Pre-MBA Business Books: Saïd Business School Recommendations II

Leading professors at SBS reveal their pre-MBA reading suggestions

This is the second of two installments of business books that come recommended by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School as top pre-MBA reading. These recommendations are supplied by professors currently teaching MBA students at the school. The list is varied; the following eight business books cover topics and genres that include cultural history, behavioral economics, politics, leadership, organizational culture as well as rowing and historical fiction – ok, so they may not all be ‘business books’, strictly speaking, but they all have their relevance. Indeed, this is pre-MBA reading that should give you plenty of food for thought, and are a great lead-in to the first weeks of business school.  

Thinking, fast and slow 1. Thinking, Fast and Slow  by Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman is a renowned Nobel prize-winning psychologist and distils a lifetime of research as a behavioral economist in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

“This is one of the most widely referenced books of recent years. It explains how our brains work through two systems and thus, the limits to humans as rational beings. It introduces the ideas of cognitive biases and how these profoundly influence the way we see the world and react to the environment around us, the influences upon every aspect of decision making, from strategy to everyday purchases.

“[The book is] great prep for every MBA course, from finance to marketing to leadership,” says Tim Morris, professor of management studies at Saïd Business School.

The Prize

2. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin

In The Prize, Pulitzer prize-winning author and vice-president of IHS Energy Consulting Daniel Yergin, explores the history of oil and the struggle for wealth and power that inevitably surrounds it. 

“While admittedly long, this book rewards prospective MBA students with a consummate story of both entrepreneurs and large businesses in a global economy. Before technology, there was oil. Yergin tells a story that will inspire budding entrepreneurs while reminding them that when it comes to money, politics will always matter,” says Hiram Samel, associate professor of international business at Saïd Business School.

An Instance of the Fingerpost 3.An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a deviation from the usual professor's pre-MBA reading list of business books. In this instance we have a novel, set in the 1660s, that tells the story of Sarah Blundy, a young woman and fellow of New College, Oxford, who stands accused of murder.    

“This is an historical novel that seamlessly weaves the history of science into a murder mystery. The twist: The book tells the same story from four different perspectives; each one entirely plausible until you read the next one. My favourite book of all time and a timely message: Keep questioning!” says Michael Smets, associate professor in management and organization studies at Saïd Business School.

The Modern Firm4. The Modern Firm: Organizational Design for Performance and Growth by John Roberts

John Roberts, an economics professor emeritus at Stanford Graduate School of Business , delivers powerful conceptual frameworks for thinking about the world's evolving corporate structures; their routines and processes, and their organizational cultures.

“John Roberts has developed the notion of complementarities and fit that are now critical to the current construction of platforms and ecosystems. This book describes his thinking and how it can be applied to organizational design for innovation and performance; a fundamental framework that will be of great use to MBA students,” says Samel.

Humble Inquiry

5.  Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling by Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein is a former MIT Sloan professor and is, incidentally, credited for inventing the term 'corporate culture’. In Humble Inquiry, Schein analyzes the importance of effective communication and its value within a healthy organization.

“It’s a leadership classic, but probably more current than ever in a time when we are just too keen to tell everyone what we think, rather than listen actively to what others have to say. In our hyper-connected and complex world, genuine influence is more likely to rest in better questions, rather than louder answers,” says Smets.


Strategy6. Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman

Lawrence Freedman is an authority on international politics and war, and has written extensively on the Cold War and nuclear strategy, alongside commentating regularly on modern-day security issues.

“In my view, ‘strategy’ is a word that has become very overused and business schools, as well as consulting firms and executives, all shoulder some of the blame. In this book, Freedman provides the most wide-ranging examination of what strategy means, how it developed historically and what it means in many different areas of human activity.

“MBA students who have the time to read this huge book will be armed with a much wider understanding of this concept than is ever taught in b-school classes and will have a richer appreciation of the context in which they will be asked to think in an MBA course, if they devote the time to read this book,” says Morris.

The Boys in the Boat

7. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

A lighter bit of pre-MBA reading can often present itself as welcome respite. The Boys in the Boat is a narrative non-fiction story of a young boy called Joe Rantz who is abandoned in childhood and left to fend for himself in the woods of Washington State. He later goes on to use rowing to escape his past, and what follows is an extraordinary journey.  

“It’s a classic underdog story about the University of Washington rowing crew team that wins gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s a terrific account of determination, teamwork and the extraordinary things ordinary people can achieve when they pull together,” says Smets.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

8. The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, an experimental cognitive psychologist takes a positive stance on the future of our collective culture. In The Better Angels of Our Nature he relays how modernity and our cultural institutions are, contrary to what one might believe, making more people do good.

“Steven Pinker's book takes a huge historical sweep and seeks to explain the apparent decline of violence in everyday life. For MBA students, the key is to understand how culture, at its deepest level, plus the emergence of nation states with monopolies on power, law-making and justice have influenced the way people interact with each other and our fundamental assumptions about how societies should function.

“[The book] offers a wonderful sense of history, and the power of culture and government on the way that individuals, groups and institutions function,” says Morris.   


Images:Thinking, fast and slow; The Prize; An Instance of the Fingerpost; The Modern Firm; Humble Inquiry; Strategy; The Boys in the Boat; The Better Angels of Our Nature

Karen Turtle
Written by Karen Turtle

A content writer with a background in higher education, Karen holds an MA in modern languages from the University of St Andrews. Her interests include languages and literature, current affairs and film. ​

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