Your festive reading list

The books our experts are talking about this holiday season


From the hidden bias in data to ancient words describing the landscape, here are some of the books which have inspired and motivated London Business School faculty and other experts in 2019.

Landmarks Robert MacFarlane

Recommended by Tammy Erickson, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour

This is a magical book, sharing a love of the English countryside through unique words that are not labels, but rather seem to capture the essence of the phenomenon. The terms often bring a very local or historical perspective. In Devon, for example, that fine film of early morning ice on twigs is ammil, a word that feels almost as ephemeral as the ice itself. A smeuse in Sussex dialect is a gap in a hedge made by the passage of a small animal. I never fail to smile now, when I see the smeuse left by the dogs in my own garden.

I didn’t grow up in England, but through MacFarlane’s prose, the lovely countryside has become more intimate, more home. Light a fire, pour a warm drink, and sink into the pleasure of an evening savouring Landmarks. The prose will warm you like a Shetlandic pirr, a light breath of warm wind.


The Greatest Gift Philip van Doren Stern

Recommended by Dominic Houlder, Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship

Almost all Think at London Business School readers will have watched the It’s a Wonderful Life over some festive season somewhere, and others will almost certainly do so. This Christmas movie classic has been adored across multiple generations worldwide since it was produced by Frank Capra in 1946. Jimmy Stewart plays George, the man who has given up his personal dreams of fame and fortune to help others, but who on Christmas night is on the brink of self-destruction in the wake of business failure. But a trainee guardian angel, Clarence, shows George how much less the world would have been without him and he comes to understand the value of his life and work.

Few people, however, will know that the origin of the movie was a failed publication. Van Doren Stern struggled to find a publisher for his short story - The Greatest Gift – and sent it out instead as a Christmas card in the winter of 1943. One of the 200 recipients was Frank Capra, and George, the hero of The Greatest Gift, became reborn as the hero of the movie with an almost identical plot. A failed essay became one of the best movies of all time.

We cannot offer that guarantee to all students at London Business School (or to faculty for that matter). But this story behind a story prompts reflection on the as yet unnoticed ways in which any of us might have a profound impact on the world and the way it does business.

The Third Pillar Raghuram Rajan

Recommended by Linda Yueh, Adjunct Professor of Economics, and author of The Great Economists

The Third Pillar eloquently argues for the role of society as an equal alongside the market and government in the economy. The latter two are what tends to be debated and analysed as essential to how the economy operates but Rajan shifts our focus to incorporating society into policymaking that really works for people.

As I discovered when I was writing The Great Economists, this more holistic approach is what great thinkers, who fashioned the economic system and transformed our world, always had in mind. Rajan is picking up a worthy baton.



Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are Robert Plomin,

Recommended by Jules Goddard, Adjunct Professor and Fellow of LBS

In this profound book, one of the world’s leading behavioural geneticists provides strong evidence that nature, far more than nurture, shapes our personality. Fifty years of longitudinal studies of thousands of twins and adoptees have shown that genetics explains more of the psychological and behavioural differences among people than all other factors combined.

The environment also shapes our personality, but less predictably. He argues that we are more likely to be affected by accidental events – “happenings” – than by longer-lasting influences, such as our parents or our teachers. For example, children growing up in the same family are no more similar than children growing up in different families (if you correct for their genetic similarities).

Environmental influences turn out to be “unsystematic, idiosyncratic, serendipitous events without lasting effects”.

Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Reveals about the Future of Strategy Ming Zeng

Recommended by Jessica Spungin, Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship

Ming Zeng, academic-turned-strategy-director at Alibaba, describes how, with sufficient data, agility and devolved decision-making, an organisation can evolve a ‘self-tuning strategy’ one where the data and systems decide how to innovate and experiment. A phenomenal read for those wanting insight into how Alibaba makes decisions and pursues growth.



Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) Christian Rudder

Recommended by Gah-Yi Ban, Assistant Professor of Management Science

A fascinating, irreverent book about human behaviour, written by the founder of online dating site OkCupid using company data. Rudder answers provocative questions with narrative and visual flair. With insights into people’s private desires, this is a unique, insider look into how a data-driven company operates.

Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage Paul Ekman

Recommended by Gillian Ku, Professor of Organisational Behaviour

We can try to figure out intuitively if someone is lying, but this book is the science that clarifies whether our intuitions are right or wrong.

Bottom line: it’s not easy to use physical cues to accurately determine if someone is lying! The detective drama Lie to Me starring Tim Roth, who used microexpressions and body language to solve crimes, was based on the author’s research.


Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men Caroline Criado-Perez

Recommended by Dana Kanze, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour

An eye-opener for business school faculty, students, administrators and alumni alike, Criado-Perez takes a rigorous, data-driven approach to document sources of inequality designed into the policies, products, and services that affect us each and every day, ultimately shaping the course of our personal and professional lives.  


Ringtone: Exploring the Rise and Fall of Nokia in Mobile Phones Yves Doz and Keeley Wilson

Recommended by Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

This is a marvellous if somewhat alarming study of the circumstances and strategy that led to Nokia becoming ascendant in mobiles and the way its very success sowed the seeds of its own destruction in the sector. The scariest thing is how long it took for management’s mistakes to show up in the eventual total collapse in sales.



The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken The Secret Barrister

Recommended by Nicos Savva, Professor of Management Science and Operations

A witty and extremely thought-provoking book that illustrates the inner workings of the criminal justice system in England and Wales – and the bizarre operational inefficiencies and blatant failures that have a profound adverse impact on the lives of so many people.

Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To David Sinclair

Recommended by Andrew Scott, Professor of Economics

As the world economy looks to support more older people, more money is flowing into the life-sciences industry. Harvard University Professor of Genetics David Sinclair explains his research into why we age and why he thinks in the years ahead we will be able to dramatically increase healthspan and all the radical changes that implies. This will make you think about whether humanity’s greatest potential technological achievement is really within our grasp.



Talking to Strangers Malcolm Gladwell

Recommended by Costas Markides, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship

Gladwell uses stories of people such as financier Bernard Madoff and Adolf Hitler to identify the reasons behind our inability to spot liars and cheats until it’s too late; one being that we are wired to assume people are honest and discount information that contradicts this until it’s impossible to ignore. A truly fascinating read, full of insights and ideas that will force you to question your own assumptions – in short, make you think.