Leadership Books Not Found on MBA Reading Lists
Updated: Feb 21
I have read more books on leadership than is likely healthy for any one person. Moreover, my assessment of the popular leadership self-help genre is that, frankly, most of the books are pablum, and those that aren't are often overwritten for the one or two good ideas they contain.
In turn, I'm not going to spend much time here talking about the leadership books traditionally assigned in MBA programs, not even the best and most insightful. And the list of good leadership books is substantive and includes many worthwhile tomes, such as Covey's 7 Habits, Kotter's 8-Step Process for Leading Change, Abrashoff's It's Your Ship, Sandberg's Lean In, along with the works of Drucker, Maxwell, Collins, Bossidy, and others. Instead, let's talk about books that provide strong foundations for the character and intellect required by new and aspiring leaders. Admittedly, at first blush, the eight books listed below have often been hard sells for emerging leaders with whom I've worked over the years. That said, for each of these books there has been at least one up-and-coming leader who ultimately voiced great appreciation for the recommendation. With that, I hope one, two, or more of these recommended books can help you on your leadership journey. Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu - What does a 6th century Chinese Zen philosopher have to do with the modern world? A lot, if you're willing to invest in some non-Western thinking and get past, or into, statements like: "The name that can be named is not the eternal Name."
For those willing to delve into the idea of a servant-leader, someone committed to goals that transcend the self, I encourage you to start with the 1988 New English Version by Stephen Mitchell. And if you're not a reader, I recommend Mitchell's audiobook version. It's an easy listen whether you're at the gym, working around the house, or in rush-hour traffic. The bottom line of the Tao Te Ching is this: Leaders need to forgo ego and through actions, not empty words:
Chapter 17 When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. The Master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, "Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!"
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - Here's another short book that is not an easy read. That said, Marcus was the last of the "five good emperors" who ruled during the heyday of the Roman Empire. As a stoic, he consistently espouses the virtues of balance, control, and forgiveness.
Admittedly, Meditations can be redundant and a overly didactic. If that's not your cup of tea, you may want to simply read Book II and Book XII - the second and last chapters - for a study in what's important. Essentially, life is too short to get caught up in opinions, whether yours or others. Focus on doing good works no matter what others think, maintain focus, and understand courage as Hemingway described it: "grace under fire." Book XII, 22 Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in your power. Take away then, when you choose, your opinion, and like a mariner who has rounded the headland, you will find calm, everything stable, and waveless bay. Thirteen Days by Robert F. Kennedy - The behind-the-scenes story of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis remains one of the best books about negotiating with an adversary and how to best play your hand. Its lessons range from the virtues of debate among diverse parties to the need to give your opponent a face-saving out. It also demonstrates the need to be respected among friends and foes alike, and how vital it is to have allies and friends when the going gets tough. Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson - This book by the former head coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers is one of the best examples of how to lead a high-performing team of star players. Even Michael Jordan could only do so much on his own. "Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender 'me' for the 'we.'" The Social Animal by David Brooks - This book by the New York Times columnist is a parable about how people achieve success in today's world. Brooks uses a fictional couple to delve into fundamental truths regarding human nature. This is a great book to begin to see how advances in the social sciences and neuroscience help explain behaviors that underpin leadership characteristics and contribute to good and bad outcomes. The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell - In Campbell's schema, there has only been one story ever - the "monomyth." It's about the hero and the hero's journey. In this seminal work, Campbell describes how heroes have been portrayed in myth, folklore, and literature throughout the ages. As well as providing a road map for self-discovery and overcoming diversity across the ages, this is an ideal treatise in how stories affect people and can change the world. The Mutiny on Board HMS Bounty by William Bligh - This book was written by the flesh-and-blood historic villain of the HMS Bounty saga. As a leader, Bligh likely falls somewhere between a heartless, cruel disciplinarian and a stern but fair captain. By his own account, one can see a bit of truth in both portrayals, as well as the role his leadership style played in one of history's most famous mutinies.
The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley - This historic account of the demonic possession of a convent in 17th century France is a frightening study of how culture, lies, and one man's influence can combine to destroy an entire community. It is the story of a charismatic priest who was accused of exploiting the nuns in his charge and, in turn, was convicted and burned at the stake for being in league with Satan. While an extreme, this is a tale of forewarning for anyone ever subjected to a really bad boss.