Recently, I wrote that leaders should be readers. Reading has a host of benefits for those who wish to occupy positions of leadership and develop into more relaxed, empathetic, and well-rounded people. One of the most common follow-up questions was, "Ok, so what should I read?"
That's a tough question. There are a number of wonderful reading lists out there. For those interested in engaging classic literature, Wikipedia has a list of "The 100 Best Books of All Time,"and Modern Library has picks for novels and nonfiction. Those interested in leadership might consult the syllabus for David Gergen's leadership course (PDF) at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government or the syllabus his colleague Ron Heifetz uses for his course on adaptive leadership (PDF).
But if I had to focus on a short list for young business leaders, I'd choose the 11 below. I've only included books I've actually read, and I tried to compile a list that includes history, literature, psychology, and how-to. Variety is important — novels can enhance empathy; social science and history can illuminate lessons from other times and fields that might be relevant to your own; and at the very least, reading broadly can make you a more interesting conversationalist. But I have tried to make all the choices directly relevant to young businesspeople interested in leadership.
Invariably, many people will think some of the choices are poor or that the list is incomplete, but I hope it can serve as a start for young business leaders looking for literature to help them chart their careers.
Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor's Handbook. Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 A.D., Marcus Aurelius is considered one of history's "philosopher kings," and his Meditations were perhaps his most lasting legacy. Never meant to be published, Marcus' writings on Stoicism, life, and leadership were the personal notes he used to make sense of the world. They remain a wonderful insight into the mind of a man who ruled history's most revered empire at the age of 40 and provide remarkably practical advice for everyday life. This is the translation I've found most accessible.
Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived life in the Nazi concentration camps. Man's Search for Meaning is really two books — one dedicated to recounting his frightening ordeal in the camps (interpreted through his eyes as a psychiatrist) and the other a treatise on his theory, logotherapy. His story alone is worth the read — a reminder of the depths and heights of human nature — and the central contention of logotherapy — that life is primarily about the search for meaning — has inspired leaders for generations.
Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full. Tom Wolfe founded the New Journalism school and was one of America's most brilliant writers of nonfiction (books and essays like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) before he became one of her most notable novelists. Often better known for his portrait of 1980s New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full is his novel about race, status, business, and a number of other topics in modern Atlanta. It was Wolfe's attempt, as Michael Lewis noted, at "stuffing of the whole of contemporary America into a single, great, sprawling comic work of art." It's sure to inspire reflection in burgeoning leaders.
Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker. One of the first books I read upon graduating college, Liar's Poker is acclaimed author Michael Lewis' first book — a captivating story about his short-lived postcollegiate career as a bond salesman in the 1980s. Lewis has become perhaps the most notable chronicler of modern business, and Liar's Poker is both a fascinating history of Wall Street (and the broader financial world) in the 1980s and a cautionary tale to ambitious young business leaders about the temptations, challenges, and disappointments (not to mention colorful characters) they may face in their careers.
Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't. What does it take to make a great company, and what traits will young businesspeople need to lead them? Jim Collins introduced new rigor to the evaluation of business leadership in his instant classic Good to Great, with a research team reviewing "6,000 articles and generating 2,000 pages of interview transcripts." The result is a systematic treatise on making a company great, with particularly interesting findings around what Collins calls "Level 5 Leadership" that have changed the face of modern business.
Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Persuasion is at the heart of business, where leaders must reach clients, customers, suppliers, and employees. Cialdini's classic on the core principals of persuasion is a sterling example of the cross application of psychological principles to business life. Based on his personal experiences and interviews — with everyone from expert car salesmen to real estate salespeople — Cialdini's book is riveting and, yes, persuasive. It serves as a great introduction to other works by modern writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt, who translate theories from the social and physical sciences into everyday life.
Richard Tedlow, Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built.Richard Tedlow taught one of my favorite business school classes, The Coming of Managerial Capitalism, and this book is something like a distillation of a few of the high points of that class.Giants of Enterprise chronicles the lives of some of the businesspeople — Carnegie, Ford, Eastman, Walton — who shaped the world we live in today. It's a brief introduction to the figures and companies who built modern business for the young business leader seeking to shape the future.
Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Financial capital is at the heart of capitalism. Any young person aspiring to business leadership should understand the financial world we live in. Ferguson is one of our era's preeminent popular historians, and The Ascent of Money traces the evolution of money and financial markets from the ancient world to the modern era. It's an essential primer on the history and current state of finance.
Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Clay Christensen was recently ranked the world's greatest business thinker by Thinkers50, and his breakout book was a thoughtful tome on innovation and "disruption" called The Innovator's Dilemma. All of Christensen's books are essential reads, but this is perhaps the most foundational for any young leader wondering how to drive business innovation and fight competitors constantly threatening to disrupt his or her business model with new technology.
Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey's book represents the best in self-help. His advice — about prioritization, empathy, self-renewal, and other topics — is both insightful and practical. Seven Habits can be useful to the personal and professional development of anyone charting a career in business.
Bill George, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. A hallmark of next-generation business leaders is a focus on authenticity. Bill George has pioneered an approach to authentic leadership development articulated well in his second book, True North. George (who, full disclosure, I've coauthored with before) conducted more than 100 interviews with senior leaders in crafting the book, and offers advice for young leaders on knowing themselves and translating that knowledge into a personal set of principles for leadership.
So what are your picks? Aside from a list for "young business leaders," are there others you'd propose?
This article first appeared on the HBR blog site and is reprinted here with permission. John Coleman is a coauthor of the new HBR Press book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.
what does it matter the author being male or female?? what matters should be whats being said or written
First thing I noticed, that so many other people did as well, not a single feminine voice in your lineup. Obviously, a universally applied maxim that this list be good for all young leaders would reflect more diversity. It calls into the question the merit of the whole article. Who is recommending this list, and how much does his worldview have any bearing upon mine, that his advice would even be applicable? I recommend this one:
"Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War" By Lehmah Gbowee. Proven leadership and a contemporary voice in world affairs.
Carol Bly - "Changing the Bully Who Rules the World".
You left out the world's longest best seller about wisdom and relationships...the Bible!
thought exactly the same thing-have we really moved into the 21st Century and carried gender inequality with us-I gave you more credit than this
I thought exactly the same thing-have we really moved into the 21st Century and carreid gender inequality with us-I gave you more credit than this
What an incredible short sighted perspective- the first thing you noticed was no women authors!
How about reading the books and deciding if they are the best books before you choose what you are going to read based on your preconcieved ideas of what must be good.
Such blinkered view on life can only lead to recreating exactly the same kind of world we now live in rather than something new.
This is not meant to be a fair list but the best list, don't try and make it into your own little list of what should be read by nice people.
Funny that the author isn't allowed to have his own list. The tolerance police are very intolerant of those are not exactly like them. I quote, "But if I had to focus on a short list for young business leaders, I'd choose the 11 below." When someone gives you a list of their favorite anything it is their list. Take what you can and move on.
This list hardly mentions books about how business can be a force for social good - the future of business has to be about how to navigate and help solve society's challenges - from climate change to education to helping the world's poor make a better life. The future is also going to be about how to work within complex systems so skills in collaboration and networks are key. Here are several books I highly recommend:
- Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
- Owning the Future - Journey to a Generative Economy by Marjorie Kelly
- The Responsible Business by Carol Sanford
Here are several of my favorite books written by women: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eislner, and Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. These are great reads and will always be in my library.
Would have loved to see some more diversity of authors on this list!
I find it interesting and sad not even one of the 11 books listed is written by a woman. I wonder if at least one of the authors is poor, or a minority .... It is interesting what is considered the best: helpful to know the background of 'the decider's.
Haters doing their job! instead of criticizing share some titles.
every one of those books was written by a man, and probably a white man, at that. don't you think we could be a little more diverse in what we call the "must read" books for this generation? there's gotta be important books written from a variety of cultural perspectives.
Why did Coleman choose to exclude women from his list? Sexism is, sadly, alive and well . . .
Besides "The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women" by Harriet Rubin, I also recommend Scholastics' "The Royal Diaries" (my 4 year old daughter loved the movie)
A shame that there isn't any woman's book amongst these 11 books....
On May 30, 2013 Kathleen Schatzberg wrote:
It matters. If you don't understand why, then I think you're one of those who "just doesn't get it."
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