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Summer Reading List: 17 Books That Will Inspire You To Change The World

2019 May 26
by Greg Satell

Summer is finally here! Time to break out the sunblock, beach towels and get some time to relax. If you’re anything like me, it’s also a time to get some serious reading done. There’s just something about laying out in the sun that makes the pages turn faster and helps information to sink in.

This summer, I have a feeling that change will be on a lot of people’s minds and not just political change. Revolutions in technologies, from clean energy to genomics to artificial intelligence, are reshaping the world as we know it. The disruptions over the next decade will likely dwarf those in the last.

In some ways, the forces of change today are unprecedented. We’ve likely never had so many powerful forces swirling around at the same time. You would have to go back to the turn of the 20th century to find anything remotely similar. However, we can learn a lot from those who came before us. So I offer you these 17 books that will help you chart a path forward.

Cascades by Greg Satell

This is obviously a shameless plug. Nevertheless, I couldn’t be more proud of it and, if you’re a fan of this blog, I’m sure you will love this book. It’s is the product of 15 years of research into how we create change in our organizations, our industries, our communities and throughout society as a whole.

Cascades also has an interesting back story. In 2004, I found myself managing a major news organization in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. One of the things that amazed me was how none of the usual rules seemed to apply. Anybody who had traditionally forms of power found themselves almost powerless to shape events. At the same time, some mysterious force that nobody could describe, but no one could deny, was driving things forward.

It took me over a decade to figure out what that mysterious force was and years more to be able to articulate it in a form that is not only comprehensive, but fun and exciting to read. I hope you pick it up, enjoy it and let me know what you think.

Get it now


Blueprint For Revolution by Srdja Popović

Blueprint for Revolution tells the personal story of Srdja Popovic’s journey from bassist in a rock band to leading a revolution against Slobodan Milošević in Serbia and then moving on to establish the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which trains activists around the world. I used this book extensively as a source for Cascades.

The book is packed with practical insights, but what makes it such a joy to read is Srdja himself. Although he is an inspiring figure on the world stage, he never takes himself too seriously. He has unique and playful sense of humor that comes through on every page. It is rare that a book so powerful can also leave you in stitches.

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Six Degrees by Duncan Watts

In 2006, a few years after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, I found myself in Silicon Valley for a few weeks. Social networks were just rising to the fore and it seemed that everybody in the tech world was talking about them. Because digital media was a big part of our business, I figured I should learn more about the how networks function.

That’s what led me to Duncan Watts and this wonderful book about the science of networks. What I found while reading it, much to my surprise, was a mathematical framework that explained much of what I did not understand while the events of 2004 were swirling around me. That’s what really got me hooked on studying movements.

Watts helped pioneer modern network science and Six Degrees explains the basic concepts with clarity and wit. He not only brings pathbreaking insight, but is also a talented storyteller and brings the ideas to life with vivid examples and case studies. He somehow manages to make cutting edge science fun and enjoyable

Get it now


Regional Advantage by AnnaLee Saxenian

In the 1970s, Route 128 outside of Boston was the center of the technological universe. With firms like DEC and Data General, it looked poised to dominate the nascent computer industry. Its success led to the “Massachusetts Miracle” that helped propel Michael Dukakis to a Presidential candidacy. But by the late 80’s, the mantle had passed to Silicon Valley.

In this meticulously researched book, AnnaLee Saxenian explains why. While Route 128 was focused on the success of individual firms, Silicon Valley fostered an ecosystem that proved, and continues to prove to this day, to be a constant driver of change in the world of technology and beyond. Written over 20 years ago, this book stands the test of time.

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Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan

When we think about political revolution, we often conjure up images of partisan soldiers in mountain camps gearing up for battle. Yet in their statistical analysis of over a century’s worth of conflicts, Chenoweth and Stephan found that non-violent resistance campaigns were twice as effective as violent uprisings. The reason: nonviolent campaigns attract more participation.

The importance of participation is one of those insights that is so seemingly obvious that we forget how often it is overlooked. All too often, change leaders insist on unwavering commitment to their cause, turning off many would-be supporters. Many change efforts, such as the Occupy protests, fail for this reason.

Although this book focuses on political movements, its insights are just as important for corporate and organizational change efforts. Before you can build commitment, you must build participation. So that’s where you need to focus your efforts.

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Scaling Up Excellence by Robert Sutton & Huggy Rao

Much as Chenoweth and Stephan analyze and explain what makes political movements succeed, Sutton and Rao show what works in a corporate context. Utilizing in-depth case studies of companies like Ikea, Home Depot and others, they describe cleary what it takes to take an initial success and scale it into a repeatable model.

Bob Sutton is one of my favorite business writers, so I’ve read almost everything he’s written and this book is as good as any of them. I found it especially valuable as a source for Cascades.

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A Force More Powerful by Peter Ackerman & Jack DuVall

This is the definitive book on non-violent movements. It details just about every major uprising of the 20th century, from the iconic struggles of Gandhi, Mandela and King to much lesser known campaigns in places like El Salvador and Chile. Despite the amazing breadth, Ackerman and DuVall somehow manage impressive depth and insight into each story.

One of the most interesting stories is how the Danes used nonviolent methods to resist Hitler’s forces. Many people assume that truly evil regimes like the nazis require a violent response. A Force More Powerful shows how and why that is demonstrably untrue.

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The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. by Clayborne Carson

The term “autobiography” is somewhat of a misnomer in this case, because the book is actually an edited version of King’s writings rather than something that the civil rights leader sat down and pieced together himself. Nevertheless, Clayborne Carson does such a capable job editing, linking King’s text together with his own commentary, that it reads almost as it was a real autobiography.

If your interested in not just the facts of King’s life, but his spirit and motivations, you can do no better than this book. It is not only inspiring and informative, but also a real pleasure to read.

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Root & Branch by Rawn James Jr. & Devil In the Grove by Gilbert King

Thurgood Marshall had such a legendary career as a Supreme Court Justice that his importance to the civil rights movement is often overlooked. Marshall worked for decades to painstakingly dismantle Jim Crow and put civil rights on a solid legal footing. It is rare that such brilliance, courage and dignity cans reside in the same man. He is truly an American hero.

Both of these books are excellence. Root & Branch spans Marshal’s entire career and his relationship with his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston. Devil in the Grove, which won the Pulitzer Prize, tells the story through the lens of the infamous Groveland case. I recommend both highly.

Get Root and Branch     Get Devil in the Grove


Sisters by Jean H. Baker & A Woman’s Crusade by Mary Walton

In many ways, the women’s movement in the 19th century is the prototypical change movement. As hard as it is to believe today, women were treated almost as property back. They couldn’t own property, travel without a male chaperone or, in many cases, own property. Husbands couldn’t even be prosecuted for abuse. The methods those women pioneered to earn their rights are still in use today.

These two books bring the story to life in very different ways. Sisters covers five of the most consequential leaders, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard and Alice Paul. A Woman’s Crusade focuses exclusively on the life of Alice Paul and how her efforts led to the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Get Sisters     Get A Woman’s Crusade


Awakening by Nathaniel Frank

Perhaps the most successful movement in recent history has been the struggle for LGBT rights. After more than a half century of struggle, popular sentiment shifted sharply in favor of same-sex marriage and other protections for LGBT couples. Perhaps most surprising, it was a prominent conservative lawyer, Ted Olson, who argued one the decisive cases in the Supreme Court.

In Awakening, Nathaniel tells the amazing story from start to finish. This book is very well researched, but also highly readable and it covers not only the challenges the movement faced with the establishment, but also the conflicts and debates within the movement itself.

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Small Acts of Resistance by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson

During Poland’s Solidarity movement in 1982, a boycott was organized against the government’s propaganda-laden evening news. The problem with the boycott was obvious. How do you show others that you’re not watching TV?

The residents of Świdnik, a small city near Lublin, found a way. Instead of watching the news at 7:30, they all went for an evening walk, many carrying their TV sets in carriages and wheelbarrows. Before long, the practice spread to other Polish cities and the boycott turned into a rousing success.

You’ll be amazed at all the ingenious ways to that activists think up to defy the powers oppose them in this delightful book. It’s amazingly instructive, as well as a lot of fun! Also, because each chapter is very short, it’s a perfect book to read in small chunks.

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Boyd by Robert Coram

This highly acclaimed book is best known for the story of how Colonel John Boyd developed the the OODA loop, but even more importantly is how it chronicles his efforts to reform the Pentagon from within. For decades, he fought a quiet insurgency against an entrenched bureaucracy with almost unbelievable success.

One of the things I constantly hear from executives is how powerless they feel to lead change inside their organizations. Colonel Boyd showed that it can be done, which is why I think this is a book that every aspiring changemaker should read.

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Walking with the Wind by John Lewis

Today John Lewis is often referred to as “the conscience of Congress,” but he rose to fame as one of the “Big Six of civil rights” in his role as President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Walking with the Wind tells the story, in his own words, of his rise from a sharecropper’s son to a genuine American hero.

This book has a soul to it that is rare, even in a memoir. It is not only an inspiration, it is an absolute joy to read. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

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Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is remembered today as an almost saintly figure, but he began as an angry nationalist. “I was angry at the white man, not at racism,” he writes in Long Walk to Freedom. “While I was not prepared to hurl the white man into the sea, I would have been perfectly happy if he climbed aboard his steamships and left the continent of his own volition.”

Yet he learned over time the value of working with others and the necessity of staying true to his principles, even when they became inconvenient. After he rose to the power, he safeguarded the rights of white South Africans as faithfully as he fought for the rights of his own people. This book tells that story. It is a must read.

Get it now


So that’s my list for this summer. If you would like to add a suggestion of your own, please feel free do that in the comments section.

– Greg

Image: Canva


2 Responses leave one →
  1. Christopher G permalink
    May 27, 2019

    Wow Greg, thanks! Killer list. Looking forward to diving in. Also look forward to reading BOTH your books, shameless plug or not.

    Now, how do we rid the world of the cancerous, toxic, parasitic plague that is Fox “News”? ???

  2. May 28, 2019

    Despite the fact I try to make this a non-partisan website, I think it is an interesting question, so I would like to rephrase it:

    How do we overcome our most active opposition?

    This is an issue I address at length in Cascades, but the short answer is that rather than engaging with them directly, you undermine their support. Very often, they will overreach and undermine themselves.

    So the first step is to stop calling Fox News a “cancerous, toxic, parasitic plague” and start asking legitimate questions, such as what purpose is served by such an overtly partisan news network? If the part of the function of a free press is to act as a safeguard against tyranny, (which is why freedom of the press was part of the very first amendment to the Constitution, how does Fox News play that role in Republican administrations.

    A great example of this was the “March For Our Lives” campaign, when Laura Ingraham mocked one of the student leaders, David Hogg, for getting rejected from several colleges. There was an immediate backlash that weakened her and strengthened the movement. I wrote about the episode at the time. You can find the post here:

    – Greg

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