10 books MBA professors at top schools like Stanford, Harvard, and Kellogg are recommending to their students

  • To prepare the next generation of business leaders post-COVID-19 and address systemic racism, MBA professors are changing up their reading lists for their classes.
  • Their top picks for what to read to understand today's climate include "American Apartheid," "The American Non-Dilemma," and "Biased."
  • They also recommended business books like "Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader" and "The Advice Trap."
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We're collectively living through two of the most challenging events of our lifetime: a pandemic and protests over racial injustice after George Floyd's death.

Along with everything else that's changing, many business school professors are making modifications to their reading lists to help raise the next generation of business leaders.

Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), Harvard Business School (HBS), Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and others gave Business Insider a preview of the titles that they're recommending or assigning to their 2020 MBA students — here are their top picks:  

1. "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass" by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton

"This is a big, hefty book that documents in a very detailed way how society is structured to segregate Blacks from white Americans through individual behavior, institutional policies, and governmental policies," said Rosalind M. Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.  

Chow will be recommending this book to her fall classes because of its emphasis on helping people understand systemic racism at a very deep level. She said that it documents how policies in real estate and lending — combined with local, state, and federal governmental policies — work to maintain residential segregation in the United States. The authors then tie residential segregation to a whole host of other problems that exist for Black people, such as drug use and violence. 

"When you read about redlining in the lending industry and how it prevented generations of Black Americans from being able to purchase homes — a significant source of equity for individuals — you can begin to understand that many of the underlying causes for the Black-white wealth gap have nothing to do with their merit or willingness to work hard," Chow said. "So, if you want to learn about systems of oppression and how racial discrimination can exist in a form that isn't simply tied to individual racist activity, this one is an eye opener."

2. "Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System" by Douglas S. Massey

Chow described "Categorically Unequal" as "similar to 'American Apartheid,' but updated to expand the focus on a variety of marginalized groups in America, rather than focusing solely on the Black experience." 

Chow, who herself is the author of a long list of publications on topics related to social hierarchy, justice, and diversity, added that Massey tackles income inequality more in "Categorically Unequal" than in "American Apartheid."

3. "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism" by Nancy DiTomaso

Chow said "The American Non-Dilemma" is a "fantastic book documenting how white Americans think about social mobility, and why it is so hard for white Americans to see their privilege." 

In this third book on the Tepper professor's student reading list, DiTomaso introduces the idea of "opportunity hoarding," which Chow said is one of her "favorite phrases ever." 

"Basically, a desire to help members of one's own group can effectively disadvantage members of other groups, even without the conscious intent to harm other groups," she said. She noted that the author then tracks how this "blind spot" for white people impacts their understanding of racism and their lack of support for marginalized groups. 

4. "The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias" by Dolly Chugh

Laura Kray, professor and Ned and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, just taught her "Gender, Equity, and Leadership in the 21st Century" class and assigned two books. One of them was "The Person You Mean to Be."

"This book offers a persuasive account of how implicit bias and ethical blind spots abound in daily life and, most importantly, how we can harness this awareness of how humans process social information to reduce 'false alarms' and promote greater diversity, equity, and inclusion," Kray said.

Nicholas Pearce, a professor at Kellogg School of Management, also included "The Person You Mean to Be" on his recommended list for MBA students.

The pandemic as well as the protests "have created a unique moment for leaders to both develop and demonstrate the courage that these challenging times demand," Pearce said. This book, he added, is "designed to give leaders guidance on how to interpret these times and what they can — and must — do about it."

5. "Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader" by Herminia Ibarra 

The second book that Kray assigned to her last group of students was "Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader," written by Hermania Ibarra, a London Business School professor who previously served on both the INSEAD and Harvard Business School faculties.

"This book recognizes that stepping up to leadership requires an identity shift that is best aided by adopting a growth mindset that allows us to stretch our sense of self as a leader to enact the changes we want to see in the world," Kray said.

Kray added that the reason that she teaches this title together with "The Person You Mean to Be" is that the books complement each other by highlighting the challenges leaders face when they dare to be better and providing the mental tools to get there.

6. "Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely" by Don A. Moore  

Clayton R. Critcher, associate professor of marketing at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, said that while many books claim that confidence is the key to success, Don Moore — drawing on decades of scientific research, largely his own — draws a different conclusion.

"[Moore] convincingly argues that even though successful people may be confident, it is not the case that elevating your own confidence breeds success," Critcher said. 

The marketing professor currently recommends this book to business students to help them leverage Moore's tips to improve their calibration — being neither under confident nor overconfident about the decisions they face.

"[This] can help students make wiser decisions and achieve better outcomes," Crichter said, adding that "Perfectly Confident" is particularly timely now. 

"People are learning the hard way that those leaders who proclaim that the coronavirus will soon magically disappear are deterred by their own confidence from taking the concrete steps necessary to keep their citizens safe," Crichter said.

7. "The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious, and Change the Way You Lead Forever" by Michael Bungay Stanier

"Given the disruption businesses are experiencing, it is imperative for leaders to remain curious," said Bernard Banks, professor at Kellogg School of Management. "Leaders and organizations must maintain a willingness to explore the world around them." 

Consequently, Banks recommended that MBA students read "The Advice Trap," a book just released in February 2020 by the author of the bestselling book, "The Coaching Habit."

8. "Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do" by Jennifer Eberhardt 

"The social challenges we are facing require heightened understanding," Banks said. "A lot of people are already reading 'White Fragility' by Robin DiAngelo. So, I would recommend 'Biased.'"  

The Kellogg professor described the book as "a great resource for people who really want to understand how unconscious racial biases are formed and what tools they can use to combat them."

"It is incredibly timely, given the current wave [of] protests calling for the end to police violence against African Americans and more broadly for racial justice," added added Sarah A. Soule, senior associate dean for academic affairs and professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. "Business can be a powerful force for positive change in society and it is imperative that we train business leaders about both bias and racial justice." 

Jan Hammond, senior associate dean for culture and community for Harvard Business School and Jesse Philips professor of manufacturing who created and teaches the online Business Analytics course for Harvard Business School Online, is another leader who advised that MBA students absorb the lessons in "Biased."  

"Eberhardt effectively combines science and personal narratives to explain how and why human beings are biased, including the role institutions play in creating and preserving bias," Hammond said. "Of particular relevance today are descriptions of the work Eberhardt has done with the Oakland Police Department."

9. "Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do" by Claude M. Steele 

Another timely and critical read for the current crop of business students, according to Hammond, is "Whistling Vivaldi," which she flagged as "an important, eye-opening book about human behavior." The book describes what the HBS professor called the "pernicious impact" of "stereotype threats" — a key term of Steele's — on people's performance. 

"Steele, a gifted and prolific scholar, describes a series of research projects he undertook to understand the underlying reasons students underperform when certain identities are made salient," Hammond said. "Steele ends the book with recommendations for how to counter stereotype threat."

10. "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" by Isabel Wilkerson

Another pick of Hammond's is "The Warmth of Other Suns," which she praised as a "highly readable description" of the lives of three families that migrated from the Southern United States to California, Chicago, and New York respectively.  

"Wilkerson's narrative gives the reader direct insight into the ongoing indignities suffered by African Americans throughout the 20th century," Hammon said. "The book is also helpful in describing how the influx of European immigrants to the US intermingled with the northern migration of African Americans."  

This article was originally published June 19, 2020.

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