An Intrigue of Books on Leadership & Business

I was asked twice in 48 hours for which books I’d recommend people read about leadership. That’s an interesting question for me because I think leadership is both simpler and more complex than it is often portrayed. It’s simpler because there are only so many ways you can repackage the general traits required to lead well in a situation – and more complex because leadership is about the impact on the other person too. You never get to decide if you led well, the people around you get to determine that.

So to meet that request I’ve listed some of the books that I have come across during my career that appreciate leadership is simple, and also listed the books that helped me understand that people are complex. I’ve tried to choose an arc of books that represent a number of years and they are in no way all ‘business books’. I’ve written about some of them before so I’ve tried to link to those pieces as I go.

The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter

I found a copy of this book in my grandfather’s things after he passed away. It was probably the first business book I ever read and it simply hasn’t aged. Think of this book as the original Dilbert. Examining the concept of hierarchology the book concludes that ‘In every hierarchy an individual will be promoted until they reach a level of incompetence’. If you would like to know how to keep enjoying your work by avoiding promotion (and final placement syndrome) then read this book. If you read the book and you’ve met me you’ll recognise I employ a number of the strategies. Hint: I haven’t claimed my expenses yet.

Execution by Larry Bossidy

I almost put in ‘Straight from the Gut’ by Jack Welch, but I genuinely believe that Execution by Bossidy is more practical and less testosterone fulled than the classic Welch book. It is the only book I’ve read with a genuinely accessible and sensible section on how to set stretch goals and business targets and is worth a read just for that.

Lead with Luv by Ken Blanchard

A wonderful summary of the culture and ways of working of SouthWest Airlines featuring their often cloned ‘triple bottom line’ of customer/shareholder/colleague. Rather than choosing one prime group to serve they commit to the idea that if they look after their people and customers they are looking after the commercials. It is a short and accessible read and outlines a brilliant culture that hasn’t required a slide to be built in the office.

The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb

There simply isn’t a better book on real world project management available. My very first blog was on the fact that, at the start of the project, the plan to turn Jaws from a book to a film was to train a Great White Shark to do stunts. This is a book that talks about how you get from a position where people think you can train a Great White to swim through hoops to releasing one of the most successful movies of all time. It’s an incredible journey and you can’t help but learn from every page about planning, people and inventiveness.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’ve written before about role models and Atticus Finch makes my list, along with with my absolute moral compass that is George Bailey. Leadership is sometimes about listening, sometimes about reflecting and sometimes about being steadfast. There are few figures that achieve that combination as romantically yet plausibly as Atticus Finch and remember that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Freakonomics by Levitt/Dubner

Freaknomics was at the vanguard of a host of books on behavioral economics that could have made my list. Homo Economicus is the construct used in more traditional economics to say ‘what would a rational man do?’. Modern behavioural economics ignores this and asks ‘what do people actually do and why?’. Leadership is about understanding what people actually do and why. Freakonomics will teach you about the world as it is – never a bad thing. The books go slightly downhill after the first one – Dan Ariely produces more consistent content as does Tim Harford, but Freakonomics is a good place to start.

First, Break all the Rules by Marcus Buckingham

In a previous life I was an expert (whatever that means) in employee engagement. This book was based on a great data set and even now, as it ages, still has a couple of principles at its heart that organisations would benefit from embracing more fully. These are i) a focus on output rather than process and ii) a focus on enabling rather than control. Buckingham’s work got slightly more ‘one note’ after this, but I’m still of a view that this is a relevant and worthwhile book on how to think about what matters in supporting and stretching team and organisational performance.

The Prince by Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian has come to be regarded as a ‘bad thing’. The Prince was actually a pretty practical ‘how to’ guide to lead in difficult times and navigate the world’s inevitable politics. These days it would appear in HBR as the ‘Top 10 things you need to know about running a City State’ piece. The ability to think in a clinical and crticial fashion to solve problems is as important now as it was then. Well, in all honesty it is slightly less so now – unless you are running a vulnerable city state under threat from an ambitious papacy – but you get the general point. The observiations hold largely true, like this on ambition…

“The wish to acquire more is admittedly a very natural and common thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than condemned. But when they lack the ability to do so and yet want to acquire more at all costs, they deserve condemnation for their mistakes.”

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian/The Age of Alexander by Plutarch

Simon Sinek refers to ‘leaders eating last’ and cites the example of the US Military. Alexander The Great did it well before then, in the Bactrian desert in 329 BC. Tutored by Aristole, King of Macedonia by the age of 20, undefeated in battle, Alexander created an empire that spanned Greece, Egypt and India. Yet he was dead by 32, leaving behind an legacy of disarray, chaos and violence that is one of the most sobering lessons in succession planning that could be imagined. If you ever want to see the incredible things that the will and charisma of an individual can achieve then read about Alexander. If you ever want to reflect on how damaging a world revolving around the will and charisma of an individual can be then read about Alexander.    

Understanding Organisations by Charles Handy

Charlies Handy is very wise and is not really keen to pose for selfies. That’s probably all you need to know.

I also considered the following and if you are looking for ‘standards’ these may be of more use….

  • Straight from the Gut – Jack Welch
  • 21st Century Leadership – Trompenaars
  • The Dilbert Principle – Scott Adams
  • The Invisbile Gorilla – Chabris
  • Lateral Thinking for Management – De Bono
  • Helping – Schein
  • Funky Business Forever – Ridderstrale & Nordstrum
  • Business Exposed – Vermeulen
  • The Checklist Manifesto – Gawande
  • Outliers – Gladwell
  • On Leadership – Leighton
  • The Carrot Principle – Elton
  • From Good to Great – Tom Peters
  • Leadership Lessons from The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari (really…) – Sharma
  • Social Intelligence – Goleman

2 thoughts on “An Intrigue of Books on Leadership & Business

  1. As a certified bookworm, I am always fascinated by lists of books and this is no exception, David. And it is lovely to see works of fiction included, as someone else commented on Twitter. I would also like to see some examples of leadership from women included in such a list. Building on the classical theme, what about Athene, goddess of wisdom, as portrayed in Homer’s Odyssey – who certainly makes things happen and then gets out of the way. Or from a completely different sphere – all the girls in Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series of books – each leader in her own unique way from Nancy, captain of the Swallow who plans an expedition to the North Pole to Susan, who could be a role model for an approach to an enabling view of compliance. My choice probably gives away that I have spent much of the last 20 years reading things out loud to/with offspring!


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