The Three Books Every Aspiring Leader Should Read

I️ like reading new books or articles about leadership and what people think are the key characteristics of a great leader, but there are three books that I️ always fall back on because nothing else compares to them. These books cover the fundamental aspects of leadership that the rest of the books and articles can build on.

I️ have mentored many people who want to be a people leader (aka manager). These individuals have ranged from students to early career individuals to those who are 5 years or so before retirement. There are two common misunderstandings I️ find many aspiring leaders have when I️ am coaching them:

  1. Getting stuff done is easier as a leader because “you can tell people what to do”
  2. Some key leadership skills needed can only be achieved once you are given a leadership opportunity

My argument for the first misunderstanding is that telling people what to do is an old school way of leading that needs to be re-evaluated. Additionally, no matter what level of the organization you are in, you will always need to exercise influence over those who do not report to you more than those who do…and there is always a lot more people not reporting to you than reporting to you! Good luck “telling” those people what to do.

For the second point, other than hiring, firing, end-of-year evaluations, and dealing with administrative things like people calling in sick, the most valuable and useful leadership skills can actually be developed and mastered easier before an official leadership position is held. I️ hope that by going through these three books and connecting them to the five key points that I think all leaders need to demonstrate, I️ can convince you too that these two preconceived notions about leadership are false.

If you know of an aspiring leader who you think could benefit from this information, I️ ask that you please share this article with them.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Pretty much every graduate degree program with a flair of management will have this book in its curriculum and for good reason. I️ am not going to summarize this book, but instead call out a couple of key examples of why I️ think this book covers leadership fundamentals that connect to my five leadership points (summarized at the end).

  • Seek first to understand, then be understood – those who approach leadership as “I️ can now tell people what to do” often do not understand this key concept from Covey. As a leader, your job is to break down barriers and pave the way for your team and business. You cannot do that unless you are seeking to understand what is going on around you. If you are going around telling people what to do, you are seeking first to be understood, not to understand.
  • Begin with the end in mind – whether you are leading a project, a team, or working independently, you have to understand where you want to go. There is a quote from an anonymous source that I have always reflected on to remember this concept: “The world makes way for those who know where they are going.” If you can master this skill, you are practicing true leadership in keeping focused on what truly matters while keeping distractions to a minimum.

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Crucial Conversations

Fundamentally, leadership is just a lot of “crucial conversations,” but so is every other role in an organization if done correctly. If you are not having crucial conversations, especially as a leader, then you are not pushing your organization enough and your organization’s innovation is suffering. When I say crucial conversations, I am not really talking about employee evaluations or team conflicts that most people think of, but instead true business conversations where stakes and emotions can be high. Many people fear crucial conversations because they are perceived as negative or confrontational, but they are not. There are two key parts of this book that I think can be generalized to understand good leadership skills.

  • Start from the heart – I️ call this “eye on the prize” method and it really helps you to focus on what it is you really want, similar to Covey’s habit “Begin with the end in mind.” One major failure I️ see leaders make repeatedly is that they lose focus of what they want, usually driven by emotion and the feeling they need to “be right.” If you approach any problem or conversation with the 2-3 key things you want to accomplish (i.e. what is in your heart), then you will remain focused on solving any conflict and you will keep the opposition from distracting you from your point. This skill is also huge in problem solving, project management, and other non-people initiatives because it focuses you on what is important and keeps you from being sucked into those things that are not aligned with your main goal(s).
  • Make it safe – The part of this that I love is creating a mutual purpose to solving problems. Sometimes it takes time to understand opposing individuals and figuring out what the mutual purpose is or can be, but it is possible. Creating a mutual purpose creates passion around the solution and increases adoption and the long-term success rate. Having a mutual purpose also helps ensure that things you should be doing are not met with the words “We can’t.”

RelatedThe Emotional Bank Account in Action

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Influencer

There is a plethora of good information in this book and you can get a nice graphic summary in Google images by looking up “Six Sources of Influence.” I suggest reading the whole book though to fully understand how to use them. When you read the book, you will not see anywhere in the reading that it talks about telling people what to do as a way to influence them. You can’t push people to change with willpower and demands and expect the change to stick. If you use these six sources of influence, however, you can.

As I mentioned in the introduction of this post, influencing is by far one of the greatest leadership skills that you will need. The good news is, this is a skill you can really develop outside of leadership. As an example, I was an internal consultant for an organization right out of college so I had no direct reports. I was assigned projects to improve processes in all sorts of departments and sometimes those departments and leaders didn’t even want me there nor did they support the change I was brought in to facilitate. Fundamentally, how could I do my job of making change when the people who actually run the department don’t want change? The answer: influence. Here are two of my favorite aspects of this book:

  • Make the undesirable desirable – I love this because it can be one of the greatest rewards of solving any problem. People resist change because there is something about it that they find undesirable. The only way to change that, is to make them desire the change. How fun is that? Fun. When it is only a select group of people, this is easier than hundreds or thousands of people, but generally speaking there is usually only a few undesirable things that need to be changed with any given problem for you to receive wide scale adoption. When you need to get to the masses, this is where the second piece of the book I really like comes in.
  • Enlist the power of positive peer pressure – I mentioned in my Self Reflection and How to be a Dot Connector post that Steve Jobs once said ‘Creativity is just connecting things.’ and that you should not try be a hero. This applies here as well. Getting people to see change positively sometimes cannot be done by yourself no matter how great your idea is and how persuasive of a story you may have, so don’t try to be a hero. Sometimes you have to get influential individuals to believe in you and your idea and get them to sell it for you. Connect the dots for these influential people and then let them connect the dots with those who oppose you using peer pressure.

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Related: Innovation’s Enemy: The Words, “We Can’t”

Summary

With the knowledge from these books, you can really practice your future leadership skills to prepare you for when you are going to really need them as a leader. This is important because as a leader, these skills are expected so you have less time to develop them compared to when you are not a leader and they are not always expected. As a non-leader, you can use these skills with your peers, bosses, and other departments you work with. If you can maximize your output as a non-leader using these skills, doing it as a leader will be no different. If you are currently a leader, all the same topics apply and will help you in your current and future leadership endeavours.

I’m my experience people will only happily and willfully do what they are told if they believe in the person leading them. Using these books and some of the skills I️ highlighted will create that trust for people to follow. Here are how these books connect to the five aspects of good leadership, which I promised earlier.

  1. Always know where you are going
  2. Focus on that one to three key things that will bring you to the resolution of your project or problem, or get you to where you are going
  3. Understand the opposition and why they oppose the change or direction
  4. Create a shared vision for getting to where you want to go
  5. Use influencing techniques to get opposers over their fear and aligned with your shared vision

Related: The Middle Level Leader

Here are my three asks of you now that you made it through the post.

  1. If you got to this point and are feeling disappointed because you have already read these books and don’t understand why I️ picked them, please post your comments because I would love to hear them.
  2. If there is a topic you want me to explore more, let me know so we can continue the dialogue.
  3. If you know of an aspiring leader who you think could benefit from this information, even if you didn’t, please share it with them.

Thank you and good luck in your leadership journey!

9 comments

  • There are several types of organizations that might not be all alike in responding to the article key advice. I would be much grateful if you can fine tune or little customize an approach that could best fit a projectized organization, giving much focus on its short term endeavors

    • Paul Gunnels

      Ibrahim, thank you for the comment. Can you expand on this some more? I wrote the article to be generic for all kinds of businesses so I am curious what you would like to be customized or changed some. Thanks!

  • Anyone that is aspiring to be a leader needs to read the Holy Bible and read it more than once. Paul, you forgot to mention the most important book. The Bible is a Life Success manual that is way overlooked. And then let’s not forget ” Laws of Success” by Napoleon Hill. Another Advanced Life Success manual that is little talked about.

  • Paul – Thanks for the thoughts and compilation – I would suggest two others for people to consider. An all-time favorite is “Leading at the Edge” by Dennis Perkins which shares leadership lessons from Ernest Shacketon’s exploration of Antarctica. Strong messages on vision, the importance of personal example, reality and at its core the vital nature of teamwork. Also, “15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership” – thought provoking and actionble by individuals and/or team. Happy New Year!

  • Thank you! As a new leader of women at midlife, I’m fascinated by both the opportunities and the lessons I’m learning. I absolutely love learning from powerful role models in leadership.

  • Great suggestions, I would agree with all of them and have provided those books, as gifts, to newer leaders or leaders new to joining my team and/or those that I’m coaching that want to develop in leadership for their own purposes. I would add to the list the following, not all leadership per se, however, books that I have found that have concepts/principles that have helped me to be my best self, including best leader self, because of some of the concepts. 1. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, 2. The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey, 3. The Servant Leader by Blanchard & Hodges, 4. Leadership Charisma by Bud Haney & Jim Sirbasku, and
    5. Encouragement Changes Everything by John C Maxwell. I would definitely be interested in sharing podcasts that the group has found useful.

  • John Decker

    For a broad look at key skills for those aspiring to run a business,, read “CEO Mastering the Corporate Pyramid” available on Amazon. A good read to accelerate your career!

  • Cindy Birdwise

    Today’s world is filled with diversity in many ways. Our potential clients, patients, peers, owners, shareholders, bankers etc are from all continents at the same time. I think we need to be excellent communicators to understand our own assumptions first before we seek to understand another’s way of being. International agencies often non-profit foundations may have books that could be of interest. We need dialogue, community engagement before decisions, and ways of learning that honour differences.

  • colin coverdale

    The realities of Leadership can be tough for those new to the job. Many authors often speak from an idealistic position omitting the reality of crucil elements that make a good leader. We musn’t forget that a CEO is there to lead the organisation successfully and his/her pressures come from the top (Board). So the reality is they must be accomplished communicators who acknowledge the worth of their peoples work, are honest, trustworthy and inspirational and who can be relied upon to run the business because of their intelligence and knowledge . Serious Role Play may be required from the CEO/MD in order to fit these expectations (a point often overlooked). If you can’t act like a leader then you will be judged not to be one. Your rmployees expect you to know what you are doing at all times, because their fate is in your hands. A CEO cannot be humble (bad look) but respectful, must naturally exude confidence, positiveness, make good decisions and be fair with judgements – that’s what makes them leaders. Above all, be approachable and in return comfortably engage with employees. I have been there many times because of my profession and I now teach these elements to aspiring senior managers. Good CEO’s are groomed, know what to do and how to do it – it is not a natural position that you just fall into. So some have it and others do not – and not everybody wants to be a CEO. They need to be respected for the fact they have their own lives to lead and are now owned by the corporation!

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