Leadership has changed and it continues to evolve. Increasingly, it’s not sufficient for a leader to turn up between nine and five, shuffle papers, attend meetings and go home. It’s more than that. Great leaders are embedded in their community, they set the tone for their company’s culture. They have to be aware of social issues and politics. Some of the greatest companies are not companies at all, they are movements. Mission and purpose sit alongside commercial success and each benefit the other.
Ben Keene is cofounder of Rebel Book Club, a community of 10,000 book lovers and 1,000 subscribers who read and discuss great books together. Rebel Book Club started in 2015 after the cofounders self-diagnosed what the Japanese call tsundoku, a growing pile of unread books on their bedside tables.
Rebel Book Club has been running for seventy-five months and featured the same number of titles. Each month, a theme is chosen, three books are shortlisted, and members choose the one they would like to read and discuss together. At the end of the month there is a meetup, in person or online, in which the author often attends to answer questions and provide further context on the book. The organisation also supports literacy projects with subscriber donations.
I interviewed Keene to find out the five books that mission-driven leaders should read in 2021. Here were his responses.
The Green Grocer: Richard Walker
Walker is the CEO of Iceland Foods supermarket, a British supermarket chain with turnover of £400 million across 850 stores. It’s a recognised brand but relatively small in the United Kingdom’s supermarket industry, which is dominated by four big players. The book is his story leading the company since August 2018, after it was established by his mother and father in 1970.
Keene describes Walker’s story as “impressive and different” as he demonstrates that Iceland is a remarkable, innovative business, “punching above its weight in terms of leadership and taking values and putting them into action”. On Walker himself, “he is the second-generation leader in his family and his dad is the chair and on the board.” Keene explains that Walker’s dad, Iceland’s founder, “represents the old world”, whilst Walker Jnr is navigating social issues, corporate activism, and day-to-day changes including reducing plastic use in stores. The book contains eye-opening examples of Walker putting the company behind social campaigns and using its voice for good, one example being when Walker publicised a banned video about the negative impact of palm oil on rainforests.
“This book is perfect for anyone working in an organisation who is trying to change things internally,” explains Keene. “Perhaps they consider themselves intrapreneurs, perhaps they are in the marketing team and have heard their company’s story of change but aren’t sure about how to put it into action.” Keene describes the Green Grocer as “easy reading, personal and inspiring storytelling that is very relevant to now.”
In Extremis: Lindsey Hilsum
This book is about the life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, written by her friend Lindsey Hilsum and based on the diaries Colvin kept that detailed her life and work from age thirteen to her death. The story forms the basis of the feature film, A Private War, and follows the journey of Colvin covering the most significant and dangerous global events of our lifetime.
“Her level of leadership is off the scale,” explained Keene. “Colvin represents courage and bravery and the narrative has an interesting mix between her private and personal challenges which include relationships, addiction, and the war stories themselves.” What can the leaders of 2021 learn from Colvin’s journey and ultimate sacrifice, as she was killed in Syria in 2012? According to Keene, “It’s like nine lives in one person. She was committed to her work, she was fearless, and she shone a light on the suffering of ordinary people caught in war zones.” From the book’s description, “Working for The Sunday Times of London, Colvin gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims.” The book’s title comes from the way she lived both her professional and personal lives, “bold, driven, and complex… and [she] rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting.”
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius meets the diary of Anne Frank, it’s a story of the sacrifices made by those who fight, observe and report from the front line, an inspiring read for mission-driven leaders carefully treading their own minefield.
Rise Up: Stormzy
This book, subtitled the #merky story so far, tells the tale of Stormzy’s four years rising up from “one of the most promising musicians of his generation to a spokesperson for a generation,” in the publisher’s words. “Rise Up takes us from when Stormzy was performing in south London on the street, right up to headlining Glastonbury Festival and winning big awards,” explains Keene. “He now puts money and a voice behind equality projects and he’s a role model for young, vulnerable people from underrepresented backgrounds,” he adds, “it’s the classic hero’s journey done in a very short space of time.”
Rise Up was one of Rebel Book Club’s monthly featured books and received glowing praise from its members, culminating in an end-of-month discussion and talk from a professor of grime, Doctor Monique Charles, who wrote her thesis on grime culture.
What can today’s leaders stand to gain from this book? “Most astonishing is Stormzy’s unbelievable self-belief and the team he builds from this confident foundation,” according to Keene. The book includes the diary of the team, annotated lyrics and photographs not published anywhere else. “It jumps between the admirable humility of a group of people trying to make something happen and the self-belief and confidence to make something happen because they care so much.” Keene’s biggest takeaway from Rise Up is, “how he brings his people with him, how he empowers his team. For example, by making his 21-year-old mate his manager.” From the book’s description, “It’s about knowing where you are from, and where you are going. It’s about following your dreams without compromising who you are.”
All We Can Save: Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson
This is about “truth, courage and solutions for the climate crisis,” explains Keene. The book is a compendium of essayists, 50 female thought leaders in the climate movement, including scientists, artists, poets, lawyers, architects, activists, and designers. A great read if you are interested in the topic of leadership in the field of global challenges. “Each essay is about how someone ended up as an activist, so it’s like mini career stories but with insights into the science and activism side.” Keene enjoys that the book includes “lots of human connection with some amazing insights into the work they are doing.”
From the blurb, “these women offer a spectrum of ideas and insights for how we can rapidly, radically reshape society,” and “to change everything, we need everyone.”
“It’s a book I keep going back to,” he explains. “In between the chapters there are poems and pieces of art.” Keene was going to select Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans for book recommendation number three, but “like[s] the shared mission” of All We Can Save. “It shows there are a million ways to solve problems. It’s a great reminder of how a leader can go about their work.”
Manifesto: Dale Vince
Vince’s book tells the story of “How one maverick entrepreneur took on UK energy… and won” and is described by the publisher as “a powerful manifesto for anyone who wants to change the world” with “a uniquely purpose-orientated approach to business.”
“He’s an unconventional entrepreneur and he never intended to start a company,” explains Keene, who loves this book but would have given it a different title. The first third is about Vince’s New Age Traveller routes and his chaotic activism after he left school at 15, including anti-Thatcherism and driving a firetruck to Stonehenge. “He’s caught up in disenfranchisement. He wants to do something but he’s going through challenges.” Then there’s the business story of Ecotricity, after “he got really into engines and mechanics and saw this huge problem with pollution,” then the final third tells the football club story. “But what’s interesting is what he brings with him along each step of that journey.”
Vince’s company, Ecotricity, was founded in 1996 and was the UK’s first green energy company, based on principles of social, financial and environmental sustainability. “He was ahead of the crowd. He physically built a wind turbine,” explains Keene, “and that made him see how he could change things. Now he’s calling for a completely different type of leadership in transport, food and sport.” As chairman of Forest Green Rovers, the first vegan football club, he’s “solving the problem of getting football fans to eat better food.” He’s also “mining diamonds out of carbon in the air… he could change the diamond industry!” Keene continued.
Now with a fortune of over £120 million built on sustainability, Vince is a UN ambassador for climate issues and shows no signs of stopping. “Vince is a brilliant leader,” added Keene. “He’s regularly on the news commenting on health topics, reacting to what is going on, including recently when Ronaldo moved the Coke bottles out of sight in favour of water.”
Keene enjoys the juxtaposition of the first and final books on this list. “Richard Walker is using his privilege to change things, whereas Dale Vince is using his adversity, anger and passion to drive his leadership” and believes that learning from a variety of sources and stories will benefit mission-driven leaders. In every story, find the part that resonates with your work. Find the part of the author’s journey that you can weave into yours and keep reading until you work out what that is.