Book Reviews

Book Reviews: Part 1

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As we start to plan the first Jericho Chambers Book Club events, we thought we would share our current reading list with you:

Allan Biggar

Sustainable Value by Chris Laszlo

Capitalism is bad and business leaders are only in it to make a fast buck! Thankfully a small but influential group of mainstream global industry leaders are now reinventing the role of business in society. While we’ve spent a lot of the past decade regulating to get business to minimize their negative impact this group is trying to create ways for businesses to use their enormous potential to harness their resources and economic impact for good towards offering new solutions to global problems that the public sector has been unable to tackle alone. In this post-crash world where things are more competitive than ever, societal challenges such as climate change or the alleviation of global poverty are not only risks, but huge business opportunities, not only for niche players, but for mainstream business.

The buzz words of these new leaders is creating ‘Sustainable Value’. They are creating it through the provision of value to both their shareholders and their stakeholders — an ever-growing list of diverse constituents impacted by the social, environmental, and financial performance of global business. In short, they are doing well by doing well.

Chris Laszlo the author of what I believe must become one of the must reads for every business leader defines, illustrates, and shows how business can action ‘Sustainable Value’ in three profoundly different ways.

Laszlo’s written this very accessible book with the executive in mind rather than the already in the know sustainability geek. It would not embarrass any self-respecting capitalist if they were caught reading it on the train. It neither hectors nor preaches. Instead it sets out by example the case for good. This book is a masterful synthesis — part novel and part executive briefing — a refreshing kind of prophetic pragmatism, helping leaders anticipate and see the future in the context of the actual. It starts with a fictional account of an executive’s transition to understanding sustainability. Next it provides a set of high-profit case studies (DuPont, Wal-Mart, Lafarge and NatureWorks/Cargill). Last, the book basically summarizes Laszlo’s previous work on creating value. Notably he makes the case for sustainability as providing value for shareholders without destroying value for other stakeholders. All too often it’s seen as an either or option not an as well as option. He identifies 8 disciplines:

1 Understand the current value position

2 Anticipate future expectations

3 Set sustainable value goals

4 Design value creation initiatives

5 Develop the business case

6 Capture the value

7 Validate results and capture learning

8 Build sustainable value and organizational capacity

Laszlo does a wonderful job of explaining sustainability from a hard-nosed business perspective. He speaks openly and clearly about the real challenges, the real dilemmas, and haunting questions faced by all leaders in business. Forewords to the book from Unilever and Wal-Mart show the interest taken at the highest levels of business in this work. I can’t recommend this more highly as a primer for executives everywhere.

Christine Armstrong

From woods to wolves to witches, the stories we tell our children are a curious distillation of our hopes and fears. In my 70s childhood it was all about stranger danger and the horrors of littering. The Wombles were so far ahead if their time they are being resurrected. In a distant echo of Hansel and Gretel, today we are warning our children against the temptations of sugar, fat and the abuse of power.

Every day my children ask for the gorgeously illustrated Grendel. A cautionary tale about chocolate. Grendel is a naughty little monster with a single mum and a dog. His mum brings him a chocolate egg which he snatches and runs away with only to find within it a note in which he is offered three wishes. Like Midas long before him, he goes too far and ends up turning first the countryside and then his mum and pet to chocolate on a meltingly hot day. Full of regret, he puts huge effort into his last wish and turns back time to learn from his errors.

So greed and impatience are punished, considered thought rewarded and we are left with Grendel and his mum being very careful what they wish for. Before flying off on a huge red dragon clutching high-end shopping bags.

Robert Peston rest easy: China’s economy may yet be saved.

George Pitcher

Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber, 2013)

The worst thing about this book – indeed, possibly the only really bad thing – is its title. It arises from the author’s weakest joke (that he’s not sorry – apologetics, geddit?), but it is still an apologia for Christianity. And a strong one at that. It manages to make a case for the Christian faith that is both rational and, sometimes, empirical. It need make no apology for that. But its sub-title is even worse: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Why emotional? Why surprising? He doesn’t confine himself to human emotions at all. And his whole point is that it isn’t surprising.With these words Spufford is apologising before he’s even started.

But it’s a good book. Anyone looking for a contemporary exegesis of sin and grace need look no further. Sin is HPtFtU (the human propensity to fuck things up) and nothing – well, not much – to do with chocolate and sex. He is brilliant on the historical Jesus and delivers some lovely hermeneutics: The rich young man asks what he must do to be saved – “Yeshua’s gaze slides across the tapestries, the silver bowls for washing guests’ feet, the candlestick blessed by the Chief Priest of the temple himself. I’d get rid of this lot for a start, he says.” And one of the loveliest gospel cross-references I’ve come across: The woman taken in adultery and about to be stoned is weeping and Jesus helps the executee to get up. Mary Magdalene is weeping at the tomb and the executee helps her to stand up. And I love Spufford’s development of Noli Me Tangere: “Don’t be afraid…Far more can be mended than you know.”

And yet, as I’m sure Spufford knows, it does have its weaknesses. I lent it to a friend on a transatlantic red-eye. He lives in Spain and has conservative Roman Catholicism as his Christian model. Among his criticisms (and he found much to enjoy too) was that it’s called Unapologetic but then spends much time apologising for the uncool nature of Christianity and trying to make it sound cool by using street language. And that it’s sometimes whiningly defensive about smug new atheists like Richard Dawkins, who “should be irrelevant in a book like this.”

Well, up to a point. But my friend, who is an atheist, said that it did make him want to read a book that explained “how liberal and socially-committed Anglicanism is different from the other dubious Christian options on offer”. And he suggested that I wrote it. So Spufford’s book may not perform wonders but it still moves in mysterious ways.

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