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10 classic leadership books it's time you read
Our list of 10 leadership books you should read includes books clearly written for a leadership audience, but also books that inspire you to examine who you are and what you believe in, a behaviour common to the very best leaders. As leaders we’re all on different journeys and we’ve chosen these books because, in different ways, they help you develop and continue your own. We hope you enjoy this list.
1. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
By Stephen Covey
In one of the most popular books on improving personal effectiveness ever written, Stephen Covey outlines seven critical habits for success. These habits are positioned as universally viable - not just applicable to one domain - meaning that they should help you become more effective in all areas of life.
Due to this broad appeal the book has endured and its content is as relevant today as when it was written in the late eighties. In terms of a practical guide to transformational habits that improve our ability to interact and influence, it’s a great read for managers and leaders.
2. The Art of War
By Sun Tzu
Ostensibly a book on military tactics, The Art of War is a dossier on winning in competitive environments. It’s a manual for self-control and self-awareness, making it especially relevant in today’s era of fast-paced change and increased interest in managing our physiology and emotions.
Dale Carnegie’s classic - published originally in the early 30s - is still considered a useful book on learning better interpersonal and communication skills
Sun Tzu advises, for example, that people refrain from making important decisions when emotional and he also says that action borne from fear is always worse than choosing to do nothing. This is a good read because it doesn’t fit the mould of other leadership books.
3. True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership
By Bill George
Authenticity is a core trait of several modern leadership styles, such as servant leadership. But what does it mean to be authentic at work? Can we literally turn up and be who we are at home with our families? How do we translate a feeling of wanting to be authentic into language and ideas that can be understood by others in the organisation?
This book, by the former CEO of medical services company Medtronic and based on the personal stories of major CEOs, helps leaders answer these questions and find an authenticity strategy that works for them.
4. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
By Daniel Pink
What motivates your team? Daniel Pink’s bestseller looks at the evidence on intrinsic motivators (including autonomy and mastery) and how they’re more sustainable and effective than extrinsic motivators, such as pay and reward.
Leaders seeking to improve how they motivate teams made up of very different individuals will benefit from reading this book, so they can better connect team goals with the intrinsic motivators of each person within their team. The book is also useful for examining and optimising your own motivations as a leader.
5. Start with Why
By Simon Sinek
In a world where purpose is seen as instrumental to high-performing organisations, this bestselling book from guru Simon Sinek presents the view that organisations focus too heavily on the what and how of doing business, rather than looking at why they exist in the first place.
Sinek explores how a strong why vision that is well-understood throughout the organisation leads to sustainable innovation, employee engagement and the ability to adapt smoothly to changing market conditions.
6. Animal Farm
By George Orwell
While many of these books offer direct lessons on being a better leader, Animal Farm is a fictional, dystopian novel that features characters with very different leadership styles.
Snowball, a charismatic, consultative pig, is at odds with the more directive pig Napoleon. Throughout the book the two leadership styles affect their relationship with the other animals and the general conditions of life on the farm. A thought-provoking read on just how much our style and the way we treat others affects team dynamics.
7. How to Win Friends and Influence People
By Dale Carnegie
Being able to influence and ‘sell’ one’s view is a core leadership skill. Dale Carnegie’s classic - published originally in the early 30s - is still considered a useful book on learning better interpersonal and communication skills, avoiding escalating disagreements and on developing people in a way that feels natural and organic.
A thought-provoking read on just how much our style and the way we treat others affects team dynamics.
This is a great guide to the practical, interpersonal leadership skills that are becoming even more important in a world where competitive advantage increasingly comes from collaboration and positive team dynamics.
8. Man’s Search for Meaning
By Viktor Frankel
For Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel, a lack of meaning is the critical cause of existential crises in life and his acclaimed book is dedicated to giving people the tools to find meaning in their own lives. He firmly believes that meaning can be found in everyday experiences and the book looks at different sources of meaning in life.
This is a great, inspiring read for leaders not just because of Frankel’s personal background but because it contains genuinely useful and applicable insight into finding meaning in our own lives and helping our colleagues and direct reports do the same.
9. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
By Daniel Goleman
Emotional intelligence is now seen as a necessary skill for success in organisational life, but it was Goleman’s book that pioneered the concept. This is all about self-awareness, understanding how our emotions influence our behaviour and in turn how others treat us and developing skills to regulate the impact of our emotions on our experience of the world.
However, this skill is also about understanding the emotions and needs of others, understanding why and how they act the way they do and working with rather than against others’ emotions. All these things are, of course, critical to success as a leader. At Investors in People we’ve covered other forms of intelligence that contribute to leadership effectiveness, including physical quotient.
10. The Caine Mutiny
By Herman Wouk
Can leaders do anything they like and, when they do something that other people disagree with, should those people follow them anyway? Can you ignore a leader because you don’t like them? Like Animal Farm, this is a fiction book that helps leaders understand the dynamics of groups of people under leaders. More specifically, it asks questions about what we owe our leaders and what the role of a follower is.
This is an interesting read as society continues to grapple with what types of leader we need nowadays, the breakdown of charismatic authority and an increasing tendency to defer to experts.
No single book contains the secret sauce to leadership. Reading a wide range of sources, from different eras and written by people with different approaches and priorities, allows us to open our mind to self-improvement and the type of insights that make us better today than yesterday. What books have inspired you to be a better leader?