Required Business Reading

It’s curious how often uncommonly clear and commonsensical thinking about management comes from long-time laborers in the field. Perhaps decades of experience enable them to distill the subject to its essence — or maybe it’s just that 40 or 50 years of hard work have earned them the right to speak plainly.Samuel B. Bacharach, organizational behavior professor at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR)  School since 1974, is one of those laborers.

“Leadership is a narrative of execution, that’s what it’s about,” says Bacharach, who is currently McKelvey-Grant Professor at Cornell. Until 2016, he served as director of the ILR’s Institute for Workplace Studies. Bacharach boils a leader’s job down to three things: working with people to generate ideas, mobilizing groups to move ideas forward, and sustaining momentum to get things done.

But just because leading is easily described, that doesn’t mean leading can be easily done. Bacharach has devoted much recent effort to bridging theory and practice to help leaders become more effective. He cofounded the Bacharach Leadership Group, a New York–based leadership development consultancy, has implemented his leadership training modules in a number of major corporations, and, with eCornell, the university’s online learning company, developed a 10-course corporate leadership training certificate for high-potential employees

A prolific author and editor of more than 20 books, including Keep Them On Your Side: Leading and Managing for Momentum (Platinum Press, 2006), Bacharach has increasingly focused his writing on practical leadership, too. His newest book, the first in a planned series, is The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough (Cornell University Press, 2016). In it, Bacharach paraphrases Thomas Edison, reminding us that “a good idea without execution is a hallucination.”

When I asked Bacharach to share an essential reading list for leaders who are moving agendas through the maze of complex organizations, he recommended four books. “The first two books are about why ideas get stuck,” he explained, “and the second two are about the political skills you need to move ideas forward. In terms of moving strategy, these books raise essential questions that all mindful leaders should think about.”