Top Ten Creative Leadership Books of 2014

Top Ten Creative Leadership Books of 2014

Each of the top ten books of the past year offers fresh ideas, actionable insights, and imaginative solutions to a range of pressing challenges faced by creative leaders. The listed titles, including the notables that follow, celebrate thinking differently and acting differently in order to foster creativity, build innovative organizations and better engage customers across rapidly changing markets and societies. They also share an emphasis on individual and interpersonal learning and growth that will reward their readers far beyond 2014.


Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House)

Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar Animation Studios, one of the world’s most admired creative businesses, shares insights and proven techniques for harnessing talent, forming teams and structuring organizations, and producing fresh and original work. Mining his company’s illustrious production history for instructive episodes and helpful examples, he and Wallace devote special attention to the challenges and complexity of building and sustaining a healthy creative culture. Their closing list of 33 principles alone constitutes an essential master class in creative leadership.


Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Norton)

How are digital technologies – from hardware and software to networks and data sets – fueling exponential growth and profound social and economic change? Two leading thinkers from MIT explore the forces reinventing fields as diverse as medicine, retail, and transportation and having far-ranging implications for creative collaboration, business leadership and policy-making alike. Particularly importantly, Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss how these dramatic changes will enable and necessitate a revamping of our educational system in ways that leverage new technologies, re-cast our understanding of learning, and prepare people for the transformed economy.

Stewart D. Friedman, Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Harvard Business Review Press)

Wharton professor Friedman, building on his excellent 2008 study, Total Leadership, moves beyond familiar calls to balance competing work and life commitments toward taking steps to integrate passions and values across the domains of work, home, community, and the private self. Through a half-dozen profiles, including of Sheryl Sandberg and Bruce Springsteen, the book describes how leaders have employed different skills to act with authenticity, integrity, and creativity. Friedman then closes with a host of insightful, inspiring, and practically useful exercises that allow readers to develop these skills more fully in their own lives.

Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove & Kent Lineback, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press)

Harvard Business School professor Hill and her co-authors focus on the twin imperatives of creating the willingness and the ability to do the hard work of innovation over time. Looking at multiple examples including Volkswagen, Pentagram, Pixar, eBay in Germany, and Google, they explore internal eco-systems marked by shared purpose, integrative decision-making, and the consistent generation of creative solutions. The ‘collective genius’ here not only yields more sustainable innovation for firms but transforms leadership itself as traditional formal authority gives way to more nimble orchestration, informal facilitation, and ongoing community-building.

Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age (Harvard Business Review Press)

LinkedIn Chairman and co-founder Reid Hoffman, Ben Cosnacha and Chris Yeh, argue that talent development and management need to be reconsidered and recast across businesses of all sizes and ages and in all industries and sectors. Among several flexible options for shoring up and enhancing these relationships is the provocative idea of a ‘tour of duty’ in which individual employees agree upon specific terms for deals lasting two to four years. What finally distinguishes The Alliance, however, is its attention to the broader contexts and expanding potential, for individual leaders and employees alike, of optimizing internal company as well as external networks for growth.

Sarah Lewis, The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon & Schuster)

In this layered and wide-ranging meditation, Lewis takes on the increasingly over-simplified notion of failure as a central driver of creative work. ‘The gift of failure is a riddle,’ concludes the art critic and curator, even suggesting in passing another term, ‘blankness,’ to emphasize the necessary dynamic, of those who persevere, of wiping clean provided by experience and then looking to what’s next. Her tracking of the ‘ever onward’ pursuit of mastery by the curious and passionate, from Michelangelo and Samuel Morse to the Columbia University archery team, illuminate the consistent and crucial role in the creative process of incompleteness, absorption of criticism, play as a ‘state of mind,’ and especially grit.

Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen, The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems (Harvard Business Review Press)

Moving beyond generalities and buzzwords about re-framing problems, changing ways of seeing, and putting people first, Madsbjerg and Rasmussen offer genuinely fresh perspectives for those seeking fuller understanding of and engagement with business cultures and challenges. The consultants from the innovative ReD Associates, in Copenhagen, employ a deep knowledge of the human sciences like anthropology, philosophy, and critical theory to develop distinctive solutions to organizational and business problems. As shown in case examples ranging from LEGO to Intel and Adidas, their proven approaches make the book an invaluable guide for leaders wanting to think and act differently amidst increasing uncertainty.

Nikil Saval, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday)

Drawing together accounts of the development of architecture, furniture and equipment, management, and the psychology of office workers, n+1 editor Saval tracks the evolution of workplace design and culture since the mid-nineteenth century. The resulting panorama of both functional and Utopian schemes for improvement – from the scientific management of Taylor to the openness of the bürolandschaft to the self-contained universe of the Googleplex – is both dizzying and instructive. Throughout, individual workers remain at the heart of the story, suffering from the mundane and repetitive, yes, but also gradually being liberated by the fostering of autonomy and self-direction in the spaces in which they work.

Robert Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less (Crown Business)

A major study based on a decade’s research by two Stanford professors on the pervasive challenge of spreading and multiplying success in organizations. Looking across industries, from small start-ups hoping to grow to mature large firms seeking to avoid stagnation, and including JetBlue, Netflix, and Ogilvy & Mather, Sutton and Rao offer insights and proven practices for ‘scaling up’ farther, faster, and more effectively. In the process, they provide actionable advice on such vexing issues as balancing individual and organizational needs, replicating successful mindsets, and eliminating destructive behaviors.

Peter Thiel with Blake Masters, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (Crown Business)

‘What important truth do very few people agree with you on?’ This probing question opens Pay Pal co-founder and venture capitalist Thiel’s short but far-reaching call to ‘question received ideas and rethink business from scratch.’ His resulting proposal, running contrary to social and economic orthodoxy, is that building a creative monopoly – i.e., solving a unique problem and thereby escaping competition – is the condition of every successful business. While often examining the peculiar history and dynamics of Silicon Valley and its technology firms and startups, the broader provocation here is to all creative leaders to think differently and deeply about what succeeds in the market.


Other Notables

Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury USA)

Richard Branson, The Virgin Way: Everything I know about Leadership (Portfolio)

Chris Brogan, The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth: Entrepreneurship for Weirdos, Misfits, and World Dominators (Wiley)

Margaret Heffernan, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition (Simon & Schuster)

Edward D. Hess, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (Columbia University Press)

Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing about Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers (Harper Collins)

Arianna Huffington, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder (Harmony)

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster)

Rich Karlgaard, The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success (Jossey-Bass)

Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Dutton)

Malachi O’Connor and Barry Dornfeld, The Moment You Can’t Ignore: When Big Trouble Leads to a Great Future – How Culture Drives Strategic Change (Public Affairs)

Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Gregory Bernarda, Alan Smith, Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want (Wiley)

Alex Pentland, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science (Penguin)

Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt, How Google Works (Grand Central/Business Plus)

Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (Portfolio)

J.C. Spender, Business Strategy: Managing Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Enterprise (Oxford University Press) + J.C. Spender and Bruce A. Strong, Strategic Conversations: Creating and Directing the Entrepreneurial Workforce (Cambridge University Press)

Barry Wacksman and Chris Stutzman, Connected by Design: Seven Principles of Business Transformation (Jossey-Bass)

Liz Wiseman, Rookie Smarts: How Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work (HarperBusiness)

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