10 Books to Make you a Better Leader

Let’s face it: A whole lot of business books really aren’t that great. In fact, many should be an email, or at most a 2-3 page report. However you can’t sell an email for $29.95, so we have Business books that are repetitive and, perhaps, lacking in real substance.

But, there are some truly fantastic business-related reads out there that are truly inspiring and can actually help you succeed in your career. Here are ten books that influenced my life and career. They aren’t typical business books, but they helped me understand what’s important in life and my career.

How Will You Measure Your Life – Clay Christensen

These days, we spend a lot of time thinking about our careers. From getting that next promotion to landing a big contract, work-related thoughts can all-too-often fill our brains. But, when it’s all said and done, is this really what you’ll think is important?

In How Will You Measure Your Life, these are precisely the kinds of questions that Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen asks us to consider. Throughout the book, Christiensen encourages us to think deeply about how we can excel in our professional lives without compromising our integrity.

Personally, this book is the most influential thing I’ve ever read. Christensen’s words really resonated with me and they helped me determine which path was right for my life. Although we’re all different, reading this book and taking the time to think about what you truly value can really impact how you approach your career and your personal life moving forward.

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Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Okay, okay, yes, number two on my list is a work of fiction, but it has a lot to teach us about business and ethics. Often lauded as one of the best American novels of all time, Grapes of Wrath is a moving tale of poverty, struggle, and the harsh reality of how economic disparities play out in people’s day-to-day lives.

Growing up in a fairly affluent middle-class family, it’s difficult to know how hard life truly is for people who aren’t so fortunate. Through its eloquently-written prose, Grapes of Wrath gives us an honest look at how the people in power can so easily oppress people on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

By reading Steinbeck’s words (and those of countless others that accurately describe the plight of the less fortunate), I’ve become a more compassionate person. This human-centric approach has helped me tremendously as I’ve progressed throughout my career.

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True North – Bill George

To be an effective leader, technical skills and experience aren’t enough. In reality, so much of being a leader is about being self-aware enough to connect with others and to motivate them to perform at their best. In True North, Harvard Business School professor Bill George shows us how anyone can be an authentic leader if they look introspectively at their own life.

I first read True North while I was a student at Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development. In the program’s fifth module (which is aptly named “Personal Leadership”), we’re asked to become more self-aware to develop the emotional intelligence that a truly effective and authentic leader needs to succeed.

This is precisely the message that George tries to instill in his readers to help them reach their fullest potential. George’s book, like Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life, helps you take a logical approach to your unique situation, providing you with the chance to reflect on how satisfied you actually are. Ultimately, True North shows us how we all can make meaningful changes in our personal and professional lives through self-reflection and connecting with our true selves.

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The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

What would you tell the world if you knew that you only had one more chance to speak? In The Last Lecture, Professor Randy Pausch dives deeper into the final lecture that he gave to students, just a month after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Pausch’s book is more than just about what we want our legacy to be when we finally leave this life behind. Indeed, it’s as much about overcoming obstacles and making the most of your days as it is about understanding what’s important to us.

The Last Lecture and Pausch’s poignant words made a large impact on my life because they clearly articulated the importance of making our time count. From a business perspective, this helped elucidate what I truly value in my life, which, in turn, helped direct my career path.

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GR5: Trekking In The French Alps – Martin Collins

Wondering how a trekking guide is a good business book? Well, it turns out that to really excel in the business world, you need to dream big and pursue something that is difficult to truly challenge yourself.

My wife and I dream of incredible adventures, and when I heard of the GR5 I knew we had to do it.  For those that don’t know, the GR5 is a long-distance trekking trail that starts on the coast of the Netherlands and traverses across Belgium, Luxembourg, and France en route to the Mediterranean. We did the section from Lac Leman to the Mediteranean Sea, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Books like these remind you that life isn’t just about work. In reality, life should be about the things that bring you inordinate amounts of joy. As a classmate once told me, “Richard, you find things you think you can’t do, then go out and do them.”

To me, the GR5 was one of those things. But, what’s key is that we all find the things in our lives that we’re truly passionate about.

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The Four Hour Workweek – Timothy Ferriss

In The Four Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferris asks us to forget the concept of working 80 hour weeks until we’re old enough to live off of our retirement and savings. Instead, Ferris lays out his guide to escaping the routine of the 9-5 lifestyle in exchange for a life lived to the fullest.

Now, I don’t think the internet is as wild as it was when Ferriss first wrote this book, so his detailed instructions for leaving your career behind might not be too pertinent anymore. But, what The Four Hour Workweek does show us is that we need to learn to focus our time and attention to maximize the impact we can have so we can truly enjoy the lives we live.

In reality, if we can live on what we accomplish in just 4 hours of work a week, does it make sense to work any more? In his book, Ferris opens our eyes to the power of creating passive incoming and the value of focusing on making enough money to live comfortably, not to make it big.

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Anything Patrick Lencioni Has Ever Written

I selected Patrick Lencioni, as he’s probably the only business book I’ve been successful in getting others to read. The books offer insights into common company problems, and actually remind me a bit of the HBS case method, where you learn by engaging with a story.

Lencioni makes his business books easy and fun to read, so if you hate business books, check out some of his work. I’ve read all of his books and at some point, I suspect I’ll be reading them again. There are just so many little nuggets in there that can be applied to nearly any aspect of our lives.

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The Lean Startup – Eric Ries

All too often, business books tell us what to do, rather than how to do it. When it comes to getting real results, Eric Ries shares both what to do, and why to do it. It’s a classic.

Although I’ve been in fast growing companies my entire career, I found Lean Startup full of pragmatic, sensible advice. How useful is it? I have about 20 emails where I’ve read something and sent myself an email so I could action it when I got back to work.

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The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill – William Manchester

Three volumes and over 3,000 pages later, I didn’t want this book to stop. Manchester is a brilliant biographer, and Churchill was such a complex and iconic figure. At times, he was the leader that the world needed, and at others, he just wasn’t.

Like all humans, Churchill was flawed: at times great, and at times terrible. When he was great, he could change the world, such as identifying the menace posed by Hitler and leading the allied efforts to defeat one of the most evil humans of the 20th century. At the same time, he had enormous flaws, such as racist and misogynistic actions, and was responsible for some terrible events. Ultimately, you must recognize those flaws next to his greatness. 

Churchill demonstrated his leadership during WW2, and though that is what he is most widely known for, what resonated with me through reading Manchester’s biography of this political giant was how often he challenged convention. Churchill was an innovator, and like anybody who tried to change the ways things were done, there were ample people to triumph in his mistakes.

This is a great biography not only because the books are so engaging, but you get a sense of how complex all humans are, full of good and bad. If you ever get frustrated that your team or company are making a mistake in their direction, think how Churchill must have felt being ignored for years as he tried to warn about the rise of Hitler.

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The Razor’s Edge – Somerset Maugham

The Razor’s Edge is the powerful story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot who sets off in search of real meaning in life after his traumatizing experience fighting in World War I. It’s easily my favorite book and I’ve read it in both French and English more than a dozen times.

In fact, it’s probably the only book that I’ve read more than once. Personally, I’m a sucker for books that are set in the Roaring 20s and this book has it all. I actually first read this book at the age of 20 and the overarching message of “find your own path in life, you don’t need to follow everyone else” really stuck with me.

Ultimately, Maugham’s words helped me realize that the happiest people in the world are the ones that are doing what they feel they are meant to do, instead of following someone else’s dream. Plus, it showed me that there’s a lot more to life than making money, something that we easily forget in your professional lives.

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