I’m often asked for recommendations as to what leadership reading books I believe are worthwhile for leaders. There are many that can be helpful in a given situation or provide you with a constructive general orientation toward leadership, for example Jim Collins has several fine books and one can’t go wrong getting acquainted with Peter Drucker.
Yet it seems the biblio-therapeutic approach to leadership skill acquisition is not terribly effective. If you walk into your local Barnes & Noble, you will find a few shelves full of books on leadership – much of it clutter that often degenerates into a passing flavor of the month. If the publishing of books engendered great companies, the US should be littered with amazing workplaces. It is not.
Notwithstanding my comments above, enduring wisdom can often be found by going to the classics. I would encourage you to peruse what I consider to be five leadership classics; and they are classics for a reason, i.e., they offer profound and durable insight.
1) Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. First published in 1937, it is the greatest self-help book of all time. I chuckle at haughty executives who feel themselves to be above reading such an old tome; it is likely these sophisticates would be twice as successful if they exhibited even a third of the behaviors so charmingly taught by Mr. Carnegie.
2) Take an hour and read a little book by Ken Blanchard called Raving Fans – one of my all-time favorites. So simple, yet profound, this little book helps to set a laser-like focus on exceptional customer service. Then pass it around to others in your workplace.
3) In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. (In this instance you may want to save a bit of time – many good summaries of this book exist on the web – Google is your friend.) I find Peters to be a lively and engaging writer on leadership – most all of his books are worth a look. This was his groundbreaking work published in the early 1980s. My start as a CEO was still four years off when I read it from the perspective of an organizational psychologist, but I quickly went back and looked at it again when I unexpectedly found myself trying to figure out how to start and build a company. A less profound forerunner to my next recommendation, Peters examined 43 companies deemed to be exceptional, and identified eight characteristics he found to be common among these unusually successful enterprises. (Note: I am aware that this Peters’ work has become a bit controversial over the ensuing years as some of the companies he profiled did not do particularly well over the past three decades, causing some to question the validity of his work. The critics have a small point, but they miss the larger one. Large companies seldom stay on top for an indefinite period – trees do not grow to the sky, e.g., the lifespan of an average Fortune 500 company in the United States is less than 50 years. The fact that some of the companies subsequently fell on hard times – and some moved away from their earlier values – does not invalidate the conclusions that Peters drew as to leadership practices that propel success.)
4) The Living Company by Arie de Geus. Few business leaders have read this book – and it is a darn shame. It is the single most insightful and profound book on leadership I have read. Based on a careful analysis of rare companies that have stood the test of time (i.e., having existed for over two centuries), de Geus outlines the intellectual framework for the concept of a living company. These rare, constantly evolving companies strive to thrive by quickly adapting to a changing world. He outlines the characteristics of such companies and the practices of their leaders, including their focus on individual employee growth and creating and protecting a vibrant culture. Read this book (maybe twice) – you’ll be a better leader…and you’ll feel smarter.
5) Finally, I don’t want to put out a reading list on business leadership without including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I was lucky enough to find this book as an undergrad at Iowa State, although as a major in a social science (there’s an oxymoron for you) department I am sure no professor suggested it. First published in 1957, this lengthy masterpiece is incredibly relevant today. It offers a compelling story with incredibly vivid characters, e.g., Dagny Taggart who is my favorite heroine in all of fiction. Atlas also provides an introduction to the philosophy of rationalism – a key component of MindSet teachings. A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress found readers to rate Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book in their lives – falling only behind the Bible. Personally, I find anyone who is engaged in business or government and cannot answer the question, “Who is John Ga” to be an intellectual virgin. This rousing, full-throated, and unapologetic defense of capitalism has more than its share of foam-at-the-mouth detractors, but such is the case because of the lethal threat Ms. Rand and her ideas pose to an ideology that despises the principles she expounds. Ayn Rand was a petite lady diminutive in stature, but an intellectual giant. Now that she is no longer alive to defend her philosophy and beliefs – something she relished and did with magnificent vigor – it is amusing to see intellectual Lilliputians biting at her ankles.
There you have it – not exactly beach reading, but all engaging reads that will help you to form and deepen many of the Conquering Thoughts© MindSet has found to reside inside the heads of amazing leaders.