Here’s one thing we know is true: Leaders are readers.
Our research takes us inside the c-suite offices of executives across the country. Those offices almost always contain a full bookshelf. We find that top leaders are often eager learners, devouring the latest books to find new insights that will change the way they work and think.
We recently asked the executive students in our PhD program in values-driven leadership to share their thoughts about five books that are all short reads with more insights per page than you would think possible. More importantly, these executives tell us, these business books will help you be a better leader and a better person.
Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance
Author: Kim Cameron
Cameron’s classic book starts with a startling insight: most of our organizational processes are designed to maintain the status quo. For entrepreneurs and visionary leaders, the status quo isn’t good enough. Leaders who want more positive deviance – more team members who are striving for excellence instead of incremental growth – will find inspiration in Cameron’s book.
“It’s a game changer in terms of how leaders approach team and organizational challenges,” says Tasha Patterson, a marketing manager with T-Mobile.
Who should read this book: People who are interested in how attitude and emotion impact work performance and physical/psychological health; executives who want to create positive organizational cultures.
Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy
Author: Amy C. Edmondson
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson tackles the topics of teams, focusing especially on teams that must form quickly and deliver results even faster. What does it take to have a high-performance team? Three quick tips: (1) Focus on learning, rather than results; (2) Make sure your team is a place of psychological safety; and (3) Make sure team members know why their work matters.
Ted McKinney, the COO of Hawthorne Animal Clinics, has found Edmondson’s work around psychological safety to be transformative for his leadership. When employees don’t feel safe, they engage in self-protective behaviors that keep people from learning and improving, he says.
Edmondson also writes about framing a project by clarifying the real purpose of the initiative, and the roles each team member is playing. Ford Chief Engineer Brett Hinds tried framing at a kickoff meeting for a new project. “Before the meeting started, I announced that I wanted to frame the conversation – why the project was important, why each person was in the room, and how we could make a difference,” he says. “It let people see why they belonged and how they could contribute. These are questions everybody has when they first arrive.”
Who should read this book: Anyone who leads a team.
Leading Continuous Change: Navigating Churn in the Real World
Author: Bill Pasmore
It’s commonly accepted that 70% of change initiatives fail. Why? Pasmore says one primary reason is we tend to think of change as an event rather than a process. We design change process that move us from Point A to Point B in an orderly serious of steps when our reality is much more disorderly. Fail to account for that complexity in your change process, and your change process will almost certainly fail.
“As an entrepreneur working in a start-up organization, change is part of our culture in that we have learned to fail fast and pivot to survive,” says Dawn Gay, executive director of the Patient Innovation Center. For Gay, who works in the fast-changing field of health care, Pasmore’s book illuminated how to make change an opportunity to engage employees in sensemaking that matters.
Pasmore also speaks to the importance of communication during times of change are especially relevant: leaders must communicate a sense of urgency around change, while also making clear what is staying the same.
Who should read this book: Change leaders. Who is a change leader? Anyone with responsibility for making something happen in an organization.
The Positive Organization: Breaking Free from Conventional Cultures, Constraints, and Beliefs
Author: Robert E. Quinn
In the opening chapters of his book, Quinn identifies two separate business languages. The first, our conventional business language, is about hierarchy, authority, and extrinsic rewards. The second language is about relationships, influence, and intrinsic rewards. Today’s leaders must become bilingual in both languages.
Co-creation, the act of inviting team members to help build an initiative, is one skillset of those who have mastered the second language. Dawn Jeffries is a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch and the founder of the non-profit Girls Light Our Way (GLOW). “I co-create with my clients on their portfolio and I can co-create with the GLOW Girls for the futures and betterment of our community,” she says.
When team members are invited to co-create, it often results in a willingness to give more of their time and energy. Quinn calls this “discretionary energy.”
“This concept has changed how I manage,” says project analyst Lucie Tran, with SurveyGizmo. “Quinn says that employees will give their ‘discretionary energy’ when they are doing work they feel matters. In my work life now, I ask, ‘How I can explain this task or project to show that it matters?’”
Boeing senior ethics advisor Colleen Lyons calls the book a “deceptively easy read,” saying she’ll return to it again and again for its lessons in engaging followers in innovative and collaborative learning.
Who should read this book: Anyone who is climbing the ladders of leadership or working in teams; executives who are trying to balance a caring environment with high-performance results.
A Leader’s Legacy
Authors: James Kouzes and Barry Posner
The word “legacy” can be a loaded term, implying a leader’s parting words before riding off into the sunset. But Kouzes and Posner aren’t writing for the about-to-retire crowd. Instead, their book is focused on thoughtful changes current leaders can make today, to ensure that they have the long-term impact they most want.
“The real gift of the book is in Part Two, Relationships,” says David Barnett, owner of Grand Arbor Advisors. “In conventional business thought, relationship is seen as too fuzzy-edged, too touchy-feely to be useful for management practice. But Kouzes and Posner assert that leadership doesn’t exist outside of relationship, and they make a compelling case for how a leader should use the aspects of a quality relationship to build leadership that will last.”
Who should read this book: Leaders who understand the value of personal character, and want to make a positive, lasting impact in the lives of others.
More Resources for Readers & Leaders
These five books are some of the resources we return to again and again. Our copies are dog-eared and heavily highlighted. Some of our other favorites can be found here:
- Books for leading change: 10 books for leading organizational change
- Books for women in leadership: Recommended by executives who also happen to be women
- Books on sustainability: 10 books on corporate social responsibility and sustainability
- Business & leadership books: A wide-ranging list of books that have challenged the thinking of other leaders
The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of Gradifi. We make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained here. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax or financial advisors to understand the tax, financial and legal consequences of any strategies mentioned in this article.