The best books on leadership and history

Moshik Temkin Author Of Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial
By Moshik Temkin

The Books I Picked & Why

The Feast of the Goat

By Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman

The Feast of the Goat

Why this book?

Although I disagree with most of Mario Vargas-Llosa’s views about our world, this work of historical fiction is a masterpiece. It recounts the end of Rafael Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, from 1930 to 1961, when he was assassinated, and its devastating aftermath. The book unflinchingly shows how cynicism and cowardice corrupt an entire society, and the choices ordinary people face when the only ways to resist an evil regime are either rebellion or escape. It is a gruesome book and I do not recommend it for younger readers. But we can learn a lot from it about the very nature of power and about leadership in dark times.


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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

By Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Why this book?

Malcolm X’s autobiography, co-written with Alex Haley, is one of the most compelling personal testimonies ever published in America and one of the most extraordinary leadership journeys ever documented. It is simultaneously educational and wrenching, as the narrative moves from Malcolm’s difficult childhood to his life as a criminal to his political and spiritual awakening in prison to his rise to national and global fame and notoriety as a black revolutionary to his murder at age 39. What we learn from his story is how a leader can emerge “organically”, without being appointed, or selected, or having an institutional base or political position, and the sacrifice, honesty, and courage that are necessary ingredients for transformational leadership in the most difficult circumstances.


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The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi

By Arundhati Roy

The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi

Why this book?

Anyone who follows India will be acquainted with the writing of Arundhati Roy. In this short and powerful book she focuses on two remarkable leaders of pre-independence India, Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar; the two clashed over the place of the Caste system – and Hinduism itself – in the future Indian nation. Ambedkar, an “Untouchable” (Dalit), believed that ending colonialism was not enough and the Untouchables could never be free until the “annihilation” of the entire Caste system. Gandhi believed that in building a national community there had to be a compromise with people’s strong attachment to Caste. Roy’s book is simultaneously a rediscovery of Ambedkar, a reassessment of Gandhi, and an indictment of Caste-based oppression in India today.


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Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression

By Alan Brinkley

Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression

Why this book?

This groundbreaking and wonderfully written study of two “protest” leaders during the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States shows us what happens when truly hard times hit ordinary people, and what sort of leaders they then turn to. Brinkley brilliantly chronicles the rise of Louisiana politician Huey Long, the “Kingfish”, from obscurity in the poor Jim Crow south to becoming, by the time he was assassinated in 1935, the most significant political threat to the popular President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Long’s calls for wealth redistribution, contempt for traditional elites, and disregard for democratic institutions, make him an important historical example of so-called populist leadership, and of the power and appeal of populism in times of crisis.


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Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

By Feng Jicai

Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

Why this book?

The beauty of this book is that it teaches us about leaders without featuring any leader. The Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, during which the country underwent complete upheaval, with millions of victims, was the brainchild of one powerful man: Chairman Mao Zedong, who held on to power in China by unleashing the country’s youth on the older generation. But the book does not look at Mao at all. Instead, it shows the effects of one leader’s decisions on those under him by featuring personal testimonies from survivors of those “ten years of madness” who lived to tell stories that are by turn wistful, melancholy, humorous, and, most often, heartbreaking.


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