Ronald C. White Jr.: A. Lincoln: A Biography
Anyone with an interest in leadership should make a high priority of reading this splendid book. As far as I am concerned, it is the best one-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln you'll find in any library or bookstore. Published in 2009, it is colorful and fluid, and it is easily accessible by anyone with even a passing interest in Lincoln, U.S. history, or leadership and its rhetoric. In particular, I really liked White's analysis of Lincoln's communication: the intense work that went into every sentence of a proclamation or a speech, Lincoln's appreciation of rhetorical devices and his empathy for readers and listeners, and his expectation that people generations later would read his words. All in all, this is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary leader who lived in extraordinary times, and to whom we Americans owe so much of our national identity and heritage. Do read it. (*****)
Robert K. Massie: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
"Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman" is the new best-selling biography of a minor German princess who became the 18th Century empress of Russia. What a phenomenal story it is. Untouched by her cold husband for nine years, Catherine II took a succession of a dozen lovers before and during her reign. One of them was the legendary Gregory Potemkin, whom Massie speculates she may have actually married after ascending to the throne. Catherine was far ahead of her time, as she gave life to the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, beat our own Founding Fathers to the articulation of natural rights, sought to free the serfs three generations before our Emancipation Proclamation, laid the groundwork for the Hermitage, and led Russia kicking and screaming into the modern era. Great reading for any serious history buff, with big lessons for students of leadership. I highly recommend it. (****)
Roger D'Aprix: Communicating for Change
This little volume by the redoubtable Roger D'Aprix laid the foundation for approaching organizational communication as a process. It is mandatory reading for anyone in an advisory capacity on communication to senior executives.
John P. Kotter: Corporate Culture and Performance
It wasn't all that long ago that corporate culture was pooh-poohed as academic and irrelevant to a company's real work. We now know just how important it is and, thanks to this book, just how difficult it is to manage.
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner: Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It
Though somewhat dated by now, my original copy of this book is heavily underscored and still instructive. It emphasizes the importance of a leader's credibility as perceived and judged by potential followers.
Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard: Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation
This provocative volume features a deep dialogue with the likes of Peter Senge and Meg Wheatley. The thesis distinguishes between rich dialogue and chaotic discussion, and it calls for more humanity, creativity, and collaboration in the workplace.
George Lakoff: Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives
Set aside the partisan politics of this little book. Read it for the insights it offers on framing, a powerful forensic device for recasting discussions, dialogues, and debates.
Daniel H. Pink: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Daniel Pink writes with the grace of Malcolm Gladwell, and he is consistently interesting and provocative in big ways. Here he turns his attention to solid research on human motivation, and along the way he tells more than a few fascinating anecdotes about what motivates chimpanzees and rats, too. The book includes a lengthy, practical toolkit to guide the application of its principles.
Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
This book is a classic in its own time. Absolutely must reading for every leader and aspiring leader.
Jim Collins: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't
Some books are iconic in their genre, and this is one of them. I have always had some reservations as to the research framework behind this book, but its lessons make so much common sense, I set aside any doubts I may have.
John Baldoni: Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders
I have issues with Baldoni's narrow construction of communication; he thinks primarily in terms of words and only secondarily in terms of the behaviors that confirm or undermine the words. Moreover, he seems to regard as leaders only those individuals at the very summit of an organization. Aside from that, however, Baldoni has few peers as an authority on how highly visible leaders convey their vision of the future.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey: How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation
I really like the architecture of this book. It sets forth seven fundamental shifts in perspective and language, which the authors believe will make our companies better places to work and all of us better colleagues to work alongside.
Dale Carnegie: How to Win Friends & Influence People
Almost 75 years old, this book is the epitome of a modern classic. I have read it three times and I'll probably read it again some day. Everyone should read it and re-read it. Its advice is timeless.
Jerry Kramer: Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer
"Instant Replay" created the genre of memoirs by professional athletes. It is the diary of Jerry Kramer, an offensive lineman on the legendary Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, perhaps the best American football team ever. The narrative builds like fiction, culminating in the phenomenal Ice Bowl game for the National Football League championship, played in subzero cold and won by the Packers on a quarterback sneak in the final seconds. Kramer devotes much of his book to the team's love-hate relationship with their coach, Vince Lombardi. (See also my recommendation for "When Pride Still Mattered" by David Maraniss below.) Lombardi was very much what Jim Collins describes now as a Level 5 leader. He stands today as a case study in powerful leadership.
Chris Matthews: Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero
Chris Matthews isn't one of my favorite talking heads on TV—he is too strident and too disrespectful of his guests, for my taste—but he turns out to be a terrific biographer. His newly published life of John F. Kennedy is a riveting, insightful, fascinating read that doesn't flinch from JFK's emotional isolation, casual extramarital affairs, and diplomatic naivete. Neither does it shrink from portraying Kennedy as a profile in courage. The book's surprising twists: JFK's quiet admiration for Richard Nixon; his bold rejection of the Pentagon's advice to bomb Cuba during the missile crisis; his frequent disagreement with, and resentment of, his father's meddling; his warm relationship with red-baiting Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, and his muscular twisting of arms on Capitol Hill. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a passion for politics. (****)
David McCullough: John Adams
History buffs will tear through this extraordinary 700-page book in a week—or two weeks at the most. A gifted writer with a remarkable talent for both narrative tension and historical detail, McCullough has crafted a masterpiece, a compulsively readable chronicle of a little-understood founding father. John Adams embodied important aspects of leadership, but, like all leaders, he was flawed and imperfect as well. I recommend you read the book before you watch the HBO series, but the TV production is also mesmerizing, with splendid performances by Paul Giamatti as passionate if self-absorbed John Adams, Laura Linney as the strong-willed Abigail Adams, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, and Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin.
Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus: Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge
I have some qualms with the facile notion that managers do things right while leaders do the right thing. Nevertheless, Bennis and Nanus offer up a feast of provocative thinking. The structure they offer for leadership is partly responsible for our own at Arceil Leadership.
James M. Burns: Leadership
This is another classic of the genre. To understand leadership, you simply must read this book, which earned its author both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Max Depree: Leadership Jazz
It's hard to go wrong with anything that Max DePree has written. My well-worn copy had print the size of a roadside billboard, which made it easy to read even on a bumpy airplane flight. "Leadership Is an Art" is another terrific read by DePree.
John P. Kotter: Leading Change
Harvard professor John Kotter is that rare academic who understands how communication works—and so often fails to work—in the real world of business. This is an important read.
Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Every woman in business should just read this book. Every man who knows or loves a woman in business should read this book. Every boss should read this book. Every young woman (and every young man) should read this book. It fully deserves all the accolades it is getting. Frankly, I was expecting a shallow, even superficial, ghost-written book that basically said: "I'm so pretty. I'm so smart. You can be like me. Well, you can't actually, but you can always dream." After all, it's written by the Gen X chief operating officer at Facebook (thus it should be shallow) and an alumna of Harvard (thus it should be arrogant). It is nothing like that at all. It is a serious, well-written (yes, she did have some help), and well-researched (more help) book, and it is a very compelling analysis of the challenges and real opportunities that women face on the job. Part of it is a Bill Cosby call to women themselves to be more assertive and take more responsibility for their careers, but part of it is a lambasting of the insensitive clods who run so many businesses, such as the Wall Street investment banker who had never attended a presentation by a woman, or the consulting client who wanted to set up the author with his son. Altogether, LEAN IN is a very impressive book that belongs where it is on top of The New York Times best-seller list, and it is a perfect graduation gift to anyone, male or female, entering the work force.
Red Auerbach: Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game
Red Auerbach, legendary coach of the Boston Celtics during their glory years, appreciates the zenlike importance of a team as more than the sum of the individual players. Given a choice between starting a team of the five best players or a team with five players who played their best basketball together, he would take the latter.
David Herbert Donald: Lincoln
This is an excellent treatment of the life of Abraham Lincoln, and I highly recommend it for history buffs. (It isn't my favorite, however. See my note to "A. Lincoln" by Ronald C. White for that honor.) Professor Donald brings you into the Illinois frontier of the 1830s and 1840s, into the small-town squares for the legendary debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, into the White House as the Civil War rages all around, and even into the presidential box at Ford's Theater. (****)
Donald T. Phillips: Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times
This is a marvelous little book. You may have to look pretty hard for it as it may be out of print, but your search will be well-rewarded.
Aida D. Donald: Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt
I favor modestly sized biographies for their focus and accessibility, and this is one of the best. The author, the widow of the late Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald, captures the big life of America's first modern president. Born to wealth but determined to earn his station, TR is rancher, author, soldier, father, politician, hunter, and explorer. In everything he does, he casts a long shadow of leadership. (***)
Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
I've just finished this magisterial autobiography. Now I wish I would have read it when it was published in the 1990s--and certainly before I visited South Africa to speak twelve years ago. The Boston Globe suggested that this book should be read by every person alive, and I certainly agree. In my own lifetime of reading, I cannot recall a more important book or a more humane, compassionate book that tells us more about servant leadership, the human spirit, and the power of empathy and redemption. I do have a couple of qualms. I wish Mandela would have addressed (if only briefly) the Sullivan Principles, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and his own regard for Thabo Mbeki, who eventually succeeded him as president. Also, because this book was published in the mid-1990s, it couldn't discuss his tenure as president, or the vital role played by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or Robert Mugabe's tyranny and the popular support for Morgan Tsvangirai in neighboring Zimbabwe, which became clear a few years later. But these are only qualms. All in all, "Long Walk to Freedom" is indeed a book that everyone (and especially anyone who aspires to lead) should read. (*****)
Tim Sanders: Love Is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends
Tim Sanders, a former Yahoo! executive, offers a lively and compelling antidote to business as cutthroat, take-no-prisoners competition. He calls for more compassion, more cooperation, and more collaboration in the workplace, and he presents a compelling business and moral case for it.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
This breezy read is jam-packed with astute observations and clever suggestions for better communication.
Viktor E. Frankl: Man's Search for Meaning
What can you say about a book that has sold 12 million copies? Anyone who is serious about leading a life of soulful meaning must read this book. 'Nuff said.
Albert Mehrabian: Nonverbal Communication
Both the nature and the impact of nonverbal communication are frequently misunderstood. This book has the original science. Before you parrot the counterfeit currency that 55 percent of all interpersonal communication is a function of body language and facial expression, another 38 percent a function of tone of voice, and only 7 percent from words, read this book.
John W. Gardner: On Leadership
I first read this book in graduate school more than 25 years ago, and I continue returning to it for timeless wisdom on leadership.
Edgar H. Schein: Organizational Culture and Leadership
Edgar Schein's name is synonymous with the work he explores in this seminal book. This book is mandatory reading.
Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Susan Cain's exploration of introverts and introversion is particularly relevant to leaders of large, complex organizations, for many if not most of them are introverts themselves in a culture that places outsize value on extroversion, and all leaders are seeking to lead large numbers of introverts toward a common destination. The book is marvelous, and its appendices of lists and suggestions are especially valuable.
Aristotle articulated three basic modes of rhetoric: logos, or logic and reason; pathos, or emotion and feeling; and ethos, or character and deed.
Robert K. Greenleaf: Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness
This is a marvelous, even historic breakthrough in thinking on leadership. Drawing from literature, history, and religion, Greenleaf marshals a powerful argument for leaders to regard themselves as servants of the people they would lead. Published in 1977 and somewhat dated by now, Servant Leadership is nevertheless as vital in the 21st Century (arguably even more so) as it was a generation ago. Our Master Class workshops lean heavily on Greenleaf's work. (*****)
Stephen R. Covey: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic
One of the all-time best-selling books, 7 Habits is a breezy, inspiring, and instructive read. If ypou have never read it, you should read it now. If you read it years ago, you should read it again. Oh, and if you're a fustrated wanna-be author, you should take note that more than 50 publishers rejected Covey's book proposal.
Walter Isaacson: Steve Jobs
Walter Isaacson's fabulous new biography of the late Steve Jobs is a terrific read, and I can recommend it enthusiastically to anyone with even a passing interest in business, leadership, or technology—or even, I am tempted to add, narcissistic personality disorders. Isaacson duly credits the Apple founder with a long list of triumphs, but his biography of Jobs is anything but servile or sycophantic. Rather it is bracingly candid, finely balanced, richly insightful, and powerfully revealing. As insistently iconoclastic and innovative as Jobs was, he was also a temperamental tyrant, whose frequent tirades reduced colleagues and competitors alike to self-doubt, paralysis, and years or even decades of hostility that didn't have to be. In reading Steve Jobs, you just want to grab the man by his black Issey Miyake turtleneck and shake some empathy into him. Humility was for other people. He was all about arrogance and intimidation. Yet far from decisive, Jobs would take forever to make simple decisions that take other people hours or even minutes. He was profane, and he was binary. Everything was either this or that, with no possibility for shades of gray. Designs for new products were always "shit" until their final, slight modification. Then they were perfect. Steve Jobs is jam-packed with insights on Steve Jobs. I can't wait for the inevitable movie, and you shouldn't. My binary advice: Buy the book now, and read it now. (*****)
Deborah Tannen: Talking from 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work
Chapter 3, on indirect communication, is especially helpful for the clarity it brings to a common workplace dynamic.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Perhaps the United States is too riven by partisan politics to allow a 21st Century president to assemble and consult a team of rivals as Lincoln did. But the essential lesson of vibrant collaboration and broad constituencies is as valuable today as ever, and it is as applicable in business as in government and politics.
John C. Maxwell: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership Workbook: Revised & Updated
The author is an unabashedly Christian advocate of servant leadership, the doctrime that leaders serve their followers, not vice versa. More business leaders should embrace this core concept.
Charles Handy: The Age of Paradox
One of the great management thinkers of the 20th century, Charles Handy offers a tour guide through the complexities of paradox. I took delight in the entire book, but I have especially used the inside-out doughnut (explained in Chapter 4) to think through and collaborate on some fundamental paradoxes in leadership and management.
Deborah Tannen: The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue
This is a terrific start. I would take it another step further, from dialogue to collaboration.
Terry J. Fadem: The Art of Asking: Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers
Fadem offers dozens of insights and strategems for asking more penetrating questions. I have long believed that leaders can lead more effectively through good questions, and Fadem provides the technical ballast to do just that.
Ronald E. Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lippman-Blumen, eds.: The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations
Followership is an underappreciated and understudied counterpoint to leadership. It needs more attention, and it gets it here. This volume consists of 23 carefully selected essays on followers and followership.
Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton: The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action
With this book Kaplan and Norton introduced the twin arguments that P&L is scarcely the only financial metric of importance, and that financial metrics are scarcely the only metrics of importance, for business. They open the book with a compelling metaphor you cannot forget: An airplane pilot flying with only a single instrument gauge—for altitude, perhaps—without instruments for direction or speed or air pressure. Similarly, by focusing only on profit, companies undervalue the importance of other metrics such as customer satisfaction, inventory, quality, and the costs of packaging, shipping, training, and so much more.
David Remnick: The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
It's easy to see that President Barack Obama's meteoric rise from obscurity to the U.S. presidency required a great deal of luck and extraordinary timing. But it also required certain gifts for leadership that are all too rare: an appreciation for the moment, an instinct for the possible, a talent for finding the right word. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, digs deep into Obama's history to find the wellspring of those gifts. ("The Bridge" derives its name from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and from the metaphorical bridge from the first generation of civil-rights leaders to the 21st century reality of an African-American president.) (****)
Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger: The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition
No other book about the Internet is more important or more prescient than The Cluetrain Manifesto. If you read it when it was first published in 2000, or if you missed it then, pick up the 10th Anniversary Edition and see what you have forgotten, or missed the first time around.
Roger D'Aprix: The Credible Company: Communicating with a Skeptical Workforce
Roger D'Aprix is perhaps the best friend business leaders have. In this slim volume, he explains why and how companies need to talk straight with employees.
Peter F. Drucker: The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done
I keep this book on my nightstand. (No cracks about my personal life, please.) Drucker is perhaps the most incisive thinker in the history of the modern corporation. This book is a compilation of a year's worth of sublime insights. For each, you will spend a great deal of productive time in reflection.
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: The Elements of Style, Third Edition
Yes, the co-author (E.B. White) also wrote "Charlotte's Web." This book belongs at the fingertips of anyone who writes anything, even a Twitter tweep. Period. End of discussion. Maybe, just maybe, we'll see the end of "I" in prepositional phrases. (I have used my copy since college. It cost me $7.95 then. Expect to pay more now.)
Moisés Naím: The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be
This is a fascinating examination of the erosion of centralized authority in a variety of fields: government, the military, business, religion, philanthropy, even chess. Moisés Naím draws intriguing examples from the Gates Foundation, al Qaeda, hedge funds, the rise of charismatic and Pentecostal religions, Silicon Valley startups, and even the recent explosion of teenage grandmasters in chess to document his subtitle. I do have some qualms that Naím's thesis doesn't fit certain industries (such as banking or energy, both of which are more concentrated than ever), and I wasn't quite satisfied with Naím's limited policy prescriptions. Still, I found this to be a worthwhile and very interesting book.
James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner: The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations
This is a well-structured book that lays out a multi-stage process for leadership that millions of readers have found useful. Moreover, it emphasizes the emotional component of leadership. I heartily recommend it.
Ken Follett: The Pillars of the Earth
One of the few novels I can recommend for its insights on leadership, "The Pillars of the Earth" is a rip-roaring historical thriller set in medieval England. Be forewarned: This book is long, 973 pages to be precise. But it stakes a claim on your mind and doesn't let go. Ken Follett knows how to transport a reader to a different time and place, and he does it magnificently here. Trust me, once you begin Pillars, you won't put it down.
Stephen Denning: The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative
I found this book compulsively readable and very enlightening. For any senior manager who doubts the importance of clear, compelling, credible communication, begin here.
Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Anything with Malcolm Gladwell's byline has a Midas Touch. This, his first book, is the apotheosis of non-fiction writing, and it is important to anyone in business.
Joshua Ferris: Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Anyone who has ever populated an office of cubicles and worked under the threat of imminent layoff will resonate to this novel. I'd love to see it as a movie. (Note: The paperback has different cover art.)
Ron Chernow: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
This is one of those big, marvelous biographies that you don't want to end. What an incredible life John D. Rockefeller led, and not only because of his wealth. Suffice to say that much of what you think you know about Rockefeller is wrong, and there is so much that you don't know. I was struck by the awful role model of his father, a bigamist and patent-medicine quack; by the early history of the Standard Oil Co. (disclosure: I worked for Amoco for a number of years); by JDR's role in revolutionizing the teaching and practice of medicine; by his saintly personal life; by the role of religion in his life; by the backstory on the founding of the University of Chicago (disclosure: both my daughter and I are alumni); and by his personal largesse (he gave away 99 percent of the money he made). All in all, TITAN is a splendid read. Highly recommended for any history buff, and especially to anyone with an interest in leadership. (*****)
Gordon Livingston: Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now
This little book is jam-packed with wisdom. Every chief executive--indeed, every manager--should read it and then reread it once a year.
Seth Godin: Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us
Seth Godin demolishes the myth that leadership is only for the C-suite. It's for anyone who is tired of being a drone and who has a compelling idea for the future. This little book reads like a blog, probably because Godin is one of the most successful bloggers out there. Besides, he has a great haircut.
David Herbert Donald: We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends
This book isn't for everybody, but if you're interested in the phenomenon of "lonely at the top" (or you're just a serious history buff), you may enjoy the late David Herbert Donald's portraits of Abraham Lincoln's friendships, both as a small-town lawyer in frontier Illinois and as the 16th president of the United States, in "We Are Lincoln Men." It focuses particularly on Lincoln's roommate Joshua Speed, his law partner Billy Herndon, the Kentucky gentleman and U.S. Senator (from Illinois) Orville Browning, and the unlikeliest of all, Secretary of State William Seward, a rival (and the odds-on favorite) for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1860. Looming large in the background is Lincoln's tumultuous wife, Mary, who casts judgment on all her husband's friends. I especially liked the observation of Milton S. Eisenhower (brother of President Dwight Eisenhower) in the Afterword to the effect that leaders need confidants to help them "think out loud." That is so very true. (***)
David Maraniss: When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi
I am a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, having grown up just 23 miles from Lambeau Field. In my youth Vince Lombardi was an icon. This book explains his compelling approach to leadership. You need not enjoy American football to appreciate it, but if you do, you will love it.
Frank Luntz: Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear
Dr. Luntz's focus is on rhetoric in American political debate, but many of his principles and even some of his examples are applicable to business here and abroad. He is an engaging writer, too.
Noah J. Goldstein: Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive
This book is as readable as one of Malcolm Gladwell's hotcakes, and I hope it sells as fast as they do. You can read it in a couple of nights, it is so well-written, and yet it is a summary of academic research. A real gem.