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Nine leadership books to watch for in 2016

(Lillian Cunningham | The Washington Post)
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In a category crowded with formulaic promises, bad writing and warmed-over common sense, it's hard to know which books on the business book shelf are worth a look. To help you fill those new year's resolutions to lead smarter, work faster and get ahead on the job, we scanned publishers' lists, pored over book catalogs and asked a few top leadership thinkers about the books they're looking forward to reading in 2016.

Below,  books from the first half of next year that should help inspire you at work in the year ahead.

(1) The Right Kind of Crazy

By Adam Steltzner with William Patrick
Portfolio, Jan. 12

Everyone remembers the video of the unbridled elation in the room when the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars back in 2012. Now imagine leading the team who did it. In The Right Kind of Crazy, Adam Steltzner, an engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the "Entry, Descent and Landing" team, shares his story of the rover's "seven-minutes of terror" -- its nerve-racking landing routine. But he also shares the ten years of hard work that led up to it, and the techniques he used to manage and lead the team behind this extraordinary achievement. With tips for how to get around creative block, move from fear-based to "curiosity-based decision-making," and manage difficult employees, The Right Kind of Crazy offers a fresh and personal perspective for leading a high-stakes, high-intensity workplace.

(2) A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service

By Robert M. Gates
Alfred A. Knopf, Jan. 19

Gates' last book, Duty, was a memoir many will remember for its unsparing comments about President Obama's leadership, saying that while he admired Obama's decisiveness and intelligence, he "didn't believe in his own strategy" in Afghanistan. His latest volume is written more as a guide to leading large institutions through reform and change. Gates, after all, has had quite the perch to advise on the topic, leading not only the Department of Defense, but the CIA and Texas A&M University. (He is now chancellor of the College of William and Mary.) While some suggestions won't come as a surprise to anyone ("the most critical thing a new leader at any level should do is listen," Gates advises) he brings them to life through stories of his own powerful and critical leadership roles.

(3) The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

By Todd Rose
Harper Collins, Jan. 19

Rose's book aims to put to rest the "age of average" -- a world of standardization in which we compare kids to the average student in tests and college admissions, for instance, and employees to the average worker in hiring screens and performance reviews. "Every one of those familiar notions is a figment of a misguided scientific imagination," he writes. At a time when many companies are questioning how they conduct performance reviews and applying big data to their personnel practices, Rose's book also includes stories of how different employers are taking a more individual approach to managing employees. Rose, the director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School, is also increasingly in demand as a corporate speaker about his ideas.

(4) The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success

By Emma Seppälä
HarperOne, Jan. 26

Happiness may seem like a hard thing to study, but Seppälä, the science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, brings together the growing body of research on the connection between happiness and success. Seppälä attempts to overturn the idea that achieving success comes from persevering at all costs, inevitable stress, narrowing your focus and putting your head down, using research to lay out six keys for being both happy and successful. Seppälä's book offers more insight at a time when more companies are turning to research and thinkers on positive emotions to help with productivity.

(5) Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

By Adam Grant
Viking, Feb. 2

Grant, whose 2013 book Give and Take turned him into one of the best-known business thinkers today, is back with his next book on the power of originality. In it, he examines what successful non-conformists -- from the woman behind wireless power company uBeam to the founder of online eyeglass company Warby Parker -- have in common, all in an effort to help the rest of us learn how to do things like bust myths, speak truth to power and avoid groupthink without getting sidelined. With a foreword by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and a book tour that includes fellow superstars like Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink, Originals is likely to be one of the bigger business books of the year.

(6) Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent

By Sydney Finkelstein
Portfolio, Feb. 9

Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. NFL coach Bill Walsh. They're all what Finkelstein calls Superbosses, or leaders who hatch a whole diaspora of people who go on to do great things elsewhere. In his February book, Finkelstein examines what the people at the head of these talent trees -- "talent spawners," as Finkelstein calls them -- have in common, as well as categorizing them into three types. If we're lucky, it's an effect we've experienced first-hand during our careers. For those who haven't, Finkelstein describes how to mimic what Superbosses do: Instill high demands and high self-confidence, create master-apprentice relationships with the people you lead, and offer lots of freedom to them to rethink and reshape their jobs.

(7) What Works: Gender Equality by Design

By Iris Bohnet
Harvard University Press, March 8

Fighting gender discrimination in the workplace is one of the hottest topics in Corporate America, with unconscious bias training programs becoming as de rigueur as first-day orientations. Bohnet, a behavioral economist and director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, takes a researcher's eye to what really works and what doesn't when it comes to stamping out bias, showing that training alone isn't enough. Rather, Bohnet argues, it's easier to change the workplace than it is to change our minds. As a result, she urges more evidence-driven H.R. departments, as well as more environmental "nudges," such as taking down portraits of men from corporate boardrooms, for instance, to help women interview better, which can have outsized effects.

(8) Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

By Charles Duhigg
Random House, March 8

Duhigg turns his eye from habit-making and habit-breaking -- his 2012 book on the topic was a best seller -- to one on productivity. At a time when we're all overwhelmed by commitments at work and home, he gets some of the most productive people and teams (the filmmakers behind Frozen, for instance) on how they work, think and approach their lives and jobs. With chapters arranged by topics, such as motivation, goal-setting, decision-making and managing others, Duhigg examines the choices that make people more productive.

(9) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

By Angela Duckworth
Scribner, May 3

MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" winner Duckworth is known for her research on grit -- the idea that focused persistence, rather than genius alone, is what really leads to great achievement. Duckworth's upcoming book, certainly timed for graduation gift season, shares her research on how perseverance and passion wins out over raw talent. Duckworth -- a former McKinsey consultant turned University of Pennsylvania professor who's also founded a nonprofit for research into character-building in kids -- also shares her own personal story, as well as interviews with successful people to illustrate its ideas.

Read also:

How a business book from the ’80s became a cult classic in Silicon Valley

A great leadership reading list — without any business books on it

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