As we get ready to enter the new year, I’ve compiled a list of my top reads (and podcasts) from the past year that have inspired, enlightened, uplifted, and motivated me as a leader.
These books and podcasts focus on the knowledge, traits, skills and qualities any leaders ought to possess who wants to have a positive impact on humanity. The list covers everything from geopolitics through to the growing crisis in charitable giving, as well as ways to overcome and conquer our own personal demons and self doubts.
Some recommendations are very specific in nature, ranging from Australian and British politics through to climate science. Yet, they all strive in their own way, either implicitly or explicitly, to leave their audiences with broader, practical, solution-oriented insights that can be applied to the world around them, and thereby hopefully impact humanity for the better.
I read some years ago Follett’s epic Fall of Giants, the first book in his Century Trilogy, that follows the lead up to, the causes, and the horrendous consequences of the First World War. In some ways, Never, is even more ambitious, if not a little uncanny given its proximity to the present. In the first few pages, Follett describes how he got the idea for the book when he was researching for Giants. He notes that none of Europe’s early 20th century leaders wanted to go to war and yet somehow they still found themselves caught in that most brutal and self-destructive of conflicts. Follett had asked himself if the same could happen today and Never is his attempt at providing an answer to that foreboding question.
Never is set between and follows compelling storylines in the Sahel region of North Africa, Washington DC and Beijing. At first the storylines feel quite disconnected from each other but soon enough local fault lines emerge with global implications, tensions rise, and a small event (or two!) in a corner of the world brings them all crashing together.
With everything that has happened this year, readers may find the relative absence of Russia throughout the storyline as a bit amiss. It was, after all, first published in 2021. Additionally, in this version of the present at least, Taiwan turns out to be less of a fault line for war than other regional flashpoints. Yet in many ways, all of this serves to underscore the book’s main point (and the invoking at the start of the causes of WWI). As was the case just over a century ago, in a multipolar world, the room for strategic misunderstanding can arise suddenly and without much warning. Regional hotspots that might have appeared dormant can rapidly spiral out of control as a result of an unforeseen triggering event, which although occurs locally, quickly escalates and drags in the world’s major powers.
Any close watchers of current geopolitics, and students of history, are likely to know – only a fool would answer Follett’s question with the word “Never.” Ultimately, the book serves as a timely reminder of how wars begin, assumptions are made, and the unimaginable becomes reality.
On the subject of US-China tensions, Kevin Rudd’s latest book is arguably second to none in its attempt to decipher the mind of China’s third term president, Xi Jingping. Avoidable War should be required reading for all policy makers today. Rudd’s focus is on the here and now with the objective of providing a foreign policy blueprint for avoiding war in the next decade between the US and China.
Rudd’s optimism is mixed with a healthy dose of realism in his prescription. Gone are the ‘end of history’ days when we could hope for China and the US to come together in a kumbaya partnership for the betterment of humanity unhindered by outdated 20th century notions of nationalism and hegemony. Those traits are, whether we like it or not, back in vogue and a contest for regional, and even global, pre-eminence is clearly under way. It is a fool’s errand to argue otherwise.
The way forward for the US and China, according to Rudd, is to establish clear guardrails – rules of the road – within which this contest should play out. The best we can arguably hope (and strive) for, short of military escalation, is each country competing for dominance in economic, technological and financial spheres. Rudd calls this “managed strategic competition.” If each country can stay in its own lane militarily, then “may the best system win” in the realms of competition.
In establishing clear rules to avoid conflict, we might also be able to hope for strategic cooperation in areas like climate change. One insight of Rudd’s is just how significant this decade of the 2020s actually is to the future of all of humanity with two potential existential crises playing out alongside one another. The 2020s may very well be the most consequential decade facing humanity since the 1930s. For it is in this decade that our actions will determine whether we avoid both catastrophic climate change, and unfathomable levels of conflict between the great powers.
We’ve heard time and again how the actions we take this decade will determine whether or not the world will avoid catastrophic climate change. This means reducing global emissions by at least half by 2030. With China and the US the two leading emitters there is no way this target can be achieved without a high degree of cooperation between them. Yet, such collaboration must be done at the same time tensions between them are at an all time high.
Now is the time for smart, rational, thoughtful, imaginative diplomacy and political leadership to guide us through the coming decade. And we need creative policy entrepreneurship in spades. To that point, I for one am glad Kevin is back in the world of diplomacy as Australia’s next Ambassador to the US.
Talking of Australia’s role, I greatly enjoyed reading Behm’s No Enemies, No Friends, after it was recommended to me by a friend in the Australian Senate. Those who know me well will appreciate that I have always been passionate about Australia’s ability to harness creative middle power diplomacy and have a positive impact in nurturing global public goods, both for the world’s interests and for Australia’s.
The book also strikes a chord with my own grumpiness about the short-sighted and uninspiring nature of Australian foreign policy over the last two and a half decades, but particularly the last 10 years. Terms like “punching above our weight” illustrate the problem clearly. It implies a rather low assessment of Australia’s ranking in the world and that somehow we are already acting above our station when in fact the opposite is arguably more true. If anything, putting a few exceptions to one side, we punch below our weight.
The election of the Labor Albanese Government in Australia earlier this year has already seen a few positive strides from higher climate ambitions to a slight increase in the Australian aid program. Yet, this is the bare minimum and more must be done, ideally in a bipartisan way, to cite Behm, if Australia is to indeed restore its global relevance. Behm’s book is a great read on how this should be approached.
This history book is an eye opening take on how present debates over environmental degradation, energy poverty and climate change cannot be fully understood without a firm grasp of the last 400 years of geopolitics. The clear link across the centuries, argues Ghosh, is colonialism, exploitation and power pure and simple. Ghosh draws on the history of the cultivation and exportation of the nutmeg spice, native to Indonesia’s Banda Islands, to drive home his point. He also outlines how energy companies invested millions into a marketing campaign to convince US taxpayers that solving climate change is a matter of “personal responsibility and consumer choice.” What this framing “excludes”, Ghosh notes,”are institutional emissions, like those related to the US military and to the projection of American power… It is as if ordinary Americans contributed nothing to defense expenditure—even though a significant part of their taxes are earmarked precisely for that purpose.” Ultimately, and in contrast to technologists like Bill Gates, Ghosh argues that breakthroughs on climate change – and true climate justice – will only be achieved through accompanying reconciliation at a far deeper level.
I read The Nutmeg’s Curse against the backdrop of negotiations on loss and damages and calls for climate justice and reparations from poorer nations, climate vulnerable countries and indigenous communities. It definitely helped me understand more where these communities’ representatives were coming from and the ongoing frustrations they felt at not being heard in the great capitals of the world. The Nutmeg’s Curse also reinforces the learnings I’ve taken away from my work with Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados and her Bridgetown Initiative, which focuses on reforming the inequities inherent in the global financial system for the betterment of climate vulnerable countries like her own.
Prime Minister Mottley herself, like Ghosh, often invokes history to argue her point. Speaking at the recent COP27 climate talks in November, she pointed out how the proceeds from slave driven, plantation based exploitation of countries like her own had enabled western nations to industrialize. Now, as a result of the high emissions of those same industrialized countries, poorer nations are arguably being forced to pay again for a problem they did little to cause. As Mottley said, “we were the ones whose blood, sweat and tears financed the industrial revolution…Are we now to face double jeopardy by having to pay the cost as a result of those greenhouse gases from the industrial revolution? That is fundamentally unfair.”
Near the book’s conclusion Ghosh narrates visiting the Banda Islands in the present day and reflects on the trauma and legacy of the Dutch colonization of the Banda Islands, which resembled what we would arguably describe today as a genocide. I had my own similar reflection earlier this year when I visited Bridgetown in Barbados as part of the initial meetings for Prime Minister Mottley’s Bridgetown Initiative. On the last day of the meetings I went to a house that George Washington had once stayed in. Barbados was the only country outside the US he ever visited (although they were both under the yoke of the British at the time). And the reason was apparently to learn the ways of the plantation farmer (carried out on the backs of people enslaved). The US colonies would eventually perfect the Carrbibean style of plantation driven exports, and the rest is history. Today, the US remains by some margin the largest historic carbon emitter in human history.
Fortunately, this was also a year in which gains and concessions were made. Loss and damage, long neglected on the global agenda, got its first agreement with the creation of a new fund. Now the next struggle will be getting it funded and deciding who is eligible. Ghosh leaves little doubt who he thinks should be paying.
In this relatively quick read, Goodman dissects not only Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum, but the shortcomings of current approaches to philanthropy more broadly. Personally, alongside his forensic analysis of vaccine nationalism during the pandemic, I found Goodman’s account of financial injustice and predatory lending to emerging and developing countries very well done. If you read one chapter in this book make sure it’s the detailed insight into how Argentina’s bondholders, mostly in London and New York, conducted their negotiations with the country’s political leadership in an alleged attempt to make an example out of the country “to deter other governments from seeking relief.”
Unfortunately, this is a story that continues to play out as we’ve seen this year in Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya and other high debt saturated countries. So far corporate lenders have appeared unwilling to participate in debt relief measures, demanding “poor countries make good on their debts” even in the face of a multitude of crises – from the pandemic through to the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on global energy prices – that have decimated their revenues. And the result, as Goodman points out, is that countries “skimp [investments] on schools and health care so they can continue making debt repayments to Davos man.” This is despite the fact that if they were granted some measure of debt relief in the form of loan forgiveness “they could invest in infrastructure, education, health care, and other spurs to development that would allow them to earn money needed to meet their obligations.” I highly recommend this recently published overview of Ghana’s debt crisis to see how this debt crisis has only gotten worse over the course of the last year.
Fortunately, leaders like Mia Mottley are taking it on themselves to challenge the underlying causes of such debt traps. 2023 will be a deciding moment to see if this translates into broader systemic reform. One interesting reform that Mottley is pushing as a new norm, and which I wrote about earlier this year, are disaster clauses in bonds. Such clauses would enable the borrowing country to suspend debt repayments in the event of an economically decimating crisis like a hurricane or pandemic. These short term relief clauses would also arguably decrease the odds of a government defaulting on its debt and in turn increase the likelihood that they will be repaid.
Like Rudd’s Avoidable War, Dalio’s latest principles are essential reading for those interested in US-China relations. Dalio’s analysis is based on a cyclical view of history focusing on the boom and bust, rise and fall of empires throughout history. He then constructs a series of principles focused specifically on Dutch, British and American experiences with hegemony. One of Dalio’s essential premises is that the loss by an empire of its currency as the world’s dominant reserve currency is a harbinger of the loss of hegemony more broadly, albeit generally several decades behind.
Overall, Dalio could be criticized in some quarters for giving the impression, at least implicitly through his at times fatalistic style of writing, that the outcome of the US-China rivalry is a foregone conclusion. Accordingly, it could be inferred from Dalio’s analysis, rather than try and reverse the inevitable, American policymakers should already be moving their focus towards how to best adjust to and make the most of a new world in which they are no longer the sole dominant power. Dalio uses the case study of the UK’s peaceful acquiesce to American hegemony in the 20th century as a case in point.
In Dalio’s defense, the aim of his book is not to make predictions about the future or prescribe policy solutions. He also does not rule out the possibility of unforeseen events occurring that disrupt current trends. History, as he points out, is littered with examples of countries that had all the makings to become the dominant hegemony but didn’t. For example, anyone writing in the late 18th century might have assumed France, not Britain, would dominate the 19th century were it not for a series of crises, shocks and revolutions. In the end, Dalio is merely making assessments based on large long term trends and data sets, much as any good investor would do. What to do with this information is a matter for others.
As well as this particular book, I also recommend subscribing to Dalio’s email list and notes. He regularly publishes ongoing commentary, applying his principles to real world events. Whether you agree with Dalio or not, he’ll certainly challenge your own assumptions about the world.
If you’re someone who lies in bed at night fretting about life’s regrets and roads not traveled, then this book might relieve some of those anxieties. I read The Midnight Library during the week I took off for my wedding. I wanted something light, short and easy to read for the flight but that also wasn’t too close to work. The Midnight Library was perfect and what a book! The central premise is about a young woman Nora who, after seemingly dying, has found herself in a type of purgatory, which takes the form of the so-called midnight library (hence the title’s name). Here Nora has a chance to revisit her biggest (and smallest) regrets and find out what her life might have been like had she made different life choices. Nora’s potential life pathways are numerous (or even infinite) and include moving to Australia, staying with her ex boyfriend, not quitting her brother’s band, and sticking to her budding swimming career. Inevitably as Nora visits each potential lifetime she realizes the accuracy of the old adage that the grass is always greener on the other side.
Whether you’re someone who is constantly stressed about what might have been (or what could have been) had you made a different choice in life, or you just want a great and satisfying book to read, I highly recommend this book. Warm, sentimental, and above all, reassuring, it may help with putting to rest any regrets that might be lingering in the back of your mind.
This hits the shelves in February, 2023 and is definitely one to pre-order. Entrepreneur, philanthropist, innovator, guest Shark, and Harvard fellow, Matt is a larger than life character who I first met about 18 months ago when he made a commitment on the Global Citizen stage on behalf of the Global Solidarity Fund.
Invoking the likes of Sun Tzu, Julius Caesar, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and his own personal rag to riches story, Higgins message is simple: “forget Plan B and burn the boats.” The premise is that having a plan B ultimately weakens one’s resolve and makes it less certain that success of any scale will be achieved. This is a phenomenon I’ve witnessed in my own international advocacy work time and time again. Campaigners, even before they’ve launched a new campaign, negotiate against themselves and set less than inspiring back up goals. Higgins’ message, experience and toolkit will give us all newfound inspiration for achieving our dreams and pushing past who is all too often the biggest naysayers of them all: ourselves.
The Generosity Crisis: The Case for Radical Connection to Solve Humanity’s Greatest Challenges, by Brian Crimmins, Nathan Chappell, & Michael Ashley, and Solving The Giving Pledge Bottleneck, by Sean Davis
I have put these books together because they deal with two sides of the same coin in many respects when it comes to the crisis confronting modern day philanthropy.
When I was first asked to provide a testimonial for The Generosity Crisis, I had no idea the extent to which philanthropic giving had already been declining in the US. While the Ukrainian war has seen a slight bump in giving this year, overall the trend is on a downward trajectory. The present economic downturn will likely force philanthropists to tighten the purse strings even further, at a time when their funds are needed more than ever. The Generosity Crisis begins by inviting the reader to imagine a world without charity and goes on to predict the end of philanthropy as we know it if current trends continue. Crimmins, Chappell and Ashley ultimately offer a number of actions that can be taken at an individual and policy level to collapse in generosity. Yet, arguably it’s biggest impact will hopefully be to draw attention to the crisis in the first place and help mobilize an army of advocates to reverse this trend.
Davis’ book unpacks the so-called “Giving Pledge bottleneck. The giving pledge was Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s initiative to get the world’s billionaires to agree to give away their wealth within ten years of their passing. According to Davis, only about 200 of 2800 billionaires have signed the pledge and of these only a tiny fraction have either met or are on track to meet their pledges. Indeed, Davis notes that 10 of the original signers have since deceased and yet not even 50% of their estates have still not been given away in philanthropy. Davos’ own solution involves applying a private equity lens to address this bottleneck and believes the private sector could absorb 95% of philanthropic funds at scale to address the biggest challenges of our generation (although here I think he could have touched on the value proposition represented by investments into advocacy movements).
Timely. Compelling. Relevant. Both books make for essential reading for those in the non-profit, philanthropic and CSR fields. For my part, I’ve written previously about how the way we’ve been doing charity has long been in need of an overhaul. Now more than ever we need philanthropic capital to be bold, to move at speed and rise to the challenges we face. One way philanthropists can leverage their giving and have a huge multiplier effect is by investing in movement building, policy entrepreneurship & advocacy. Addressing global challenges like climate change and poverty requires systemic solutions at the end of the day, which is what advocacy is all about. Investing in such movements represent a huge opportunity for foundations and philanthropists to have an outsized impact on society, both locally and globally.
Beyond the books mentioned above, I was also deeply touched, inspired and moved by the following podcasts:
I found this podcast essential to staying up to date and making sense of the fast turning and chaotic nature of British politics this year. It’s a fun, light, entertaining but also information packed frequently published podcast that is usually posted several times a week (sometimes more when a government begins collapsing at speed). While from different political backgrounds Rory and Alastair bring a fun nature to each subject they dissect. And if you like nuance and depth then this is a podcast for you. Now one of the top ranked podcasts in the UK, the series highlights that there is a huge market and audience for long form, intelligent and insightful analysis.
Personally, I’ve long been a fan of Rory from his earlier writings and his time as a DFID minister. And I devoured Alastair’s diaries chronicling his time at No. 10 when the first volume came out almost 20 years ago (yes I was as nerdy at high school as I am now).
If you want to go back through this year, the duo’s interviews with leading current and former politicians are extraordinarily well done. My favorite interviews have to be those featuring former British foreign secretary, William Hague (whose epic biography of the abolitionist, William Wilberforce is a must read), the current Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama and former NZ prime minister Helen Clark. I’ve already written in to recommend they interview Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados.
I discovered this while listening to The Rest Is Politics and the first series deals with the British empire in India. I’ve long wanted to read Dalrymple’s books on the history of the British East India Company but have just never gotten around to it (shame on me!). After listening to his and Anita’s excellent overview of the British imperial experience in India however, I’ll definitely be adding it to my reading list now. I hope in time too, this chapter of British history makes it into public dialogue more broadly. As has been noted, for better or worse, the British Empire probably had a larger impact on global affairs than any other chapter in British history and yet it receives so little attention in popular culture and history.
A particularly insightful episode in the series thus far involved a guest interview with British historian, David Olusoga, to reflect on both the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II and more broadly the mixed legacy of the British Empire. I was in Ghana for the whole of September at the time and listening to this conversation prompted me to pay a visit to the country’s Cape Coast Castle. There I learnt about its brutal past as what was essentially a prison run by the British to hold and then export people as slaves. A horrendous chapter in British history.
Their second season deals with the Ottoman Empire. I’m not sure what will come next. Personally, and selfishly as an Australian, I hope they at some stage look at the Australian experience with colonialism and empire and return to other chapters of the British Empire.
Anyone genuinely interested in action on climate change should subscribe to this podcast. To avoid temperate rises greater than 1.5 degrees, it’s now generally agreed that some degree of carbon removal will be required. This is in addition to deep and significant cuts to our carbon footprint, such is the damage we’ve already done to the Earth’s atmosphere.
To illustrate the scale of the challenge, according to The Carbon Removal Show, forty percent of annual emissions produced by power plants will still be in the atmosphere 100 years from now. Ten percent, 10,000 years from now!
The challenge however is that investment into carbon removal technologies is still quite nascent, expensive and ultimately nowhere near the scale necessary to remove an estimated 5-15 gigatons of carbon annually (roughly 10-15% of our existing annual emissions). It’s also not clear the extent to which we can rely on “panic planting” (i.e. trees and nature based solutions) to carry this burden, although they will be essential in buyting time whilst other technological solutions develop.
The lack of awareness and the need for more investment, is part of the reason why my friend Craig Cohon is quite literally Walking It Back, beginning January 3rd. He will be walking from London to Istanbul in a journey of redemption to help catalyze a movement in support of carbon removal, which he describes as “the mission-critical next frontier of climate action.” He has also committed to wipe clean his entire lifetime of carbon emissions. Already, he has committed over $1M to remove all 8,147 tonnes of carbon he has emitted since his birth in 1963. Through walk it back he plans to set in motion spin-off campaigns to remove no less than 100,000 tonnes.
I’ll be joining Craig on one of the first legs of his journey as he sets off from London next week. In the meantime, I highly recommend the Carbon Removal Show podcast. It provides a great overview of what carbon removal is, breaks down the different methodologies in lay terms (i.e. technologies involving biochar and direct air capture), and most importantly what police change is needed to address it at scale.