Leadership books have a lot in common with the self-help genre. There are far more of them than we could ever possibly need—some 57,000 come up in an Amazon search—and all too many of them are filled with such mind-numbingly obvious advice that you’re better off leaving them alone.
Leadership, after all, is not really something you can learn in a book. It’s something that can only come from a strong moral compass, enough experience making the tough calls and doing the hard work, and plenty of good mentors found along the way.
Still, there are a few books on leadership I believe belong on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the topic. Some are classics, a couple are new, and one more isn’t typically found on the business book shelf at all. Or the self-help one, for that matter.
1) On Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bennis. There are many widely read books that most would consider classics of the leadership canon. Good to Great. In Search of Excellence. Built to Last. And while these are all worthy reads—especially so that you can understand your boss’s obsession with “Level 5 leaders”—they’re about what makes a great company, not a great individual. Bennis, a leadership sage that deserves to be called one, looks within instead, exploring how it is only through knowledge of oneself that good leadership can truly be practiced.
2) The Essential Drucker, by Peter Drucker. The father of modern management was incredibly prolific—he wrote 39 books in his nearly 96 years—and his writings have been compiled and convened (even daily calendarized!) in countless collections of his work. But The Essential Drucker is his own selection of his most important writings, pulled together in one place. While his focus has long been on the practice of management—the title of one of his most important books—the profound impact his writings have had on leadership in business, government and nonprofits is something every leader should know.
3) Up the Organization, by Robert Townsend. This irreverent and quick take on Corporate America from a man who knew it well has wisdom in it for any leader who must cope with the burdens of a bureaucracy. Its author, former Avis Rent-A-Car CEO Robert Townsend, offers up blunt and direct advice (“If you have a policy manual, publish the Ten Commandments”) that reminds readers that leadership is really about good common sense and simple moral values, until bureaucracies get in the way. First published more than 35 years ago, it’s a different sort of classic I’d missed until it was re-released by Jossey-Bass in 2007.
4) Questions of Character, by Joseph Badaracco. While I enjoyed Harvard Business School professor Badaracco’s well-written examination of the leadership insights we can take from literature, whether it be Antigone or Death of a Salesman, I think it’s worth a read mostly in the way it teaches leaders to look for lessons everywhere. Whether it be a look at one’s moral code in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or courage and passion in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Love of the Last Tycoon,” Badaracco reminds us that leadership is not about making the numbers, but knowing oneself well enough to make the right call when presented with all the conflicts and complexities of the job.
5) Why Smart Executives Fail, by Sydney Finkelstein. Far too many business books traffic in success, breathlessly examining the career paths and decision-making of leaders on their way up. Dartmouth professor Syd Finkelstein takes a look at what causes them to fall down. Released in 2004, the book examines some of the headline-grabbing failures of the early part of the decade—Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski and WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers—but offers timeless lessons on how the delusions of power and the denial of change can lead to any leader’s fall from grace.
6) Drive, by Daniel Pink. Finally, someone made a persuasive case that the best way to motivate people is not by dangling carrots and sticks. Pink’s 2009 treatise may sound, at least on the surface, like the consultant speak being spouted by recession-era human resources gurus. But he supports it with plenty of scientific research, bringing the leadership practice of motivation, one hopes, out of a time when organizations treated people like assets and closer to a time when people are treated like people.
7) Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Yes, President Obama read it. And yes, it became a cliché as he nominated former opponent Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state. But Doris Kearns Goodwin—one of the country’s preeminent historians—offers that rare historical book that is neither biography nor narrative, but an examination of leadership style and leadership tactics from which any stripe of leader, political or otherwise, can learn.
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