Summer Reading to Change You for the Better

July 8, 2023
Mike Stallard

Have you ever experienced a moment of clarity in your own life as you were swept up in reading a good book? Maybe it was the way a person behaved that gave you insight into an issue you were wrestling with or something a character said that resonated with you.

Some years ago, George K. Kaufman and Lisa K. Libby published a fascinating article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking.” They explained ”experience-taking” as “the imaginative process of spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one’s own.” Their research found that reading narrative can result in “experience-taking” that produces changes in self-judgments, attitudes, and behavior that align with the character’s on the written page.

I’m not surprised. Many books by or about leaders I admire have had a positive effect on my beliefs and behaviors. I may never be the president of the United States trying to pull together a splintering nation, for example, but reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin reinforced my approach of listening to divergent opinions when seeking to make optimal decisions, especially in an environment of division and distrust.

What’s on your summer reading list this year? Personally, I gravitate toward non-fiction books. No surprise, I tend to read them through the lens of connection, looking for attitudes, uses of language, and behaviors that connect people and help individuals and groups thrive. Here are three books I highly recommend that I believe will inspire and bring out the best in you. By stepping into each of these great leader’s shoes, you can learn things that will benefit your own career.

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce G. Hoffman
Kudos to Bryce Hoffman for capturing the miraculous turnaround of Ford Motor Company in such engaging detail. Hoffman sets the stage by describing the toxic culture that existed at Ford before Alan Mulally arrived to be its new CEO in September 2006. From the start of Mulally’s presence at Ford, he demonstrates that he is not a stereotypical CEO. He’s sensitive to and respects the dignity of all stakeholders, irrespective of status and power. He speaks the truth. In implementing his Working Together management and leadership system, Mulally led the transformation of Ford from near bankruptcy to one of the most profitable automotive companies in the world and the #1 automotive brand in the U.S. Among other things, this book helped me see, as Alan’s parents instilled in him early in life, “by working together with others, you can make the most positive contribution to the most people.”

My Personal Best: Life Lessons from An All-American Journey by John Wooden and Steve Jamison
There are quite a few books on the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, one of the winningest coaches in history. I am especially fond of this one because it tells Wooden’s life story — the back story, if you will, of the life experiences and people who influenced him and the development of his “pyramid of success” and “personal best” philosophy. Wooden’s love for his wife, Nell, and for his players will inspire you. He had a profound impact on his players, including the superstars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, as evidenced by the relationships he had with them long after they put the ball down as a UCLA Bruin.

Wooden strove to develop players who had the desire to challenge themselves and give their best efforts to prepare to win. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” he told them. To Wooden, “Success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” Their competitive greatness would not be reflected in the final score of a game but in the work they did to become the best player, and person, they were capable of becoming.

A teacher-philosopher-coach, Wooden realized that defining success was only part of it. He would need to show young people how to achieve it and that led him to articulate the 25 attitudes and behaviors in his Pyramid of Success. He explained that they were “a combination of personal qualities and values that I believe are intrinsic to making the effort to reach your potential as a person.” They are relevant beyond the world of sports, such as Team Spirit (A genuine consideration for others. An eagerness to sacrifice personal interests of glory for the welfare of all), Intentness (Set a realistic goal. Concentrate on its achievement by resisting all temptations and being determined and persistent.), and Alertness (Be observing constantly. Stay open-minded. Be eager to learn and improve.). Some 75 years since Coach Wooden first settled on these particular qualities and arranged them in the iconic triangular shape, his Pyramid of Success continues to motivate people. (Observant fans of the series “Ted Lasso” would have seen it taped to the wall in the office Coach Lasso shared with Coach Beard.)

This book helped me see that we don’t always control outcomes but we do control our own effort, and when we give our best effort over time, positive results tend to come.

Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk
This book makes people aware of Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with “melancholy “(i.e. depression) and his determination and ability to carry on through adversity and trials, including the death of his son Willie, his wife Mary Todd’s struggle with emotional health issues, and times when the Civil War was not going well for the Union. Shenk’s thesis is that Lincoln’s experience living with depression gave him the strength of character, and especially the humility and perseverance, that made him the great leader he was. The chapter on Lincoln’s mindset titled “Comes Wisdom to Us” is a masterpiece that helped me in my own journey of faith.

I hope you will pick up one or all of these books in the coming weeks. Let me know what you think of them by emailing me at

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Photo by Alexandra Fuller on Unsplash

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