The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Leadership for Dummies–there are a million leadership books that purport to be able to teach you how to be a better leader. But even if each one was truly worth it, few of us have time to read a dozen of those books, much less all of them. So which ones should we pick up?
That’s the question we posited to five thought leaders in the field–John Mattone, Karin Hurt, Melissa Lamson, Morag Barrett, and Richard Banfield–each of whom responded with one or more of the best books on leadership that they recommend anyone seeking to build their leadership skills take the time to read. Those books are . . .
The reason why you’ve heard of this book is because it’s actually worth reading. With over 25 million copies sold, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the best-selling professional development book out there. Written by business professor Stephen R. Covey and first published in 1989, it details seven imperatives–“Be proactive,” “Begin with the end in mind,” “Put first things first,” “Think win-win,” “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” “Synergize,” and “Sharpen the Saw”–that will help readers attain their goals by aligning themselves and their efforts with timeless, universal ethics.
John Mattone, leadership coach to giants like Steve Jobs and former PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, deems The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People required reading for all leaders in business or organization because of Covey’s emphasis on connecting character with action. “I’ve discovered, in my own work as a coach, that one of the reasons we’ve got a leadership gap is that we don’t have enough leaders who have the courage to connect with their soul, their inner core,” says Mattone. “Stephen Covey’s book is the greatest book ever written on leadership primarily because he recognized that the greatness in the outer core, as a leader, as a person, doesn’t just magically happen. You’ve got to be really strong on the inner core.”
Another classic of professional development, The Leadership Challenge was first published by Wiley in 1987 and is currently in its fifth edition, with more than two million copies sold worldwide. Written by James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, both members of Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, the book uses case studies to examine five practices of exemplary leadership as identified through nearly a hundred thousand surveys: “Model the Way,” “Inspire a Shared Vision,” “Challenge the Process,” “Enable Others to Act,” and “Encourage the Heart.” Kouzes and Posner stress that leadership is learned, not inherited, and that both introverts and extroverts can become great leaders by using their personal skills to their advantage.
The newest of the best leadership books on this list, Off the Clock was published just this year, but whatever it may lack in the time-tested quality of other titles, it surely makes up for insight. Praised by Inc., Business Insider, and Entrepreneur, the book helps readers both reclaim their free time and make their working hours more productive. Author Laura Vanderkam accomplishes this not by suggesting a series of lifehacks that spare a few seconds here and there, but by sharing effective habits gleaned through the study of hundreds of subjects’ lives. It all boils down to: clearing your calendar of activities that are boring, stressful, or inefficient; tackling your top priorities during the hours when you have the most energy; and lingering in great experiences while they’re happening.
“This is critical today, when we can be on 24/7 and need to find better ways to set boundaries, make time for ourselves, and slow down sometimes to get more done well,” says Melissa Lamson, a leadership coach who’s worked with companies like SpaceX, SAP, and LinkedIn. She recommends Off the Clock for everyone hoping to improve their leadership skills, as well as their lives in general.
The Giftsof Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are; Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead;Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone–University of Houston Professor and New York Times best-selling author Brene Brown has written a number of books about leadership, life, and love. All are influenced by Brown’s decades of research into courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, the insights from which she shares through relatable guideposts, roadmaps, and lessons. Her latest book–and perhaps the most apropo to the subject of this article–Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts will be out this October from Random House.
“I would recommend anything by Brene Brown,” says Morag Barrett, leadership coach and herself author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationship. “Her work is challenging the mindset as to what it takes to be successful at work and at home, reinforcing that the mislabelled 'soft skills,' like courage and vulnerability, are critical to achieving the hard business–and life–results.”
To that end, pick up the biography, autobiography, or memoir of a leader that you respect, look for a history of the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, or Dot-Com Boom, or start a novel the sci-fi, fantasy, or literary fiction vein. The importance of reading isn’t always to learn a set of practices to adopt as a leader, but sometimes to swim in the depths of personality, experience, and creativity that leadership inevitably requires.