Christmas reading

If you’re anything like me you leave the buying of Christmas presents to the last minute, as in Christmas Eve. This inevitably leads to panic buying, which is turn is never cheap.

So, similar to last year, we’ve got your back, and have selected a range of books you might like to gift a special someone (or gift yourself, you deserve it).

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got loads of time however. At the time of this post, Christmas is less than 4 weeks away. To help – each of the books has a quick link to The Book Depository, and of course you can also support local independent book sellers in your area.

So let’s get cracking.

A Meat Smoking Manifesto – Aaron Franklin

There’s arguably a correlation between low & slow BBQ’ing and leadership. Patience, dedication, resilience, understanding high quality input (product) greatly improves the chances of high quality output, the list goes on. This book addresses pretty much zero of those correlations, and is simply a book about smoking meat, and Aaron Franklin’s journey from backyard enthusiast to one of the world’s most renowned pitmasters.

Summary: Buy it for the sheer pleasure of its simplicity, its stories, its pit-full of How-To tips, recipes, and photos. A must for any lover of meat.

The 36 Stratagems – Peter Taylor

Now from the outset I must state the occasionally sub-par editing of this book was a little off-putting. Sentence structure was sometimes askew; possibly a result of it being a modern interpretation of a 300 year old Chinese essay, or possibly due to it coming from a small independent publisher without huge budgets for editing.

I will say I’ve done my best to proof this post as the irony of finding obvious errors would be embarrassing to say the least…

Notwithstanding all of this, the content has obviously stood the test of time, and despite being attributed to classic Chinese warfare in the latter part of the Ming through to the early parts of the Qing Dynasties, it is alarmingly relevant to leadership in the modern world.

Broken into two main pillars, The 36 Stratagems provides handy go-to advice on what to do when you are losing, as well as when you are winning – which in itself is unusual to see as most development books explain simply the former.

If the simple winning vs. losing paradigm is just not nuanced enough for your sophisticated tastes, you can always feast on the more exotic stratagems for Advantageous, Opportunistic, Attacking, Confusing, Deceptive, and Desperate situations.

If however, you’ve found yourself in a situation which does not neatly fit in any of these, then you’re likely going to need more help than this book can offer.

Perhaps buy the BBQ book instead.

Similar to a lot of Chinese texts, the chapter names are a treat in themselves, with a few favourites being “Point at the mulberry tree when cursing the locust tree”, “Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem”, and without a doubt the most delicious, “Borrow a corpse to resurrect a soul”.

The trick to this book I found, is to distill out the lessons each chapter is teaching, and apply it to your leadership challenges as you need. Similar to a statement Robert Greene makes ahead of several of his books, you might not wish or choose to use the technique described to get ahead, but knowing others may use it against you is just as important.

Summary: A short, chapter-driven book, perfect if you don’t have hours of free time set aside, but still want to keep the mind and sword sharp and your enemies on the run over the holiday break.

21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership – John C. Maxwell

For me, John C. Maxwell’s book is one of two standouts for 2020. It’s well set out, well written, well researched, concise, and includes quick activities to do at the end of each chapter. You’ll remember the key to lasting change as a result of leadership development is not just in the learning, but the implementing.

Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest part.

Maxwell makes the daunting (and oftentimes lonely) task of being a leader a little easier to shoulder via the use of the personal stories and the chapter activities. Despite Maxwell being a well known pastor in the continental US, the messages aren’t preachy, and the 10th Anniversary Edition has given the original text a slightly more modern feel. Think more mobile phones and less Mad Men-style rotary phones.

I was so taken by the book I’ve set about reading it again – this time using a more structured approach and building a 12-month leadership development program around it. A post detailing the journey I’ve taken during the program will be coming in the new year.

Summary: Perfect way to pre-load your 2021 by setting up a monthly program of development activities. Can be read in one long sitting or broken up into chapter-long sprints between swims at the beach or putting logs on the fire (depending on which hemisphere you live in of course).

Stillness is the Key – Ryan Holiday

Yes, it’s another Ryan Holiday recommendation. I get it. There’s been a lot of them over the years.

It should be clear by now I’m a huge (and unapologetic) fan; and from the feedback I’ve received from either recommending or gifting people his books, it seems I’m not the only one. A gifted writer, Stoic philosopher & thinker, and all-round good guy, Ryan Holiday has reignited a global interest in clear thinking and Stoicism; which in 2020, probably isn’t such a bad thing.

I first read the book in late 2019, and enjoyed it so much I’ve read it twice more this year.

If for you 2020 has been hectic, either at work, home or simply within your own mind, Stillness is the Key is a fantastic antidote. Be it global or local crisis, injury, poor health (physical or mental), or just a general feeling of agitation and unease that ails you, I can’t recommend this book enough.

Summary: If you’ve stuck around and read more than three of any of my blog posts, you’ll enjoy this book.

Leadership in War – Andrew Roberts

If you’re a long time reader of the blog, it’ll be no surprise a book like this has made the list. What might be a surprise though, is the book provides very little specific detail about the wars these leaders participated in (or in some cases started), and focuses more so on the people it chronicles; their backgrounds, their motivations, their leadership styles and much more. All the usual suspects are there; from Churchill to Thatcher, Napoleon to De Gaulle, Stalin to Marshall, Hitler to Nelson. Love them or hate them, there’s no doubting they knew how to lead.

“How can one hundred people be led by a single person? That was one of the essay questions in my three-hour Cambridge University entrance exam in 1981. It is a question that has fascinated me ever since. Ultimately, it is the art of leadership that explains how not merely one hundred people, but sometimes a hundred thousand, or a million – or in China’s or India’s case a billion – men and women can ultimately be led, for good or ill”

Andrew Roberts

Building further on the excellent reputation preceding him, when Roberts‘ made reference to “the art of leadership” I knew this wasn’t simply to be a dry recount of the lives of famous leaders, but more so a discussion and analysis of the ways these people approached leadership.

Summary: If you want stories, anecdotes, and to learn more about the leader behind the leadership, Roberts’ delivers in spades.

Surrounded by Idiots – Thomas Erikson

The second standout of the year. It’s hard to explain this book without opening the door to the world of the Whole Brain Model – which people can (and have) written entire theses on. So instead of me trying to clumsily summarise the book, I’ll just copy some of the blurb….

Surrounded by Idiots is [his] simple yet ground-breaking method for assessing everyone we communicate with based on four personality types: Red, Blue, green and Yellow. From body language to conflict handling, this entertaining read will give you all the tools you need to understand and influence those around you – in and out of the office – and ensure the idiot out there isn’t you!

Surrounded by Idiots.

If you’ve ever ended up in an argument because you were misinterpreted, or a colleague’s total inability to see your point has left you baffled, or you’re just tired of not being listened to – this book is for you.

Simply written, well set out, and with a comprehensive index, Surrounded by Idiots is perfect if you’d like to engage with team mates, colleagues, or even family members in a more meaningful way. If you’d like to have it confirmed the idiot in the room is not (and never is) you, then buy this book. If you want to raise an eyebrow or two when reading this on the train, buy this book as well.

Sometime in the New Year, I’ll be writing more about the Whole Brain Model and the impact you can bring to bear if you understand even its most simple elements. I use it every single day at work, to immediate and lasting effect. Incredible stuff.

Summary: If you you just want to be able to better understand humans of all sorts, buy this book.


Now despite what it may seem like, I don’t read only non-fiction. I try and keep the mix 50:50.

Obviously I can only write from my perspective, so the books below are not going to be to everyone’s taste, but that’s the joy of reading I guess – exploring and trying new genres, authors or titles. So, even if you’re not a 35-44 year old bloke, you might well enjoy what’s on the list.

Sharpe (series) – Bernard Cornwell

Any of the ‘Sharpe‘ series by Bernard Cornwell. First set in 1799 at the Siege of Seringapatam, the stories follow Richard Sharpe “solider, hero, rogue – the man you want on your side” and his journey from India (where at one point he saves the life of General Wellesley – who later became the Duke of Wellington), to the high seas off Spain as he sails with Nelson at Trafalgar, and beyond.

The books are almost impossible to put down, and having read the first three in the series in the space of a month, I’ve already got an order in for the next few, and the rest (there are 21 in total!) are on my Wish List.

Reacher (series) – Lee Child

As usual, I find myself reading (and re-reading) the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child. Perfect for lazing by the beach or the pool with a cold one in hand, or (I suppose?) lazing by the fireplace for our northern hemisphere readers. My favourite trait of Reacher is his mantra of ‘never going backwards’, and sometimes when I’m faced with an actual, real-life issue or decision to make, I think to myself “What would Reacher do?

Do yourself a favour – get the books. Will they make you the smartest person in the room? No. But sometimes you just need a reminder that to make an impact, you need to smash the occasional door in.

The Gabriel Allon Series – Daniel Silva

A relative newcomer on my literary radar has been Daniel Silva and the Gabriel Allon series. Allon is an Israeli intelligence officer, who moonlights as a fine art restorer. There’s more political intrigue than a Jack Reacher book (if that’s your thing), and certainly lots of spy-craft and action. I have found as Silva’s catalogue grows he has tended to focus more on the troubled history of Israel rather than the ‘spy game’, so if it’s fast-paced action you’re after, I suggest sticking with some of the earlier books. Regardless of your selection, you’ll enjoy the read.

Everything ever written (for adults) by Anthony Horowitz

Certainly not new on the radar, but an author I’ve enjoyed re-reading a lot this year has been Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz has the unique honour of having been authorised by both the Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming estates to write more Sherlock Holmes and James Bond books respectively. It’s hard to explain or pin-point his style, as it seamlessly merges with the characters, fitting in exquisitely with the tone, period, and mannerisms of the characters you already know and love. Vintage Bond, vintage Sherlock, murder mysteries, his books are so immersive you can expect to find yourself suddenly at 2:00AM wondering where your night went, looking at your alarm clock and assuring yourself you can still pull an all-nighter even aged 30+.

I will say this excludes his Alex Rider series – not because they’re not great, it’s just I haven’t read them.

I won’t even bother listing the ones I’ve read, because for this post it doesn’t matter. Get online or to your local bookshop, find every Horowitz book you can, and buy them. Immediately. If you want to be transported to entirely different worlds, these are the books are just the ticket. Stunningly crafted – they are a must for your Christmas reading list.

So that’s it – the 2020 Christmas reading list. There’s still time to get the books before Christmas, so get online or down to your local bookshop and give the gift of reading.

To all our readers, regular and new, while 2020 certainly had its challenges, the fact you’re alive and reading this means you’re still in the fight. Have a safe festive season, however you celebrate it, and no matter where you are or what you’re doing, do your best to make some time for yourself and your health.