The 10 books I recommend most often to leaders

If you could adopt just one habit to ensure leadership success, what should it be?



That’s according to many leaders, perhaps most notably Warren Buffett, whose singular personal goal as a leader is to go to bed each day just a little bit smarter than he was when he woke up.  He advocates a rather ambitious 500 pages of reading per day, but as someone who reads voraciously but significantly less, I can assure you that you will still benefit from a lower page count.

I love to read, and I know that books can help me be smarter in hundreds of different ways, depending on what I choose.  But since I’m always looking for resources to help people thrive, my selections are frequently tied to my work, and I often find myself recommending books to clients.  This post describes those I recommend most often.

This isn’t your typical leadership reading list, and yet I see many of these as essential reading because they contain critical insight to enhance leadership.  That’s because to lead effectively and manage the many priorities and tasks of leadership, you must really know yourself.  And you must be able to turn to a toolbox of habits and systems that enable you to get work done.

In this list, you’ll find wisdom to help you better understand yourself and those around you as well as how to work more effectively with them.  You’ll also find tools to get more done and inspiration for expanding your life beyond work.  All of them will make you better as a professional and a leader. 

Systems that work

 Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen

This book was first published well before the smartphone era, but it’s been updated to account for all the benefits (and harms) of today’s technology.  This book is about how to create a trusted system so you can be an effective and efficient knowledge worker.  I’ll confess that I have not been able to sustain the entire framework myself, but I always find something I can apply or adapt to be more effective in my life. This is book has the distinction of being the only one I have read eight times in my adult life (we’re not counting Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings from my childhood, although I do recommend it!)  To this day, I read it every time my role shifts or my duties change.  Be sure to read the book in its entirety before trying to implement it.

More effective negotiations

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton

This book arose out of a Harvard negotiation project, and I often discuss many of its core tenets with my coaching clients. Among the most valuable messages is the notion that separating people from the problem, focusing on interests and not positions, and creating options for mutual gain are more effective than adversarial strategies for negotiation. Quite simply, you’re more likely to get others to “yes” if you take this insight to heart.  If you have a negotiation on the horizon, get this book and spend a few hours with it as you prepare.

Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation – And Positive Strategies for Change, by Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever

And the follow-up, “Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want,” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

In the same vein, these books are helpful for negotiation especially for women, although they are good reads for men as well.  Read them to understand the consequences of not asking for what you want (not unique to but certainly more common among women), and then to learn tools for getting to a place where you can both ask and get the answer you want.  Men may find these books especially enlightening for negotiating alongside or with women.

Effective relationships and communication

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler  (This is a link to the audiobook on Audible.  No link to the paperback was available at press time. )

This book provides a framework for any difficult conversation. Crucial conversations may involve opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes, but many of us have frequent conversations of this sort.  The model espoused in this book is “start from the heart,” which is a wonderful foil to the idea that you must brace yourself for a fight.  If you instead start with an attempt to learn as much as possible, make the conversation safe and explore what matters to others, you will have more success – and more positive, effective relationships as a result.  This is a nice parallel read with Getting to Yes.

It’s All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren’t Enough, by Kathleen Kelley Reardon.

Clients sometimes come to me frustrated with something about their work situation.  They’ll say: “ugh, I hate the politics.”  But the truth is, the title of this book has it right, and people who understand that are better positioned to navigate their workplaces.  The idea that everything is political in some fashion forces us to get over our aversion to politics.  This book discusses intuition, political insight, political power and persuasion as tools for navigating complexity, and the chapter on positive politics unravels the notion that politics is a dirty word.  It’s very helpful for managing really difficult situations.

Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ, by Daniel Goleman

Emotional intelligence was not a new concept in academic circles when this book was first published, but in the lay press, Goleman really wrote the book on this topic.  Building on the work of others, Goleman offered for the first time a framework for these critical “soft skills” and grounded them in science.  Although emotional intelligence is sometimes seen as an innate attribute you are born with (or aren’t), it is in fact learnable and teachable, and Goleman’s book provides a great starting place.

Knowing thyself and finding fulfillment

Composing a Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson

This book is about how we create our lives.  Is there a linear pathway or can you take the flight of a bee, sampling from myriad blossoms as you find your way?  Bateson’s profiles of five women suggests a gender basis for these different pathways, but in my experience, men and women can take either path, and professionals of both genders struggle with work-life alignment and pressure to stay glued to the career ladder on which they started.  This book offers people permission to think about how they organize their life and their work, and the freedom to step outside societally constructed boxes to find fulfillment and redefine success.

A Woman’s Book of Life: The Biology, Psychology and Spirituality of the Feminine Life Cycle, by Joan Borysenko.  

This book is one of my favorites, but I’ll concede that it’s not for everyone.  Dr. Borysenko helped develop the idea of mind-body medicine in her work at Harvard Medical School, and her book divides women’s lives into seven-year stages.  In each, there are developmental tasks we tend to complete.  In fact, reading this book planted the seeds of my own thinking about career development and my Life Course approach to career management.   The Jungian psychological approach of this book doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if it speaks to you, you may be able to more clearly see where you are and where you are headed, while feeling better about what you have been.  This is one of the best books I have read for knowing oneself as a woman, but for men who are interested, it can provide a compelling window into the lives of women.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

I have written about this book before, because I love it for its impact.  We all need rest, but the real magic of this book is that it’s not just about sleep (although sleep is wonderful!)  It’s about finding what restores and rejuvenates you.  Intentional rest can actually improve creativity and productivity, augmenting your professional life while enabling you to unplug from it.  Once they frame time away from work in that way, even driven, high performers can find a way to rest.

What’s on your list?

These books have been so educational and enlightening for me and my clients, but there are many others out there that would also be a great fit.  What books do you consider must-reads?

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Last updated Sept. 17, 2019

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