So You Want To Be A Good Leader? These Books Should Help

April 4, 2010

My friend Wally Bock devoted several posts last week to finding a good business book to read and books to read for your personal leadership development. I took strong exception to some of his recommendations, so Wally invited me to develop my own list.

It was not as easy as it sounded.

Let me start by saying that I don’t read a lot of popular press business books because there are very few books that really say anything new. Most books just repackage old knowledge. As Bob Sutton quotes James March “most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimony to hubris. So there are relatively few newer books on my list.

I think it is also important to understand that some books are philosophical and anecdotal, while others are (or claim to be) supported by research and real evidence. Leadership is inherently philosophical, so I have no problem with these types of books as long as you understand what you are getting. My favorite leadership books are philosophical and not empirical. But it is also important to understand what the research does and does not support, and more importantly, how to know the difference when you pick up a book that claims to be supported by “a mountain of evidence.” If the author is primarily a consultant or does not cite peer-reviewed research available for public examination, it is not sound empiricism and probably snake-oil.

My advice is to make sure you have sound philosophy first. I can teach a monkey leadership skills, but before I teach you leadership skills, I want to know that your heart and mind are in the right place.  Exceptional skills in the wrong hands produce the dark side of leadership.

So here is my short list of the leadership books I recommend the most, sorted by category.  I won’t include hyperlinks to each book because all appear on my list of recommended readings.

Philosophical books. I have a strong belief that systems thinkers make the best leaders, which is why there is no book I have recommended more than The Fifth Discipline. Most leaders are numerically illiterate and don’t really appreciate the laws of variation, its causes and consequences, so a basic understanding of how this statistical principle applies to management is critical. I think the logic of The Service Profit Chain is Management 101, and because I subscribe to this logic I think servant leadership is the best way to drive company growth through excellence. Resourceful leaders are made, not born, and that process begins with courageous followership. All of the philosophy I just described is captured in the writings of W.E. Deming. Those that have read Deming and understand what he was saying see the world of leadership through entirely different eyes. Here are some books to consider:

  • The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization
  • Leadership is an Art
  • The Leadership Challenge
  • Courageous Followership: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders
  • Deep Change
  • The Essential Drucker
  • Competing for the Future
  • Out of the Crisis
  • The Deming Management Method
  • The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education
  • Fourth Generation Management
  • The Service Profit Chain
  • Joker One

Evidence-based books. Contrary to popular belief, there are very few solid evidence based books for leadership and management on the market. Do not read another book that claims to be supported by empirical research until you read The Halo Effect. It is one of the most important business books you can read and you will be shocked to learn that some of your favorite books based on “solid evidence” make claims their research does not support. Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer are the leading authorities on evidence-based management, so anything they write is worth your time. They are also solid systems and Deming management method thinkers. Take a look at 1) The Knowing-Doing Gap, 2) Hard Facts, Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, 3) What Were They Thinking? and 4) The No Asshole Rule. It’s also well worth your time to read Robert Cialdini’s classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

My own thinking on leadership has been heavily influenced by The Bible. There is no better source for understanding the nature and need of the human condition more than the One that spoke it all into existence. Purpose, systems, economics, psychology, strategy, operations, and tactics – it’s all there.

Related Posts:

Engagement Soup

Measurement Happens

Understanding Managerial Development. New Evidence?

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  1. Rich C. says:

    Does your outlook on leadership trace back in any way to any of the popular ancient or early modern philosophers i.e., Plato/Aristotle, Kant/Hegel?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Mine does not, Rich. I am not that well read. Thanks! Bret

  2. davidburkus says:

    Great list. Truthfully, I like it a little better than Wally’s. Maybe the inclusion of Seligman did it for me.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I love that Seligman book, David. His description of the research leading to their theory is fascinating. Thanks! Bret

  3. Great list, Bret. I’ve read 9 of the 19 books you mention in the post.

    The entry that stand out to me the most is DePree’s Leadership is an Art. It’s significantly thinner, 176 pages, than the average thickness (320 pages) of all the books. That difference is fitting because the book’s style is significantly simpler while producing at least as powerful an experience for the reader as any of the other books.

    If I could add only one book to your list it would be Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg’s On Becoming a Technical Leader Don’t let the word “technical” in the title dissuade you from reading this book. It’s a remarkable book about leadership.

    Thank you for sharing your list with me. I purchased three books this morning based on your recommendations. Best regards, Steve

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I’m not surprised that you have read a number of these, Steve. I love the DePree book – it is an easy but powerful read. I’ll add the Weinberg book to my reading list – thanks for the tip! Bret

  4. Bret:

    Thanks for the list. I will have to go back and read Demming with a new view. My list of “classic leadership books” can be found here:


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Michael. Your list is impressive! I’ve read most of the books on that list and would recommend many myself. Glad to see you know of Quinn- many are not familiar with him. And the Burns book is of course exceptional, but it is not an easy read – a little more advanced. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  5. Ajo Cherian says:

    Bret, I agree with you that the Bible contains everything you listed and more. More than any other business book, it’s had a positive impact on my thinking and behavior from where I was before in my professional, academic, and personal life – just like it said it would have. It’s been a true metanoia experience in my life. Thanks for the other book recommendations!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Metanoia is a good way to describe it, Ajo. Thanks! Bret

  6. Thanks for the great list, Bret. I’m always on the lookout for new reading. Since you and I would put together a list that is quite similar (a lot of the books on your list would be on mine, if I had one!), I’ll look into the ones I haven’t read.

    P.S. I read Bob Quinn’s “Building the Bridge as You Walk On It” before I read “Deep Change”, and found it to be most wonderful (in case you haven’t read it). May I also suggest that you might enjoy The Arbinger Institute’s “Leadership and Self Deception”?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I love Quinn, MJ. The book you mention is one I want to read. I think more people should discover his work. Leadership and Self Deception was recommended to me a few years back by an MBA student. I read it and love the message, but the book is not the style of writing I like to read. Thanks! Bret

  7. Bret have you ever come across Goffee and Jones, Why Should Anyone be Led by You? A supersonic book by me.

    Best wishes

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Julian! I have not heard of the book, but I have heard of Jones. I added the book to my wish list. Thanks! Bret