“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Harry Truman
Those of you who know me well will know that I’m an avid reader. As I travel a lot as part of my job with Excel, I spend more than my fair share of time in airport lounges and what better way to pass the time than with a good book.
And while I’m not opposed to the odd whodunnit or beach-read, I often find myself engrossed in a leadership classic.
Now, before you think that sounds like ‘hard work’, you might be surprised at some of the books that have made it onto my leadership list. I bet you’ve got some of these yourself too…
Leadership comes in many forms, and if you’re aspiring to be a great leader, you could pick up a few hints and tips from immersing yourself in a good book.
I often advise our participants who are looking to develop their leadership skills and become more empathetic, well-rounded people to read. The question they inevitably come back with is “Well, what should I be reading?”
So, in this article, I’m going to talk you through some of my favourites, in no particular order, that you could consider adding to your shelves too!
1. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R Covey: an all-time classic, insightful and informative book.
Available with an accompanying workbook, this is a great all-rounder for leaders. I was hesitant about reading this one having seen reviews that said it was ‘typical self–help with too many religious references’, but it turned out to be very readable and informative.
The book sets out to explain how a habit is an amalgamation of skills, knowledge and attitude. So, to successfully develop a habit, you have to first know what to do (knowledge), how to do it (skillset) and why you want to do it (attitude).
It offers a step by step pathway to help leaders develop the principles that enable them to adapt to change, exhibit fairness and honesty, and inspire with wisdom and power to make the most of opportunities that arise.
2. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.
John Maxwell: Follow these and people will follow you!
With over thirty years of leadership experience under his belt, Maxwell is perfectly positioned to dispense advice to people who want to succeed at the highest level.
Described by Zig Ziglar as “profound in its depth and clarity”, this book seeks to distil the secrets of leadership into bite–size portions of advice.
Great for new leaders to help them develop, but also includes vital concepts that are useful for anyone needing a refresher on their leadership skills.
3. Dare to Lead
Brené Brown: Covering everything from having courage to dealing with tough conversations.
Probably best known for her Ted Talks, Brené Brown shares her extensive experience and knowledge in this book. It is split into four parts –vulnerability, values, trust, and learning to rise. In each, Brené offers stories and gems of advice, alongside strategies for leaders to help them achieve these ideals.
It’s written informally, so it’s almost like having a conversation, and I loved it for its authenticity and ‘go for it’ message. It’s also peppered throughout with short digestible stories from Brené’s own experience.
There are some laugh–out–loud moments, (Brené’s confusion between C-Level and Sea-level), as well as some poignant stories. Her style is very relatable, and I found myself nodding in agreement more than once as I read through this book.
4. Animal Farm
George Orwell: leadership – and how it can go very wrong!
This is an absolute classic, and at only 100 pages long, it’s quick to read, as well as being memorable and hard-hitting. What seems at first a story about a farmyard whose animals take control, ousting the farmer and his family, and electing the intelligent pigs to lead, soon descends into a Utopian nightmare.
There are several messages in it for leaders, and warnings too: ‘Knowledge is power’ (be careful what you do with it), and ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts’ (be wary what you accept and from whom – it may come back to haunt you. Just ask the trojans about this one!) and the famous quote ‘All men are equal, but some are more equal than others’ (leaders usually start with good intentions, believing they have the right idea, product or service to help others. Unfortunately, with absolute power and control can come corruption.)
5. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together, and Others Don’t
Simon Sinek: investigates why good leaders put aside their own interests to protect their teams.
Based around the notion that in the Marine Corps officers sacrifice not only their place at the table but their own comfort, and sometimes even their lives for those in their care, this book asks – should business leaders be doing the same?
While you may not be leading your team into battle, the book delivers strong, relevant messages on leadership and the sacrifice of self for the good of the team.
There’s a fascinating section on our dependency on natural stimulants such as dopamine and oxytocin that give an insight into how humans react and why.
Excellent as a starter for budding leaders.
6. Who Moved My Cheese?
Dr Spencer Johnson. A mousey parable that reveals profound leadership truths and is useful for anyone who fears or resists change.
This parable takes place in a maze and concerns four beings – two mice and two mouse-sized humans. They all live in the maze and have very different relationships with their cheese. (Note: the ‘cheese’ is whatever you want it to be!)
Sniff and Scurry, the mice, are non-judgmental and don’t analyse situations; they just want cheese and will do whatever it takes to get it. Meanwhile, Hem and Haw, who are the mouse-sized humans, have an entirely different relationship with cheese. Their entire lives and belief systems are built around it. So, when the cheese runs out, they all react in very different ways.
The point the story makes is that we need to be able to adjust to survive. The bottom line is – things change – always have and always will. And as the book confirms, ‘while there’s no single way to deal with change, the consequence of pretending change won’t happen is always the same: sooner or later, your cheese is going to run out’.
7. The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness
Prof Steve Peters: exercises for the mind with this mind management model.
This book addresses the questions we all have as leaders, including – Are you sabotaging your own success? Are you struggling to make sense of it all? Do your emotions dictate your actions?
This is a powerful mind management model that aims to help you become a happier, more confident and consequently more successful individual (and leader) by helping you understand how your mind works so you can better manage your thoughts and actions. Scientifically based, it will give you the skills all great leaders need – while helping you see what is currently holding you back.
Exercises in the book are used to highlight our current actions and reactions, alongside new techniques that offer immediate results and long-term improvements.
8. Self-Leadership and the One Minute Manager
Ken Blanchard: explores the skills needed to empower yourself to success.
This is a follow–up book to the One Minute Manager – in which Ken gives three secrets to managing others. This book looks at the three secrets to best managing yourself. The secrets are disclosed in a parable about a young advertising exec called Steve, who is about to lose his job.
I won’t spoil the ending for you (but it’s a good outcome!)
This is certainly a different read and is a refreshing change from the usual step by step books, an easy read and useful for the first-time leader. Definitely worth adding to your bookcase.
9. The Leadership Challenge
Barry Posner and James Kouzes: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.
A top read that addresses the complex dynamics in the workplace and uses solid research to demonstrate the leadership skills required to nurture individuals to their full potential.
This book is often referred to as a classic leadership guide, and it is worthy of the title. The leadership model used is based on real-life leader assessments, and the stories are inspiring.
It offers practical advice, with lots of actionable takeaways, and addresses many of the challenges all leaders face. It’s easy to see yourself in some of them, which makes this book all the more relevant.
James Kerr: Powerful leadership lessons using the New Zealand All Blacks as inspiration
A friend encouraged me to read this book. I checked out the reviews, which started:
‘Champions do extra. They sweep the sheds. They follow the spearhead. They keep a blue head.
They are good ancestors.’
It was an instant hook for me, and the book doesn’t fail to deliver in terms of readability and practical guidelines (15 of them in all).
Covering how to achieve world–class standards consistently, how to handle pressure, how to train to win, and what you leave behind when you go (your legacy) this book is engaging and really motivational. And you don’t have to be a rugby fan to benefit!
So, that’s my top ten. I hope you’ve been inspired to dip into your own bookcase, or even try a few new ones.
And I’d like to end this article by adding one more to the list. Yes, I know I said top ten, but this one is not strictly a book, but a journal.
The Harvard Business Review is a fantastic read for leaders in any sector, with a host of articles covering topics such as Why Feedback Fails, Cracking the Code of Collaboration and How to Cultivate Everyday Courage.
Well worth the subscription, it will give you insights as well as entertain you.
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