Top 5 Books We Read in 2011

A brief reflection on five of the many books read and enjoyed during the past 12 months. Any of the following will be a good read we’re certain.

Also, a bonus… an all-time favourite revisited after a 40+ year absence, this time in an electronic format.

In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

A vivid capture of 1933–1934 in Berlin capturing the increasing stranglehold on power by Hitler and his band of thugs.

Very detailed portrayals of the leading characters and their many, many misdeeds. In particular, the “night of the long knives” that was a precursor for the atrocities which followed. Larson captures the period through the lens of American Ambassador Dodd and his family taking up his post in pre-World War II Berlin. Dodd was not a traditional diplomat. As he becomes acquainted with the German Reich leadership, Dodd increasingly recognizes their savage character and ambitions. He correctly assesses Hitler and correctly opined that war would follow. Regrettably, the “Pretty Good Club” of monied diplomats in Washington thwarted Dodd’s message.

One admires Dodd’s high principles for not attending the annual Nuremberg Nazi-fest: Dodd made the distinction between party politics and statecraft.

If a reader wants an insightful perspective of pre-war Berlin and Germany as it slipped into fascism, this is a definite “must read” accompanied, of course, by the classic Christopher Isherwood “Berlin Stories”.

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller

A compelling read – – warts and all – – of William Donovan, an Irish-American lawyer from Buffalo NY who established the Office of Strategic Services prior to WWII. The OSS became the CIA in the early 1950’s.

Wild Bill Donovan personifies “Better to ask for forgiveness than seek permission”. He was an inspiring leader, lousy administrator and absentee father/husband. His and the OSS faced opposition from FBI Director J Edgar Hoover and others with their own espionage agendas and fiefdoms.

Donovan was a man of ideas, not politics. His OSS operations spanned the globe and despite many failures, played an important role in the Allies victory. Ultimately, he was sent packing with the wind-down of the OSS by President Truman, not a Donovan supporter.

Despite his shortcomings, I believe the world needs more men like Wild Bill Donovan: proud to serve their country, a bias for action, and an inspiration for followers.

Interestingly, in the current discourse on national health care in the US, Donovan’s friends secured President Eisenhower’s support so Donovan could spend the last part of his life in the army’s Walter Reed Hospital as cost of his medical care was beyond family financial capacity.

Definitely a must read for history buffs and those interested in genesis of American espionage.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

Traditional thinking is that motivation at work and at home can be best accomplished by a carrot-and-stick approach. Bonuses at the office. Gifts for children.

But, Daniel Pink argues that the carrots and sticks motivation mechanism is a flawed approach in today’s world. In fact, he argues, carrots and sticks can and do impede high performance.

Pink believes there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. For Pink, the secret to high performance and satisfaction -at work, at school, and at home – is the need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves.

He posits that there are three elements of true motivation – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – and the best motivation we have comes from within, intrinsic (Type I) rather than external, extrinsic (Type X).

To lead today’s workforce that is not motivated by carrot and stick approach – – the flawed Motivation 2.0 – – companies must embrace Pink ‘s Motivation 3.0. And, fortunately, he provides a toolbox of resources to assist that transition.

Rationale arguments backed by solid research. Provoking. A very stimulating read.

Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960-1973 by John T. Saywell

Jack Saywell was the Founding Dean of Arts at York University in the very early 1960’s. Invited to the barren campus north of the city from his warm midtown Toronto office at U of T by York’s founding President Murray Ross.

Someone to Teach Them is Jack’s story of the early years at York and the explosion of post secondary education in Ontario with the accompanying pressures to built a first-rate faculty. Jack had a unique perspective as an observer, engaged participant and victim of York’s internal politics during the university’s transformation from a small college in the middle of a cow pasture to Canada’s largest university in the middle of the greater Toronto area.

If you have an interest in the development of York University and post-secondary education in Ontario during the 1960’s early 1970’s, Someone to Teach Them will be a hugely interesting read. It was that for me, particularly as I was at the center of many on campus contretemps that Saywell describes including the infamous “Americanization of York protest – – these were the days of student power. And, for a brief time, one of Saywell’s adversaries as an editor of the York U student newspaper, Excalibur. We later sorted that out.