Four “Must Read” Leadership Books.

Most leadership writing is not helpful, and worse some is harmful, un-actionable, drivel. I believe that the best way to learn about “Leadership” is to read the biographies of leaders.

Pick somebody you like, are interested in, or has had an impact on history, and learn about their life. I tend to prefer military leaders, but you can pick whom you like of course.

So what gives me the right to publish a “must read” Leadership Reading List? Well, not all management and leadership books are crap, and I believe that these are some of the best out there that I currently know of. If you think I’ve missed one then please let us know in the comments, or check out my list on Goodreads to see what other books are on my “must read” list.

  • The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software EngineeringThe Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering – Frederick P. Brooks Jr. – one of the first management books I read over 25 years ago. Recently reprinted, which in itself is a singular recommendation. While focused on software development, the ideas and principles apply to any cognitive work. First book to describe why adding more people to a late project makes it later, and other counter-intuitive project management truths.

“Outliers: The Story of Success”, Or How Be Steve Jobs

Be smart, be lucky, work hard.

Pick two? No, have all three. Excel at one. That’s the “secret” of success.

What makes a fantastically successful, world-changing game-changer like Steve Jobs* (or pick your own extraordinarily successful figure from history or current events.) According to Malcolm Gladwell, those extraordinary people in business, sports, and history are products of circumstance, intelligence, and drive. In other words if not Steve Jobs, then somebody very much like Steve Jobs would have appeared on the world stage and had just as much influence in the technology / business / design realm.

What’s not amazing is that Steve had such an influence on the world. What’s amazing is that lacking the opportunity and culture, so much of the human capital in the world lies untapped. The real question should be, why aren’t there more successful people?

In his engaging style, Malcolm takes us through a series of stories that illustrate how opportunity and hard-work combined allow “outliers”, those who have an exceptional impact in their chosen profession outside the experience of most mortals, to spring into being. He begins by pointing out how most National Hockey League players are born in January, and explaining why this is significant. (At age 10, eleven months of growth is significant, and promising players get more attention, which sets them up for more success and more attention. More than their peers in the same cadre.)

The biggest surprise for me in reading this book is how little intelligence plays a role in success. More precisely, how there is no direct correlation between IQ and success. Yes, you have to be smart, but beyond a certain point being smarter does not make you more successful. Hard work, focused practice of your chosen craft, and the luck or opportunity to use those skills have a greater influence.

This is good news for those of us who do work hard, learn, and apply that learning every day. Now I just have to get lucky. Excuse me while I go review my contact list for relationships that I’ve taken for granted.

If you want to buy this book from Amazon click this link

Deep Survival: Business Lessons From the Wild

What does survival in the wild, my recent computer woes, and running a business have in common?

My blogging vacation was a little longer than expected because of a hard-drive failure. I’ve just finished rebuilding my third drive (and operating system) in the last six months.

But I did have time to do some non-business reading. This year I chose “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why“. I admit it’s a little weird  that my idea of a relaxing read includes people being dropped in the jungle  from 28,000′ wearing high-heels and a dress, surviving 60 days in a raft with a broken water purification system, or the analysis of a mountain climbing accident that kills a dozen people.

Darn-it if I didn’t see some parallels between those life & death situations and strategic business planning and execution. Those that didn’t just lie down, give up and die had some common characteristics:

They Accept Reality

Survivors were quick to accept  their situation and deal with the here and now. They did not waste time and energy railing against the gods, grieving, or crying about what should have been. They figured out where they were, what resources they had, and what they needed to do next to live another hour.

They Have Something Bigger to Live For

All survivors who went through grueling physical, emotional, and mental anguish to live and escape their situation (like walking down off a Andes mountain with a shattered knee bone poking through their pants) had a powerful motivation to keep themselves alive. Usually it was a child, spouse, or loved one that kept them going.

If your business does not have a higher purpose other than just making you money, then how do you get other people to care about it as much as you do?

They Are Disciplined

Survivors are incredibly disciplined. Whether is was drinking only a litre of water a day on the high seas in an open raft, or simply taking the next physical step down the mountain or through the jungle, they gave themselves a cadence by which to govern themselves.

What’s the rhythm of your business? Do you have the discipline to get things done? Do you regularly follow through on commitments?

They Have Focus

Survivors often have to just wait, saving their energy for a burst of activity when it’s needed the most. They don’t waste their energy (or time) pursuing activities that don’t directly benefit their main goal: staying alive.

This is similar to Covey’s “big rocks first” principle. Often I see clients let day after day slip by chasing the latest fire in their business, when what they said they needed to do was spend time making sure those fires didn’t happen in the first place. What are your big rocks, and how much time do you spend on them?

They Adjust Their Plan

Survivors don’t just slavishly follow a presumably good plan when circumstances change. They are prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they come along, or adjust their plan when fate throws a coconut or avalanche at their head.

What’s your plan and how often do you review it?

They Listen to the Experts

What does all this have to do with my computer? I could have avoided some of my recent technical grief if I’d taken the advice given at the end of the book about how not to get into a life-and-death situation in the first place:

My technical guy tried to tell my that a faulty voltage regulator was frying my hard-drives. Had I heard him I would have been able to choose the time of buying a new lap-top. I didn’t want to hear him because it didn’t fit into my model of the world (not wanting to spend the cash right now).

You are good at what you do. You might even be the expert. You’re not good at everything. Get the right advice from the right people, and listen to them.

They Have a Plan B

. . . or sometimes even a plan C if the possible failure is critical enough. What are you going to do if your plan A fails?

In my case Plan B was to recover my files from the old hard drive, something I’ve successfully done a couple of times before. Plan C was to use the on-line backup service to recover my file. It would take a bit longer as long as the backup service didn’t corrupt my files . . . Oops! Three weeks later and I’m just getting back to scratch. Without a plan C I still wouldn’t be able to do the accounts, invoice my clients, or pay my taxes.

Now I have a plan D as well – a backup to an external hard-drive on my desk.

. . . and for those of you who enjoy adventure reading, I highly recommend “Deep Survival: Who Live, Who Dies, and Why

Question for the Comments: 

Has your business career had a “near death” experience? What did you have to do to survive?

Other Articles You May Be Interested In:
What Does Your Reality Look Like?
When “Big Rocks First” Fails
What Do Rituals Have To Do With Business?

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

Best Books of 2010

Books, magazines, and blogs are great way to keep up, catch up, and get ahead knowledge-wise. It’s part of the continual learning we must all do to become and stay the leaders and managers in this information and knowledge driven world. Problem is, there is too much information out there. How can we separate the sheep from the goats, especially in the B.S. driven world of management and business writing?

Here are the books that I found useful and inspiring in the last year or so. I hope you find them as enlightening as I did.

If you have any books you’ve read in the last year that you’d like to recommend please let us know in the comments. Or check out my reading list on LinkedIn. If you let me know that you found me through this blog I’ll be glad to connect with you.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

One of those mind-opening books that has the potential to shape the way you think. The last time I had a buzz from a book like this was when I’d finished “The Selfish Gene”. Your mileage may vary.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

An easy read, well written, useful for anyone who needs to think about improving processes (sales, marketing, operations, record-keeping, etc.) in a way that doesn’t bury your teams in ream of useless doctrine.

Awesomely Simple: Essential Business Strategies for Turning Ideas Into Action

John Spence has an amazing faculty & discipline, plus years of real business experience, which he uses to consume business books and distill them into six focused chapters. Good reading for business & other leaders anywhere.

Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People

OK, I haven’t actually read this 500+ page monster cover to cover, but I’ve used and taught the principles in it. Want the best people? Get the best hiring and coaching practises. Start here.

How To Win Friends and Influence People

An oldie but a goodie for a reason. Concrete examples and strategies on how to influence people. Get what you want by giving people what they want. More effective that using your positional authority to make people jump through hoops.

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

OK, this isn’t really a business book, but it’s a great illustration of the law of unintended consequences, how motivator don’t always bring about the desired effect, and why when you pick your key performance indicators you need to be really, really careful. Plus, it will stretch your mind. Thanks for the book Tara.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

A fictional case study which is a good introduction to team dynamics and resolving conflicts.


First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently

Research based principles of the most successful managers in the most successful companies. Most important: can your staff come to work and do their best every day? To find out what this means read the book.

Soldiers Mad Me Look Good: A Life in the Shadow of War

A soldier’s biography, with leadership nuggets buried throughout. This is the Canadian General who opened the Sarejavo airport during the Bosnian conflict. Well worth the read even if you’re not usually interested in things military.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High

As much as we might sometime wish that it didn’t happen (or hide from it), being an outstanding manager means sometimes having the courage to have difficult conversations. You provide the courage, this book will provide the tools.

Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose – The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership

Great for supervisors, managers, and executives who want to develop their direct reports and staff. Want to be know as a boss who gets the best out of their people? Using what’s in this book is a good start.

The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill

Interesting research-based insight into evolutionary motivation and relationships. Read this if you want to understand what drives people to extremes.

Mastering the Rockefeller Habits: What You Must Do to Increase the Value of Your Growing Firm

A good primer on strategic planning and execution written in concrete terms.

Enjoy your reading,


p.s. My apologies if the links aren’t quite working yet. I’m still working out the details.