brink of civil war, the series’ central question is how far are you willing to go, how much of yourself are you willing to lose, to pursue a moral outcome; at what point does the end no longer justify the means?

This book follows the life of one British family before, during and after the Brexit referendum of 2016. Although the characters are all fictional, the backdrop is entirely set against real world events beginning with the positive euphoria of 2012 when London played host to the Olympics and The Queen celebrated her diamond jubilee. Perhaps due to the fact that many in my family, and virtually all of my mum’s side of the family, live and work in what might be termed ‘Middle England’, I found many of the sentiments expressed by the book’s characters’ very familiar. The conversations (or rather debates) that take place in the novel could easily have been, and probably were; between my own family members in recent years. Overall, I found this book a fun and enjoyable way to try and make sense of the craziness that has engulfed Brexit Britain. I’m not sure how those with no connection to the UK would find the book, but at the least, it might shine a light on peoples’ motivations and why they do the things they do.

This year marked not only 75 years since the end of the Second World War, but also the 75th anniversary of the death of Australian wartime prime minister; John Curtin. Over the American summertime, I devoured the first volume of Edwards’ biography of arguably one of Australia’s greatest prime ministers. In contrast to his British and American contemporaries (or even Australian ones like Robert Menzies), Curtin was not a ‘man of destiny’ or known for his great charisma. Perhaps more like a Harry Truman in so far as Curtin found himself unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when the Menzies Government fell, it was not expected that his government would last beyond a few months at best. Yet, being one of the few to foresee the inability of the Imperial British Navy to respond to the danger posed by a rising Japan, Curtin would go on to deftly and calmly lead Australia through WWII, especially in those first few perilous months of 1942. With Britain occupied by Nazi Germany, and Japan rapidly advancing across Southeast Asia with some anticipating Australia would be next, Australia and its then just more than 5 million inhabitants were left to fend for themselves. Without sharing the deference his predecessors paid to London, Curtin infamously looked to a new ally in America but not before (much to Churchill’s chagrin) bringing as many Australian troops back from the Middle East to shore up the home defense in the wake of the calamity that was the fall of Singapore. Curtin might not have been a ‘man of destiny’ but his steadfast leadership would secure his place in history. A conversation involving Menzies (who would go on to become Australia’s longest-serving prime minister after the war) in the wake of Curtin’s death illustrates the latter’s unique place in Australian history. Turning to a fellow pallbearer Menzies is alleged to have said “I don’t want all this fuss when I go.” “Don’t worry,” the other pallbearer replied. “You won’t get it.”

I was given this book by a friend, Toni, who told me it was one of the most emotional books she had ever read. She wasn’t wrong. This is a very sad story and there are few uplifting moments for its characters, but it does contain some very powerful lessons. The backstory of the book is the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup, a globally little known tragedy that occurred in France following its occupation by Nazi Germany. Jewish families were rounded up and sent to the Vélodrome d’Hiver where they spent days living in squalid conditions and going hungry. Eventually, the children would be separated from their parents although the vast majority of them would all suffer a similar fate in the German confrontation camps. The story centers on one of those children, Sarah, and is told through the lens of a reporter 60 years later who, finding out that her new apartment was once Sarah’s family home, takes it upon herself to find out what happened to her and her family.

A central theme of the story is that the round up of the families were conducted and carried out by French police and soldiers, not occupying Nazies and that this is a dark period of history that must eventually be confronted and reconciled with. Personally, the story reinforced the overall importance of ensuring accounts from the Second World War are not lost and forgotten lest we forget the cruelty humanity is capable of and allow history to repeat itself. With the war’s surviving witnesses (most of whom were only children at the time) now in the twilight years of their lives, capturing these stories is more than important than ever.

I came across this book after a colleague forwarded me an article written by its author in Foreign Policy in which he likened the cultural impact of our One World: Together At Home to that of a bestselling book written by Wendell Willkie during the Second World War. Who is Wendell Willkie and what did he do? Well, that’s exactly what Sandy’s book is all about.

Willkie was an American businessman who shot to prominence in the 1940 US election as the Republican contender to Franklin Roosevelt. He lost of course, but just a few years later embarked as the President’s unofficial envoy on an around the world trip, meeting with leaders, soldiers, journalists, activists across Africa, Asia, Europe and Russia all in a bid showcase to allies unequivocal bipartisan support for the war effort. The experience left a huge impression on Willkie and upon his return, he published a bestselling account. The publicity surrounding his trip is credited with helping to sanitize the American public to the need of active and ongoing US engagement to rebuild the world following WWII, in turn paving the way for the United Nations.

According to Zipp, Willkie also espoused an idealistic version of US foreign policy that would he hoped set America in support of the anti-colonial movements building steam in many of the countries he visited. After all, he believed, they were simply trying to have their own version of the American Revolution. Of course, in the decades following WWII America’s international engagement would often fall well short of these ideals as realpolitik trumped concerns over human rights and democracy.

As a new Administration now looks to reimagine US foreign policy in an increasingly chaotic world beset by global challenges from the pandemic to climate change, Zipp’s account of Willkie’s travels and ideas offers some food for thought. 

My sister helped track this rare book down following our discovery last year that our Grand Uncle Colin had lost his life 80 years ago in what remains the single loss of life in a British maritime disaster.

On June 17, 1940, thousands of soldiers and civilians, fleeing the armies of Nazi Germany then overrunning France, converged at the southwest of France. There, many of them boarded a former luxury liner,  converted into a troopship, the HMT Lancastria. With more than 9000 people allegedly aboard, the ship was soon after attacked and bombed by German planes. At least 3500 people are said to have lost their lives, and it remains to this day the single greatest loss of life in a British ship.

Censored by Churchill at the time, “the tragedy vanished from public view, becoming a footnote to the history of the Second World War.”

My Grand Uncle, John Colin Thomas, was 22 and for almost 80 years we never really knew his full story. This book, drawing on numerous survivor accounts, helped fill in the details of what happened.

The backdrop of the disaster itself speaks volumes about leadership or the lack thereof for June 17th was also the day that the French decided to sue for peace with Hitler despite Churchill’s appeal. Only Charles de Gaulle, at the time a junior minister, took what seemed like the tougher option, went into exile and led a courageous resistance. He would eventually become one of France’s greatest leaders, but at the time there was little hope for the country that had seen its forces overrun in a matter of weeks by Nazi Germany.

Technically I read this book last year, but a new edition came out this year and it’s themes are even more relevant a year on that I felt it important to include. 

Hassan’s book explores the following key questions: what if globalism and nationalism were not so far apart? What could globalists learn from the powerful sense of belonging that nationalism has created? Faced with the injustices of the world’s economic and political system, what should a responsible globalist do?

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of my work, I found the book particularly insightful in its attempt to, in the words of its author, “formulate a more appealing, inclusive glo­balist credo. [in an attempt] to stand a far better chance of building human solidarity around the idea of a united, global nation” capable of addressing the great challenges of our time. 

To this end, a part of the book proposes that globalism would win more public support if institutions addressed the present situation of tax avoidance in which the most wealthy see their wealth skyrocket while simultaneously freeriding on the taxes of an already squeezed middle class to address issues like ending extreme poverty and climate change.

While Hassan offers his own solution to this challenge: the sentiment he expresses informed the launch of our Give While You Live campaign at this year’s World Economic Forum. The campaign calls on the world’s billionaires to contribute at least 5% of their wealth annually towards addressing the major social ills of our time and is based on our belief, as articulated in The Responsible Globalist, that it would be tone deaf – if not counterproductive – to continuously ask for more foreign aid (in effect, taxpayer’s money) to fund Sustainable Development without looking at a proportionate contribution from the world’s most wealthy.

Ultimately, this book, and its ideas, are particularly relevant at this time when we know that the best way to address issues like climate change and pandemics is together – in fact, that is the only way they can be addressed. As we see with ongoing tensions around vaccine nationalism, never underestimate the ability for narrow minded self-interest to prevent the kind of collaboration that would be most beneficial to everyone in the long run.

These audiobooks are a little different from everything else on this list. Fun, with stellar casts, they are far from not serious in any way. I thought I would include them though since when I got COVID-19 back in the spring, not being able to do much else, they were all I could bring myself to listen to. Creed tells the story of time travelers heading back to the times of Isaac Newton while the other follows the famed detective and his trusty companion, Dr. Watson, in a race against time to find Queen Victoria who has mysteriously vanished. If you’re looking for some light relief to listen mindlessly too, I highly recommend it.