People often ask me about the books I read. Specifically, they want to know what leadership books I’d recommend – there are so many! Usually I try and curate a list on the spot based on what I know about the person who is asking, but I almost always miss something.
There are already lots of “Leaders’ Reading Lists” out there, so I wanted to make sure this was something that would truly be useful to YOU – and more than just a Top 5 list.
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Leadership Books – What’s Different about this list?
I’ve read all the leadership books on this list, and I own them all. Many I’ve read more than once. They all changed me in some way (hopefully for the better). They’re the sort of books that change the way you see the world forever afterwards.
But this list is different more for what it isn’t than what it is.
Leadership Books that aren’t about Leadership
So the first thing you might notice is that most of the books on this list aren’t strictly about leadership. They’re about character, mindset, and habit. Collectively, they’re about being a person of integrity and action. Someone who is able to achieve things through influence, rather than power.
Leadership Books that aren’t about Work
Most leadership happens outside the workplace. Most leadership happens by people who aren’t in formal leadership roles. Most of the problems that need to be resolved in the world aren’t problems that exist within organisations. Leadership happens in the wild. These books reflect that.
Leadership is about Impact and Influence
I’ve selected these books from among the hundreds of thousands that are out there because I believe they will change you – that you won’t be the same after you have read them – and that your influence will increase as a result.
Leadership Books – How this List is Constructed
I believe that leadership is made up of three discrete but overlapping/inter-related things:
- self-awareness and insight
- awareness of others and how to influence
- ability to impact the world through others and get things done
Let me elaborate.
Self-Awareness & Insight
When someone lacks self-awareness, they do not notice the way they impact the world around them. They lack the ability to recognise and manage their own emotions and responses. They don’t notice when a glib remark or witty joke hurts or offends someone else. They don’t understand that their own interpretation of the world isn’t the same as everyone else’s. If they impact those around them, it is likely an unconscious impact, rather than a deliberate one. They may achieve results, but likely it comes at the expense of relationships and trust.
Awareness of Others & Influence
Some people are so wrapped up in their own issues that they are oblivious to what’s going on around them. They assume that other people are motivated by the same things they are, or that everyone approaches problems in the same way. They don’t even contemplate that other people might have contradictory goals to their own, and can be completely blindsided by the outcomes of their engagement with other people. Again, people without awareness of others can get results, but they often have to do it alone because they don’t get the best out of those around them.
Impact and Getting Things Done
Understanding yourself and others really well is great, but we’ve all met people who are lovely, and seem to have all the talent and ability in the world, and yet just never really accomplish that much… We don’t tend to see such people as leaders. They appear to go with the flow and coast along, waiting to see what will happen next. Great to work with, but only if you don’t need to rely on them too much!
So the following five books tackle at least one of these three areas in a deep and profound way. I believe that if you read them, you will be forever changed, and that the world will be a better place because of it.
Leadership Books: My 5 Recommendations for Radically Transforming your Leadership Forever
So the first question you should be asking is: “Rebecca, I’m already busy juggling 73 million things – a busy job, a family, a life… – when am I supposed to find the time to read 5 more books?” This book has the answer for that, and quite a few other things as well.
I recommend this book because practising the morning routine it sets out has helped me remarkably. I am calmer, clearer, more focused, and getting a lot more accomplished. It sets out six things (with a handy acronym – SAVERS) to do every day – ideally in the morning. Collectively they tick off most of the habits that any of the “x things successful people do before breakfast” type articles recommend: meditation, visualisation, exercise, journalling, personal development and mindset work.
The point of the book is that you carve out time for yourself by getting up earlier in the morning – and it includes a raft of information about why you won’t miss that extra snoozing time. It also provides a short version for those days when you can’t find an hour due to travel, family or other circumstances.
There’s also a very active Facebook community built up around this brilliant book – which creates opportunities for accountability and sharing how the routine is changing people’s lives – one morning at a time.
This book isn’t for you if you aren’t prepared to make some changes to your life – but then the same can probably be said for every book in this list!
An oldie but a goodie… This makes the list because it goes deep into how to understand your own brain and how it works. Yes there are cynics out there, and to be honest I put off reading anything by Tony Robbins until very recently. It was listening to his podcast that got me interested in what he had to offer.
I got two main takeaways from this book
The first was a framework or structure to understand how my brain makes sense of the world around it. Particularly about how things that aren’t irrefutable facts (like “rich people are snobs”) can become seen as immutable laws in your brain if you’ve seen enough evidence of it, unless you deliberately look for evidence to the contrary.
The second was something I already intuitively understood – language matters. Expanding your vocabulary is powerful. Using more words more often is powerful. He provides the example of being incredibly angry about something, but choosing to use the word ‘peeved’ to describe how he felt – instant de-escalation. Closely related, Robbins puts significant emphasis on the importance of asking great questions – both internally (of yourself) and externally (of others). Instead of “why does this always happen to me?” try “what can I learn from this?”.
I’ve never attended a Tony Robbins event or walked across hot coals – and I’m not sure I ever will. But I did enjoy this book, and I got a lot from it that I try to practise on a daily basis.
#3 Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More than IQ by Daniel Goleman
With a slightly more scientific approach than Robbins, Goleman traverses a lot of the same territory: self-awareness, emotional self-mastery, empathy, and the ability to understand and relate to others.
Goleman’s work has created a substantial movement of leadership and management training, educational programs for schools and has successfully become part of the personal development landscape – with increasingly widespread understanding that EQ matters at least as much, if not more than, IQ when it comes to successful life outcomes.
For me, the breakthrough I had reading this book was the profound negative impact that inability to manage emotions can have on physical and mental wellbeing. I resolved never to let my emotional state get the better of me – at least not for a prolonged period of time.
#4 Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek
The premise is so simple – “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it”. If you haven’t seen Sinek’s TEDx talk, you really should! In many respects, this book is about asking the right question – the one question – that makes all other questions easier to answer. Why?
Why do you do what you do? Why should anyone care? What separates companies that succeed from companies that fail? Why are there some leaders that people desperately want to work for, and others that make you go ‘meh’?
Like all of the most brilliant ideas, Sinek takes something that appears so simple that it should be obvious – yet isn’t, and actually makes it meaningful and actionable.
And at the heart of it all? Communication. The art of communicating in a way that inspires others depends on knowing your ‘why’.
If you don’t know it yet, you need to find it, and this book will help you.
#5 Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with this book. I desperately want him to be wrong… but he’s so right. I remember as I was reading it trying to find ways that his thesis didn’t apply to me or my work!
Newport sets out why, if you want to be truly great at something, you need to create the right environment to focus deeply on important work – for prolonged periods of time. As a busy CE, I don’t want this to be correct, because in my typical workday, I get about five minutes to myself… Between meetings, phone calls, meetings, casual conversations and the occasional crisis, the average professional employee is basically an email processing machine. So when is the actual work supposed to get done?
But just like your mum, he’s right. Even if you wish he wasn’t. And the discipline of ‘making time’ to think and work deeply in concentrated bursts has been a game-changer for me.
What transformational leadership books have you read that should be on this list? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
To get the most out of reading such brilliant books, I also recommend you journal about your reflections and lessons learned along the way. Check out these lovely journals – perfect for the task. They’re my personal favourite.