A good place to start is the latest book from Chip and Dan Heath, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. In their classic conversational style, the Heath brothers present a well researched, easy reading book about improving decision-making on everything from personnel to personal actions.
The authors lay out leadership traps that include overconfidence, the tendency to seek out information that supports your own point of view and to downplay information that doesn’t, and the common habit of getting distracted by short-term emotions. The Heath brothers propose a four-step process designed to counteract these biases and, in doing so, provide real-life stories that include a rock star’s inventive decision-making trick and a CEO’s terrible acquisition.
You also may want to check out The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppler. This short book outlines several decision-making tools you can use, whether you’re looking to manage your time better, deliver a message that sticks, settle a dispute with a colleague, motivate your team, or help your team learn from mistakes. I rely on these models whenever I confront a tough decision.
Another title may seem less relevant to a federal audience, but Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin offers great advice for leaders in any sector. Lafley is a former CEO of Procter & Gamble and, in close partnership with strategic adviser Martin, doubled P&G’s sales and increased its market value by more than $100 billion in 10 years.
In light of negative public perceptions and resource constraints, federal leaders would be wise to challenge themselves and their teams to answer Lafley’s and Martin’s central strategy questions: What is our winning aspiration? Where will we play? How will we win? What capabilities must we have in place to win? What management systems are required to support our choices?
At a more tactical level, you might check out Cass Sunstein’s new book, Simpler: The Future of Government. Sunstein, the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has some common-sense tips leaders at any level can use to be more effective. Don’t impose requirements unless there are good reasons. Work with those likely to be affected by any policies or processes you want to put in place in an effort to avoid misunderstandings. Avoid jargon and speak in plain English. Make anything you produce as short as possible. This book should be on every federal leader’s reading list.
With many new leaders still taking the helm in the second Obama administration, a title both the incoming political appointees and their direct reports may want to check out is The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael Watkins. The publication offers new leaders a reminder that effective transitions don’t just happen. They require thoughtful planning and effective execution, and this book offers the research-based, practical advice you need to succeed. This includes the most common pitfalls new leaders encounter and strategies you need to avoid them.
Given the difficult times facing many federal leaders, there is a new book that focuses on resilience—Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow Through Challenge and Adversity by former Microsoft executive Steven Snyder.
Many leadership books talk about the principles, best practices and role models you should follow without confronting the reality that leading is difficult. This book is worth a read to figure out the best approach to learning from, not just surviving, the experience. He argues that adversity is precisely what unlocks our greatest potential, and shares 151 stories to illustrate how the acceptance of the hard work of leadership can create true greatness.
Federal managers and employees, what books have you read recently that you might recommend to others? Please share your favorite titles below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.