My Top 10 Leadership Books

I have been asked a few times recently about the leadership books that have most shaped my own thinking. Below is my top 10 list, though not in any particular order. It is a very eclectic list - not all of these books are 'leadership books', but all of them speak directly to leadership, the challenges of change, or to who you are (or perhaps could be) as a leader.

I have checked their availability and they can all be found on or (though looking for them might also give you a good excuse to ‘waste’ a few hours in second-hand bookstores!).

Here they are:

1. First Things First (Stephen R. Covey and A. Roger Merrill, 1999)

first-things-firstWhen I first started becoming serious about living my own purpose as a leader I  struggled with moving from my big picture to 'what I am I going to do on Monday morning'. I didn't have a bridge. This book helped me to start creating it. In First Things First the authors argue that the activities that become most important in our lives should not be guided by ‘to do’ lists and urgency but by our internal compass of purpose and values. In other words, this book is a principle-centered leadership approach focused on personal leadership. It is a fantastic resource for helping you to organise your life as a leader in order to drive impact and legacy and balance your work and personal life.

2. Images of Organization (Gareth Morgan, 2006)

IMAGES OF ORG rgbThis book is based on the premise that all theories of organisation and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that lead us to see, understand, and manage organisations in ‘limited' ways. In short, the book unpacks these dominant ways of ‘seeing’ and their associated strengths and weaknesses; and invites you to adopt multi-perspective approach to see complex situations more broadly before moving into action. Personally, I find it incredibly useful in identifying the dominant way of seeing in a situation with and what options might be possible that have not yet been considered.

3. Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology, and Its Use For Practitioners, Teachers and Students (Peter Checkland & John Poulter, 2006).

learning_checkland_265_400_80_c1_centerSSM is a systems-based action learning approach designed to help leaders navigate the challenges of a complex, ‘messy’ world, particularly when there are a multiplicity of views and stakeholders present. If your problem as a leader is that you don't know what the problem is, then this is a fantastic resource for helping you to create a map for smart action. The book is an excellent introduction to the SSM approach but it does require a bit of patience to get inside the logic of the framework. The time you invest, however, is well worth the effort.

4. Love And Profit: The Art Of Caring Leadership (James Autry, 1992)

L&P2James Autry has been a CEO of a large corporate and is an ‘artist’ pursuing a creative life as a creative non-fiction writer and poet. In this thought-provoking book he explores the challenges of leadership through short reflections, poetry and the lived experience of being a leader. James gives a very human face to leadership and shows that there is much more richness to every leader than just their ability to meet goals and targets. A joy to read.

5. Family Secrets: The Path to Self-Acceptance and Reunion (John E. Bradshaw, 1996).

Family secretsThis book speaks more to the inner work of leadership. That is, understanding more clearly how your family history may influence and shape how you are today (and, with a mental leap, the significance of this for how you lead and how you might lead). Each of us carry our history with us. Some of this has helped us develop our strengths and talents as a leader and some of it is stuff that we need to learn to transcend in order to as successful as we could be. If you happen to be leading a team, this book can also provide an interesting analysis of aspects of the dynamics of your ‘family at work’.

6. The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry (3rd Edition-Kindle Edition) (Sue Annis Hammond, 2013).

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 3.54.08 pmThis book is a lovely introduction to a strengths-based approach to the leadership of change. This book challenges the dominant assumptions as to how organisational change 'works'. Sue makes an argument for why the AI approach is ‘better’ and provides some simple guidelines as to how you might incorporate an appreciative approach into your own change work. This is an accessible guide that any leader can pick up and begin to 'run with'.

7. The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons For Working Together (Twyla Tharp, 2009)

collaborative-habitThis is the most insightful book on team building and team development that I have read in my life. Interestingly, I don't recall Twyla Tharp using the term 'team building' once in the book. The Collaborative Habit is not, however, a step-by-step 'how to' guide. Twyla shares her lessons and insights, learned the hard way, about what it takes to get great people to collaborate successfully together. If you want to be spoon-fed, this is not the book for you, but if you want a guide to help you reflect on your own practice, it is a fantastic resource.

8. Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading That Liberates (Amanda Sinclair, 2007)

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 4.29.20 pmI have been a fan of Amanda’s work since I first came across it in the 1990’s. I was in the middle of my first thesis and her article 'The Tyranny of team Ideology' really challenged my thinking on team performance. This particular book examines the mythology around modern leadership and brings a critical perspective (primarily an analysis of gender and race) along side an eastern perspective to the development of more ‘realistic’ approaches to leadership. 'Realistic' for her refers more to approaches that reflect the everyday experience of leading. I particularly like her focus on the way good leadership liberates others to succeed.

9. The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 1995)

EstesBook2This is a small collection of short stories and parables designed to nourish your spirit and invite you to reflect on what matters most in your life. I first came across this book in a $5 sale bin, opened it, and was captured from the first page (clearly it hadn't been marketed well by the bookseller but I got a bargain). Clarissa does not mention leadership once in the book but it is remarkably relevant in helping leaders to develop a more global perspective on the bigger reasons why they are here; and in being able to bounce back more easily when in the middle of difficult times. Some of the writing is breath-taking in its beauty.

10. Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go (Shaun McNiff, 1998)

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 4.00.30 pmOne of the biggest challenges many leaders face is trust – they are so busy trying to ‘control’ themselves, their systems and their results, that they miss many of the best opportunities for getting there more easily. While this book is written for artists, it is actually incredibly valuable for any leader seeking to give life to something new. The author makes a powerful case for both recognising and trusting the natural movement of any creative process and how much richer the learning process and end product can be if we can learn to ‘go with it’ . Trust The Process is affirming and inspiring and well worth a second and third reading.