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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

 Ann McLaughlin Korologos, Director

Ann McLaughlin Korologos
Former Secretary of Labor

I had the honor of serving as secretary of labor during the department’s 75th anniversary. The Internet wasn’t around then, so I’m delighted that for the centennial, there is a way—through this exciting project—to engage the American people in the Labor Department’s important work and history. 

But before I suggest my books, I have to declare—and I think most people would agree—that there are two important documents, widely published but not books, that have undoubtedly shaped work in America the most:  the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. Unless both are read, studied, debated and valued, work in America (past, present and future) would be without purpose, and wouldn’t be worth doing. Our country was founded on the principle of personal freedom, which is the foundation for political and economic freedoms. Those freedoms always have and will shape work in America in a profound way. 

And now, here’s my list:

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). More than just an autobiography of an unlikely Trappist Monk in Kentucky, this book—one of the bestselling non-fiction books in the country at the time—is an examination of one’s soul. It struck a chord in the hearts and minds of the post-World War II generation, inspiring thousands to pursue religious life and millions more to search for meaning in their own. Sixty-five years after it was published, it is still in print and has been translated into dozens of languages. It remains relevant, universal and needed.

William J. Bennett (editor), The Book of Virtues (1993). I love this book for so many reasons. It’s a comfort to just pick any topic or page and start reading. But mostly, I love it because it details and demonstrates all the “essentials” of good character:  hard work, honesty, responsibility, courage, compassion, loyalty, tenacity, faith—the elements of humanity that make one successful not just in a job or career, but in life.   

George Martin, Madam Secretary (1976). Any list about books that shaped work in America has to include this biography of Frances Perkins. The first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet, and the first woman and longest-serving secretary of labor, she is undoubtedly the mother of modern work, creating the minimum wage and Social Security. Forty-two years after she left office, as a result of changing demographics, emerging technology and education opportunities, I became the second woman to hold the job. Not just for women in public service, but for every working woman in our country, she blazed the trail. 

Peggy Noonan, When Character was King (2001). This is an unvarnished biography of Ronald Reagan.  His life story is inspiring and an example of how work—the jobs one has and how one does them—shapes convictions and beliefs.  We are all works in progress.  Work molds us.  For Reagan, acting led him to union activism (and union leadership, as president of the Screen Actors Guild). That shaped his extraordinary ability to negotiate—one of the hallmarks of his presidency. Traveling the country as the spokesman for General Electric, meeting workers in factories and shop floors, honed his abilities as “the great communicator.”

Bill Conaty and Ram Charan, The Talent Masters:  Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers (2010).  Here is practical and proven advice on developing the next generation of business leaders, presented in “you are there” case studies. No business can survive without talent, and no business will thrive without nurturing it.

Ann McLaughlin Korologos was the 19th U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 1987 to 1989. 

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