12 Books that Shaped My Leadership

May 16, 2016

For years I’ve been asked for book recommendations. I always take them seriously because I wouldn’t be the leader I am without my library. It’s been a huge part of my leadership education. As a senior in college, I started reading business bestsellers to see how they compared with my textbooks. When I joined the workforce, I quickly started noticing positive and negative organizational dynamics I had “seen” before in the books – and I knew what needed to change. Several years later I finally landed my first job in leadership development. I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity without having my mind stretched by the books I’d read.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is everyone has leadership development opportunities. You don’t need to be the boss or work in HR. And the right book at the right time can make an incredible difference.

If you’re looking for a leadership read, here’s a great place to start.

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

If you interact with anyone at all, this is the book for you. Dale Carnegie‘s famous “personal relations” training course is over 100 years old and still going strong – all based on this classic title. The 30 principles are timeless – and the accompanying stories are very compelling.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Another timeless classic, Stephen Covey‘s 7 Habits is a true work of thought leadership built on the premise of personal responsibility. But it’s anything but simple. It’s impossible to make excuses when so much of our effectiveness depends on our internal choices.

Good to Great by Jim Collins

If you’re looking for a case study on what great organizations (and great leaders) do that sets them apart from the rest, this is your book. In fact, it’s not just one case study, it’s two or three dozen between feature and comparison companies. The insights and illustrations drawn from the studies are distinct and highly compelling. It’s no wonder Good to Great routinely shows up on executives’ “favorite book” lists.

Switch by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

For those responsible for leading a change, this is the book to check out. It contains about a dozen quality change insights contained in a simple three-part framework. Don’t make change harder than it needs to be!

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

Just because you’re surrounded by quality leaders doesn’t mean you have a well functioning team. They need to work together and pull in the same direction. This doesn’t happen by accident. The Five Dysfunctions is one the standards on teamwork.

Strengths-Based Leadership by Tom Rath & Barry Conchie

The value of this book is the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment over 14 million people have taken, which is included in the book. SBL takes the assessment a step further by outlining the leadership implications of an individual’s top five strengths.

The Secret by Ken Blanchard & Mark Miller

The value of this bestselling leadership fable is the SERVE model, which can easily serve as a “leadership 101” framework.

Leading with the Heart by Mike Krzyzewski

I don’t root for Duke basketball, but I absolutely want to “play” on a team like the ones Coach K creates. While the Five Dysfunctions describes a teamwork framework, Leading with the Heart presents a winning philosophy for getting the most out of a group of highly talented individuals.

Leadership & Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute

This book is a tough read in that it makes you recognize the ways you cheat yourself with self-centered, biased thinking. In the end, it’s incredibly helpful and applicable, but it’s a challenge to get there.

The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven Sample

Steven Sample’s book stretched some of my presuppositions on what leadership actually is. If you’re looking for a book to challenge your point of view, this one will take you deep – without bogging you down.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Like Sample’s book, Creativity, Inc. is very conceptual but with loads fun anecdotes – such as behind the scenes looks at the creation of many of Pixar’s landmark movies. It presents a case for building a culture specifically designed for creative professionals.

Decisive by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Another Heath book, this one takes the mundane and frustrating topic of decision-making and offers practical tips within a WRAP framework – and includes many interesting illustrations.

Bonus: Rules of the Red Rubber Ball by Kevin Carroll

This book should have a category all its own. It’s been called the adult version of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and is more inspirational than anything else. Leadership skills don’t really matter without a passion behind them. This book demonstrates what true passion looks like – and how to find it.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.
  • Joe Denner

    Awesome list! Thank you. I have added a number of these to my reading list. Here are a couple you should check out if you haven’t read them already. The Power of Full Engagement. Extreme Ownership. Integrity. The Power of Habit. Necessary Endings. Boundaries for Leaders.

    • Thanks, Joe – I need a couple recommendations too so this will come in handy.