It’s that time of year when all the “Best Of,” lists come out. So, I’m putting together a mini-series of “Top 5″ lists as we head into the final stretch of 2016. My hope is that by doing Top 5 lists (rather than one top 10 list), it might be a bit more helpful to you. The posts will be shorter and more targeted. Going with a “Top 5” list means things have to be really good to make this list.

I changed my reading habits this year, because I realized that with life getting more full, I had three choices–read a lot less, spend less time with my family, or find the time elsewhere. I chose option three.

One significant change I made to my reading habits was to listen to lots of audio books through Audible this year, and learned that I spend a lot of potential “reading” time listening to sports talk radio or listening just to music. Now, I listen to that in the shower and getting ready in the morning. All other times I’m listening to books or podcasts.

This was also a, “retro” year for me. I fell in love with paper books again, eschewing electronic forms of reading. I read two books that way all year. I count 11 books read on paper (some were extremely lengthy or dense). I listened to more than 20. There were some good ones in there.

My preferred subjects leaned toward business leadership and productivity. I read my share of others–but that’s where my interest was this year…so I rolled with it. Nearly all of the best books I read this year fit in that category. I did read several theological, ministry and devotional books. None matched these in quality.

Here are the five best books I read in 2016:

Quest for Distinction: Pepperdine University in the 20th Century, by W. David Baird.

My family’s history with Pepperdine University goes way back. I have a unique relationship with Pepperdine far more intimate than most people have with their alma mater. I confess, I didn’t think there were a whole lot of Pepperdine stories I hadn’t heard some version of.

I was quite wrong.

David Baird does an astounding job detailing Pepperdine’s founding and early days in South-Central Los Angeles with what he admits are relatively scant primary sources. As one assembling pieces of a puzzle he knows well, the author puts things together in such a way the reader never loses track of the story-line. When the sources leave something fuzzy, he does a fine job of noting the evidence gets unclear at that point–rather than asserting his opinion as fact.

My wife Emily and I were among the original editors for Bill Banowsky’s, The Malibu Miracle, and thus know that part and perspective of Pepperdine’s history quite well. A Quest for Distinction, likewise, is difficult to put down. I know first-hand the care Bill Banowsky took in writing his memoir–which was captivating to read.  David Baird, the author of Quest for Distinction, is a distinguished historian by trade and former Dean of Seaver College. His care is obvious to the reader, as well. He is no agnostic toward Pepperdine. However, I never felt as though his affection for the university led him to betray his reverence for historical accuracy and detail.

This 700+ page book is a thoroughly researched and documented (more than 100 pages of endnotes) history of Pepperdine University through the year 2000. Even if you aren’t interested in the university itself, the story of it’s founding and escalation to the top-tier of universities is loaded with leadership lessons. Many of those lessons are found in the less rosy portions of Pepperdine’s story.

I’ve known five of Pepperdine’s seven Presidents personally–even closely in some cases. (Baxter and White are the exceptions). The “behind the scenes” look at how my alma mater was built through the leadership of great but flawed Christians kept me up late turning pages and flipping to the back for the endnotes citations.

This one you ought to read slowly and carefully. For those who care about Pepperdine, it’s almost a devotional experience. For those who don’t–it’s a fascinating study of entrepreneurial and educational leadership nearly unprecedented in American higher education.

Cardinal and Gold: The Oral History of USC Football, by Steve Delsohn. This book is a series of interviews with players, coaches, and athletic department figures that provides the reader with an unparalleled, “behind the scenes” look at the one of America’s top collegiate football programs. It focuses on the coaches–their leadership style, their quirks, the way they dealt with players, the spotlight, and pressure.

Cardinal and Gold highlights two truths of leadership. The first is a harsh one–there is no such thing as, “pretty leadership.” Leaders come in many types. The struggle of leadership doesn’t. Leadership isn’t just messy. At times, it can be a punishing, helter-skelter, fight.

The second leadership nugget I quarried from Cardinal and Gold is the folly of attempting to “treat everyone the same,” on a team. People aren’t the same. Circumstances aren’t the same. People and the teams they comprise are dynamic, never static. Wise coaches create the right rules for the right times and right people. When attempting to lead people, stick to your principles, not your rules. Rules weren’t made to be broken, but they were made to serve the principles.

Cardinal and Gold is another leadership study through memoir and interview that is a fascinating read for college football fans at all familiar with USC football.

American Icon: Alan Mullaly and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. Alan Mullaly accomplished the greatest corporate turnaround of this century in his work with Ford Motor Company. This book covers a brief history of the company and Mullaly’s struggle to save and reinvent a company that had grown lazy and drowning in red ink. The book has numerous quotes from Henry Ford and other leaders that I underlined and can remember off the top of my head six months later. Here is one: “Business men go down with their businesses because they like the old way so well they cannot bring themselves to change. One sees them all about – men who do not know that yesterday is past, and who woke up this morning with last year’s ideas.”

One thing I learned a long time ago. If you want to be skinny, sit at the feet of skinny people…and then run next to them 🙂 . If you want to be a better steward–sit at the feet of wise stewards–and follow their recommendations. If you want to be a great leader–get close to as many great leaders as you can. Alan Mullaly is a great leader. American Icon allows us to sit at his feet by telling the story of how he helped save and revive Ford Motor Company.

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, by Tim Ferriss. I had such high expectations for this book that when it fell short, it was still one of my favorite books of the year. Why? The format makes it a quick read even though it is quite lengthy. It’s provides short interviews and tips most people would find interesting, like:

  • How to ask questions like Malcolm Gladwell (who wouldn’t?)
  • How to develop mental toughness l with three practices from retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal.
  • How to push through fear and instill confidence like Jamie Foxx.

You get the picture. Tim Ferriss is someone who writes “lifehacker” books. This is no different. He has attempted to publish an anthology of easily accessible advice from today’s best at a variety of areas of life. The book is divided into three sections: Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. I found the first 1/3 of the book on fitness and health the least helpful…though I’m on a health kick right now. However even that section is interesting. The bite-size nature of the chapters keeps the pace of the book moving. I found myself wondering, with excitement, which personality would be next to share some insider tips on how they do what they do.

Tools of Titans isn’t riveting. It isn’t even profound. It’s interesting and helpful. Many books these days are not.

And the best book I read all year is: Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight. What an unbelievably pleasant surprise this book was! I would have been interested in Phil Knight and Nike’s story anyways, but I had no idea the book would be as revealing, well-written, and frankly, a little bit emotional to read.

I think something in me (my inner church-planter?) resonated deeply with the beautiful fight of starting something and building it through a sequence of obstacles…all while navigating personal challenges. But, I found myself reading this book and actually feeling things…not just thinking my way through. It’s been a while since I’ve read a memoir this well-written and candid. It’s my favorite book of 2016.

Here are a few quotes from Shoe Dog.

  • “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
  • “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.”
  • “What if there were a way, without being an athlete, to feel what athletes feel? To play all the time, instead of working? Or else to enjoy work so much that it becomes essentially the same thing.”
  • “The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.”

Quotes don’t do this book justice. You will not find a memoir by a corporate giant like Phil Knight written with greater personal transparency than Shoe Dog.

I’d be curious to hear you name the best book you read in 2016. I hope you’ll share it–and how your reading habits changed this year.