Five Books Every CEO Should Read

Joseph Bragdon's Profit for Life

Joseph Bragdon's Profit for Life

This is a list to embolden.

Earlier this summer, I dipped my toe into the waters of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in an article entitled Love is the Single Bottom Line. As I wrote then, I've been following the evolution of the conversation about CSR for a number of years. Over time I have come to conclude that the CEOs who take a truly responsible approach to their work simply get down to business, doing the right thing because it's what they believe in, commit to. In their companies goodness is not a department, it is naturally embedded into every fiber of the organization.

These five books have influenced and bolstered my views. All are firmly rooted within the framework of capitalism, profit-making, girded by a passionate belief that companies run well are powerful forces for good in society. Three are written by CEO-founders of large, global enterprises. Two by investors (there's overlap--Vanguard Group founder John Bogle is both).

They address the qualitative side of doing the right thing--the words stewardship, caring and long-term come up repeatedly--and, importantly, the bottom-line benefits of a values-driven approach to business. And they don't sugar-coat the very real challenges associated with staying true to a higher set of principles, adhering to a moral imperative.

For every CEO--and especially those struggling with the often-burdensome elements of CSR or one of its many derivatives--taken together these five books bring it back to basics, simplifying and enlivening consideration of why--and how--to do the right thing.

1. Profit With Honor, Daniel Yankelovich

A 1946 graduate of Harvard, Daniel Yankelovich has tracked public opinion and social trends in the United States for the better part of five decades. Profit With Honor was published in 2006, in the wake of the Enron, World Com and other financial scandals of the early 2000's.

Yankelovich opens with a quote from philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: A great society is a society in which its men of business think greatly of their functions. From there, he builds a strong case that business is at heart the keeper of social norms. When business abandons this role, society falters.

Neither a fan of regulatory-driven rehab nor of CSR, Yankelovich lays out a framework that he calls stewardship ethics as an alternative to the concept of shareholder value. It is grounded in caring, community and higher expectations of business. This is where the book is at its squishiest--the others on the list pick up its slack.

2. Enough, John C. Bogle

From the same generation as Yankelovich, Bogle is much-admired as a pillar of impeccable integrity in the investment community. Enough is his plea--and well made case--for a return to core human values in the wake of the second round of scandals and crises in the early 2000s. His thesis: good ethics is good business.

As both founder and investor he brings a unique perspective and credibility to his writing, in which he invokes Socrates, the founding fathers, Homer, Goethe--and Daniel Yankelovich. His number one rule for building great organizations: make caring the soul of the company. This, at its heart, is true CSR.

3. Profit for Life, Joseph H. Bragdon

Joseph Bragdon is a money manager for high net worth individuals. Published in 2006, Profit for Life is his very meaty consideration of both the management practices and investment performance of 60 global companies he has identified as Living Asset Stewards, companies whose cultures are driven by caring for living assets--people and nature--versus non-living--capital.

Inspired by systems thinkers Peter Senge, Arie de Geus and Fritjof Capra, it's hard to overstate the value of this book: it is both unarguably hard-nosed and deeply heartfelt--polished and thorough--and it completely reframes consideration of the pursuit of profitability--from a necessary evil to a resource to be leveraged for the greater good. The book's subtitle: How Capitalism Excels.

4. Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist, Ray C. Anderson

I mentioned Ray Anderson's book in my article Love is the Bottom Line. Picking up where Bragdon leaves off, Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist is Anderson's first person account of leading Interface, the Georgia-based carpet manufacturing company he founded in 1974, on the pursuit of zero impact operations by 2020.

This is an engaging roll-up-your-sleeves, nuts-and-bolts guide to sweeping operational change. If you think it can't be done, Anderson will convince you that it can--and should--and that, in fact, you'll make money in the process. (Very sadly, Ray Anderson passed away from cancer earlier this month, a deeply felt loss.)

5. The Key Speech, Sir Ove Arup

Rounding out the list is the text of a brief speech, rather than a book. I've mentioned global engineering group Arup in a number of my articles. The employee-owned, UK-based company was founded in 1946 by Anglo-Danish engineer Ove Arup. In 1970 Arup made a speech to his partners that remains a cornerstone of the group's operating philosophy today.

It's a quick read. Arup is down to earth, funny, pragmatic, and he nimbly addresses the challenge of navigating the tensions between conflicting operating ideals. He is also firmly committed to the idea that having a vision that encompasses moral principles binds a community--and a company--together. Arup was ahead of his time--or, perhaps, we're circling back from where we came.

Today it's harder and harder to separate consideration of doing the right thing from issues of environmental sustainability. Bragdon and Arup touch on it, Anderson's tale is all about it. For further reading specifically on sustainability, the book that inspired Anderson's quest is on my list: Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. Similarly, more and more leaders are looking to nature as a source of inspiration for innovation and organizational design. Again, Bragdon and Anderson both reference this thinking. For that reason, Janine Benyus' book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature is similarly on my list.