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Leadership books for the beach

Ben Horowitz, author of "The Hard Thing About Hard Things" Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

With summer vacation season in full swing, many of you are probably on the lookout for good beach reads. While you may be tempted to search out fiction and seek total escape, there are a number of engaging books that can help you become a better leader.

These books offer federal leaders practical advice on everything from inspiring creativity and innovation among your employees to building your resilience and tackling tough workplace problems. Here are some ideas for additions to your reading list:

“Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner has great insight on how to think more productively, more creatively and more rationally. Too often in government, I see the same solutions offered to problems. Levitt and Dubner offer some simple ideas to help you and your team more clearly see your problems, seek out new methods for researching solutions and understand how to persuade others to adopt your ideas.

If you’re facing so many problems that you simply feel helpless, then definitely check out a book I’m reading now, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.

Dweck’s work can help you examine your habits and discover new ways of finding the resilience needed to energize your team. She looks at the difference between two mindsets: fixed (your life is determined by outside events) and growth (you’re a work in progress, always learning and always improving) as a way of helping you reframe your circumstances. It’s research-based and quite practical for federal leaders.

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” by Ben Horowitz offers advice on managing the toughest problems that don’t get mentioned in business school. While geared toward entrepreneurs, the book provides advice applicable to federal managers about how to minimize office politics, measure performance and train employees.

A Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Horowitz has experienced the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” in the highly volatile world of information technology. That experience has made him a go-to adviser for West Coast entrepreneurs looking to turn their ideas into the next big thing. Horowitz’s book tackles topics such as firing a friend or setting the record straight when your employees misinterpret your message.

Speaking of hard things, media strategist Ryan Holiday’s latest book, “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeliness Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs,” examines some of history’s great leaders for lessons about turning problems into opportunities. This short read serves as an inspiration for federal leaders who are confronting their own obstacles.

Another inspiring read is “Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. Whether or not you have children, you’ve almost certainly seen at least one Pixar film and marveled at the ingenuity. Catumull, one of Pixar’s founders and leaders to this day, provides a template for managers who want to inspire employees and develop a culture of creativity.

You also might want to check out “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises,” by former Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who recounts his time leading the nation through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and “Hard Choices,” Hillary Rodham Clinton’s account of the crises, choices and challenges she faced during her four years as Secretary of State.

And finally, from the world of sports, is the book “The Closer, by Mariano Rivera, the recently retired pitching great from the New York Yankees baseball team. Whether or not you’re a sports fan, the real-life story of Rivera being plucked from the fishing boats of Panama to become one of the best pitchers of all time is a great source of inspiration. His real-life examples of giving up the big hit, but then turning right around to pitch again is actually quite gripping and provides lessons any of us can apply when we face a problem big or small.

What leadership or inspirational books are on your summer reading list? Please share your choices by posting a comment below or send me an e-mail to

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.



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Tom Fox · July 11, 2014

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