Favorite Books of 2009 (Non-Fiction)

Favorite Books of 2009

Best Non-Fiction Book (History): Lost to the West, by Lars Brownworth

The Roman Empire fell with the collapse of Rome in 476, right?  Wrong.  For over a century before the sacking of Rome, the empire had been gradually splitting into two halves- the strong, economically-successful half was centered in Constantinople.  This empire lasted almost a thousand years longer, about double the lifespan of the western empire, until finally falling to the Ottoman Turks on the eve of the Renaissance.  Later historians would dub this the “Byzantine Empire,” but while the empire certainly had a different culture and character when it fell, it was a gradual evolution.  They called themselves Romans, and there was no definite demarcation between “Roman” and “Byzantine.”  Conventional wisdom likes to pretend that Charlegmagne’s grandfather Charles Martel stopped the tide of the Arab advance, but the Byzantines did far more to defend the Christians of Europe, acting as a bulwark against Arab and Turkish expansion.

Lost to the West is written by Lars Brownworth, the author and voice of 12 Byzantine Rulers, a venerable history podcast that provided mini-biographies of twelve key leaders.  (As a further hint that the Byzantine Empire is not really separate from the Roman Empire, consider that one of them was Constantine, the emperor that legalized Christianity).  In Lost to the West, Lars does far more than rehash the podcast.  Many of the most dynamic periods of the empire were ones without strong rulers, so he does a much more thorough job of covering the whole history.  You can gradually trace the changes in the empire, and almost, but not quite, pick the point where it ceased to be entirely “Roman” in the way we envision it.  If there is a fault to this book, it’s in the subtitle “The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.”  To say that the Bzyantines rescued western civilization is a pretty bold claim, but the author only tangentially addresses this.  Still, as a historical summary, Lost to the West is a fascinating look at a piece of world history that is rarely spotlighted.

Lars has begun a new podcasting venture, Norman Centuries, highlighting the history of the Norman people, perhaps best known for the conquest of Britain in 1066.  Hopefully we’ll eventually see a book out of this effort as well.

Best Non-Fiction Book (Business): First, Break All The Rules, by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman

First, Break All the Rules is based on a Gallup study that that organization conducted to gauge what factors go into successful businesses.  No surprise, they conducted a survey of thousands of people with reams of questions.  They then used statistics to distill the survey into twelve key questions that were correlated to group performance.  In other words, score high on these questions, and you’ll be successful, score low and… not so much.  The book then goes into more depth on these questions, explaining more about them and how to increase scores on them.  

Many of the techniques to increase group performance go against conventional wisdom- hence the title.  For example, it’s almost a cliche that managers shouldn’t play favorites with their direct reports.  This book says just the opposite- you should play favorites with high performers, spending a significantly higher amount of time with them.  The book also espouses the idea to focus on leveraging strengths rather than trying to improve weaknesses (this idea in turn, generated the whole strengths movement, starting with Now, Discover Your Strengths.  Now, please do yourself a favor and discover better books to read than that one).

If you are a fan of the Manager Tools podcasts (hint: you should be), many of the ideas here will sound familiar.  This is not an accident- this book is on their list of favorites.  Manager Tools, of course, takes these ideas and makes them more actionable.  That shouldn’t be a reason not to read this book.  There are still lots of ideas here, and of course, you can learn more about the foundations behind the Manager Tools philosophy.

I read First, Break All The Rules in a book club with my managers.  We liked it so much, we gave the survey to my entire team at work, and held a series of meetings to discuss the results.  We’re using the results to guide our efforts at team improvement.  We’ll do the survey again in 2010 and see if we improved.