Reading brings perspective; transports us to other time periods and cultures; presents us with knowledge and tools for problem-solving; expands our empathy; and even helps us manage our stress. It's a special kind of joy, after all, to curl up with a good book at the end of a long day. Reading also provides an opportunity for lifelong learning, and good leaders are those who seek new ideas, thoughts, strategies, and philosophies.
Having just marked the passage of National Book Lovers Day, we here at Insight Experience asked our facilitators what some of their favorite books on leadership are. The result is a richly eclectic and varied list of books on everything from Antarctic exploration to disruptive technologies. Whether you’re looking for age-old wisdom to provide fresh perspective or some encouragement to keep you plucking along in a complicated work world, you’ll find a great read here.
When You Need Some Timeless Wisdom
Successful leaders understand the importance of keeping up with the latest and greatest from contemporary authors in the field of leadership development, but they also know when to look backwards to learn from those who came before. Sometimes they find themselves looking way back — centuries or even millennia.
The Tao Te Ching, a classic Chinese text, was written more than 2,000 years ago by an author traditionally believed to be philosopher Lao Tzu. Although scholars debate precisely when it was written, they believe it was around 400 B.C. As Damien Walter explains in this 2013 Guardian piece, the title itself translates roughly to "the way of integrity." He adds: "In its 81 verses it delivers a treatise on how to live in the world with goodness and integrity: an important kind of wisdom in a world where many people believe such a thing to be impossible."
This age-old text emphasizes the concept often referred to as the yin and the yang, which is about learning to live in harmony with opposites and to find balance in our lives. Nick Noyes, cofounder and partner of Insight Experience, has spent his career teaching the notion of balancing leadership, among other leadership development strategies, so it may come as no surprise to those who know him that he lists the Tao Te Ching as one of his favorite books on leadership. "It’s certainly not conventional," he says, "but I love it because it is the essence of leading through others, written centuries before recent books on Servant or 'Level 4' Leadership."
Facilitator and executive coach Jean Williams recommends The Art of War, another ancient Chinese text. Written in roughly the fifth century and attributed to military strategist Sun Tzu, it has had a major influence on fields beyond just military tactics. Leaders in sports, politics, and business turn to its 13 chapters. This military treatise, Jean says, includes "some real wisdom about leadership. I love it because it reminds me that leadership is not new. The fundamentals are timeless."
Insight Experience facilitator Leah Carey, an organization and leadership development consultant and executive coach, also sometimes turns to older Eastern traditions when thinking about leadership as a construct. She recommends Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters, written by Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields, and describes it as the story of an entrepreneur who applied Buddhist teachings to building his business. "It is a good explanation of beginner’s mind," Leah says, "which is critical for effective leadership."
When You Need the Big-Picture View
Sometimes all we need is a solid reminder of the bigger-picture view of leadership. Amanda Young Hickman, founding partner of Insight Experience and expert facilitator and program designer, calls these "good reminders to stay humble, listen well, and think broadly." One of Amanda's first recommendations is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. This bestselling book, written by Jim Collins, was published a little more than 20 years ago and asks the question: Can a good company become a great one? If so, how? Collins — a researcher, consultant, author, and speaker — did extensive research and provides plenty of examples of businesses that made remarkable improvements over time. This is the perfect read for a leader looking to infuse big-picture thinking into their organization.
For more traditional inspiration and a reminder of the big picture of leadership, Jean also often turns to John P. Kotter's Leading Change. Kotter's book, which presents an eight-step process of change with examples about how to implement it, became an international bestseller. The Publisher's Weekly review notes that the book "breaks the mold of M.B.A. jargon-filled texts to produce a truly accessible, clear and visionary guide." Jean says that "so much of what is written about change is written for the individual. Kotter lays out a blueprint for leading organizations through change — with some really good examples." Jean notes that the book is dated now — it was published in 1996 — but that "much of it is still true."
Jean finds a refreshingbalcony perspectiveon leadership by reading Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. (Talk about a great fireside read!) Published in the late 1950s, it's the gripping and harrowing true story of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole. "Anything about Ernest Shackleton," Jean says, "is worth reading. Beautiful strategy and employee engagement and overall leadership in action." If you’re looking for some inspiration but also keen to look beyond books on business strategy, this might be just for you.
When the Going Gets Tough
One thing that leaders know without any doubt is that the road won't always be a smooth one. Difficult times come for business of all sizes, the COVID-19 pandemic being one vivid and all-too-fresh example. During times like this, Tim Goodman, one of Insight Experience's facilitators, recommends Leadership on the Line, written by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. (Heifetz and Linsky, in fact, made popular the notion of leaders getting "on the balcony" to gain broader perspectives on their businesses.) The book is a practical guide for leaders and a reminder that to lead is to "live dangerously." The authors write that "when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear — their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking — with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility." This book suggests that one of the best ways to pull through a tough time is to reorient yourself to the service of others.
Tim says that one of his favorite things about the book is the very subtitle, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, adding that it's "a reminder to me that leadership takes courage."
Amanda recommends The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. Christensen was the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and has written multiple books on leadership and prosperity, The Innovator's Dilemma being his most well-known. It expands upon a concept that Christensen coined a couple of years before the book's publication — disruptive technologies. "This book," he writes in the introduction, "is about the failure of companies to stay atop their industries when they confront certain types of market and technological change."
In fact, rapid change is a constant in the ever-evolving landscape of leadership. For this reason, Leah recommends Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity by Jennifer Garvey Berger. "As the world becomes more complex," says Leah, "we will need leaders who can function in that world. Berger applies theories of adult growth and development in a practical way to the mindtraps we fall into as leaders."
Some of the best leaders are readers — and we believe that’s because great leaders never stop learning. Through reading, leaders can refresh perspective, glean ancient wisdom, step back to consider the big-picture, and remain fortified in the face of change and disruption.
Julie Danielson is an Associate Consultant who works as a project manager across various learning experiences. She is also a member of the marketing team. You can often find her copyediting, creating content, and researching publishing opportunities.