The Best Books We Read In 2021

The bestsellers and the new gems, the illuminating and the edifying, these are the books from members of The Room that inspired us throughout the year.

Failing To Win: Hard-Earned Lessons from a Purpose-Driven Startup

Whilst backpacking across Africa in search of changemakers building high-impact businesses, Canadian entrepreneur Mike Quinn stumbled across two South African brothers who had founded a business to help unbanked farmers receive mobile payments. After convincing his parents to mortgage their house and lend him $100,000, he joined as a co-founder of Zoona. That risk paid off big time, as Zoona went on to generate $26 million in income for thousands of micro-entrepreneurs across Zambia and Malawi. Facing tremendous adversity along the way, Mike’s remarkable story gives an honest glimpse into the workings of a pioneering African startup through the lens of an entrepreneur who went “all in”. Failing To Win is a gift for anyone wanting to learn how to embrace failure — and find the motivation to double down and try again.

Write to Speak: A Collection of Stories Written by African Women Leaders

A collection of stories told by women from 23 African nations about their odysseys along some of life’s toughest terrain, Write to Speak chronicles their struggles, successes and moments of jubilation. The authors include social entrepreneurs, activists, poets, civil servants, lawyers, athletes, doctors, founders, students and leaders spanning all generations across the continent, with stirring forewords penned by Dr Elinor Sisulu and Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women. Curated by Nozipho January-Bardill, these reflections of determination and hope remind us of the vital need to ‘write’ wrongs with our own stories.

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

We live in a society that celebrates freedom, that tells us to be true to ourselves. Yet, as argued by cultural commentator, bestselling author and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks, this comes at the expense of surrendering to a cause, rooting ourselves in a community and binding ourselves to others. We have taken individualism to the extreme — and in the process, we have torn the social fabric in a thousand different ways. In The Second Mountain, David Brooks draws wisdom from a range of people — including founder of The Room, Fred Swaniker — to explore the commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose, showing us what can happen when we embrace interdependence and put commitment-making at the centre of our lives.

Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues

The ability to create strong relationships is crucial to living a meaningful life and becoming more effective at work. However, many of us struggle in this area — particularly when it comes to developing the kind of relationships in which we feel fully understood and supported for who we are. Having taught interpersonal skills to MBA candidates at Stanford for a combined seventy-five years in their legendary course Interpersonal Dynamics (affectionately known as “Touchy-Feely”), co-authors David Bradford Ph.D. and Carole Robin Ph.D. show readers how to take relationships from shallow to exceptional by cultivating authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty while being willing to ask for help, share a commitment to growth, and deal productively with conflict.

The Power of Privilege: How White People Can Challenge Racism

Many of those privileged enough to be distanced from racism are now having to come to terms with the fact that they continue to prosper at the detriment of others. As BBC’s first Director of Creative Diversity, internationally renowned broadcaster June Sarpong is no stranger to educating and challenging those that have been enjoying the benefits of a system steeped in systemic racism without realising its true cost. In The Power of Privilege, she aims to empower white people to become effective allies against racism, both by understanding the roots of their privilege and the systemic societal inequities that perpetuate it. Her book offers practical steps and solutions so that those who have been afforded privilege can help build a fairer future for all.

Return on Ambition: A Radical Approach to Your Achievement, Growth, and Well-Being

Co-authors Nicolai Chen Nielsen and Nicolai Tillisch have studied high-achieving people for more than 5 years. Drawing on their research, along with the experience they’ve gained from working in some of the most ambitious environments in the world, they have identified common patterns of behaviour and thought. For them, a true return on ambition equals the sum of your achievements, growth, and well-being. Not only do you diminish your potential by compromising on one of them, but you also hurt the two others over time. Their business bestseller provides actionable tips and lessons to be both successful and fulfilled in life, as learned from the likes of Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington, Pharrell Williams, and our very own Fred Swaniker.

Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons

Did you know that women make up fewer than ten percent of national leaders worldwide? Written by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the WTO, and former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, Women and Leadership is a rousing call to action for achieving equality in leadership. This acclaimed book sees these two trailblazers in candid conversations with some of the world’s most influential and interesting women — including Jacinda Ardern, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christine Lagarde. The stories they tell provide rare insight into life as a leader, in a context of unequal access to power.

Pirates in the Navy: How Innovators Lead Transformation

Faced with the choice of starting your own company or joining a corporation, Steve Jobs thought that it was “more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy”. But for innovators inside established companies, making a distinction between being a pirate and joining the navy is a fallacy. We have to figure out a way to become pirates in the navy! Written for passionate intrapreneurs seeking to create an innovation ecosystem, innovation expert Tendayi Vicki’s new book offers tools and guidance to transform corporate culture and cultivate lasting change.

If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You: A Guide to Navigating Office Politics Effectively and Ethically

Most people try to avoid office politics at all costs, seeing them as unpleasant, unethical and an unnecessary distraction from their ‘real work’. Yet according to Niven Postma, being politically intelligent is the single biggest determinant of your personal and professional success. Drawing on her own experiences as an executive, together with insights from some of the leading business thinkers of our time, she demonstrates that it is possible to play politics without sacrificing your principles, providing an eye-opening guide to navigating politics in a way that advances your career, benefits your team and builds the organisation you are part of.

The New Builders: Face to Face with the True Future of Business

What if everything you’ve been told about business is wrong? In their vital new book, co-authors Seth Levine and Elizabeth MacBride demonstrate how — contrary to the dominant narrative — the vast majority of entrepreneurs today are small business owners, often Black, brown, and female. They are the New Builders, developing innovative solutions to create shared prosperity in their communities. Presenting a powerful case for providing the next generation of founders with access to the funds and opportunities they need to grow their businesses, this is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of entrepreneurship.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope

Now a Netflix film starring and directed by BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is William Kamkwamba’s gripping memoir of survival and tenacity. Daring to face the challenges that surrounded him head-on, at just 13 years old, William builds a windmill out of junkyard scraps that brings electricity to his village in central Malawi and saves his community from famine. His extraordinary achievements have inspired people the world over, revealing the extent to which the power of determination can transform the lives of those around us. Whether you watch the movie or read his bestselling book — or both — this uplifting story is one you won’t be likely to forget.

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