Photo: Heidi Elliott via Flickr
I have been maintaining – and occasionally updating — a list of “Books That Every Leader Should Read” on my old Work Matters blog since 2011. These are books that have taught me much about people, teams, and organizations — while at the same time — provide useful guidance (if sometimes indirectly) about what it takes to lead well versus badly. This is the latest update, which I overhauled in 2015 and tweaked each of the last two years. I left out many of my favorites – and probably many of yours as well. After all, some 11,000 business books are published in the United States every year.
Many on the list are research-based, others tell detailed stories, and only two are quick reads (Orbiting the Giant Hairball and Parkinson’s Law). That reflects my bias. I lean toward books that have real substance beneath them. This runs counter to the belief in the business book world that people will only buy and read books that are very short and simple – and have just one idea.
So, if your kind of business book is The One Minute Manager (which frankly, I like too … but you can read the whole thing in 20 or 30 minutes), then you probably won’t like most of these books.
1. The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. A masterpiece of evidence-based management — the strongest argument I know that “the big things are the little things.
2. Influence by Robert Cialdini. The classic book about how to persuade people to do things, how to defend against persuasion attempts, and the underlying evidence. I have been using this in class at Stanford for over 25 years, and I have had dozens of students say to me years later “I don’t remember much else about your class, but I still use and think about that Cialdini book.” I also am impressed with Cialdini’s 2016 bestseller, Pre-Suasion, which adds wonderful new evidence-based twists. And while some of the examples in the original book are getting a bit dated, I suggest starting with the classic and then reading the new one.
3. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is a modern masterpiece, and already a classic after just a few years.
How to design ideas that people will remember and act on. I still look at it a couple times a month and I buy two or three copies at a time because people are always borrowing it from me. I often tell them to keep it because they rarely give it back anyway. And, for my tastes, it has the best business book cover of all time — the duct tape even looks and feels real.
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Even though the guy won the Nobel Prize, this book is surprisingly readable. A book about how we humans really think, and although it isn’t designed to do this, Kahneman also shows how and why so much of the stuff you read in the business press is crap. I’ve also read rave reviews for Michael Lewis’ new book The Undoing Project, which tells the tale of the complex relationship between Daniel Kahneman and his colleague the late Amos Tversky (who would have shared the Nobel with Kahneman if he had lived). I bought it, but haven’t read it
5. Quiet, by Susan Cain. I have long been a fan of this book. The blend of storytelling, Cain’s writing voice, and evidence is something to behold. There are three reasons I’ve moved to my leadership list. The first is that the influence seems to grow every year; every leader I know now talks about the difference between leading introverts and extroverts. Leaders and future leaders who are introverts now are more confident, and understand better how to blend their style with extroverts. And, from the academic perspective, I believe it is no accident that, since Cain’s book was published, there has been a big upswing in research on the virtues and nuances of extroverts — as leaders, group members, romantic partners, and on an on. Second, Cain does a magnificent job of taking down open office designs — which are especially tough in introverts but undermine productivity, satisfaction, and healthy social interaction for all employees in ways that advocates have denied for decades (despite all the evidence of drawbacks). Cain’s book has, I believe, played a substantial role in the pushback against open offices. Third, and on a more personal level, my wife read Quiet for the first time this year. She is an introvert and has been a successful leader for the past 25 years or so, first at a large law firm, and as CEO of the Girl Scouts of Northern California for the last decade. The book helped her understand why she has been successful and how to fine-tune her leadership style depending on whether the staff, adult volunteers, and girls she works with are more introverted or extroverted.
6. Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. It is hard to explain, sort of like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll, as the old song goes. But it is one of the two best creativity books ever written, and one of the best business books of any kind – even though it is nearly an anti-business book. Gordon’s voice and love creativity and self-expression — and how to make it happen despite the obstacles that unwittingly heartless organizations put in the way — make this book a joy.
7. Creativity,Inc. by Ed Catmull. One of the best business/leadership/organization design books ever written – this and Hairball are a great pair. I wrote a more detailed review of Ed’s wonderful book here. As I wrote in my blurb, and this is no B.S., “This is the best book ever written on what it takes to build a creative organization. It is the best because Catmull’s wisdom, modesty, and self-awareness fill every page. He shows how Pixar’s greatness results from connecting the specific little things they do (mostly things that anyone can do in any organization) to the big goal that drives everyone in the company: making films that make them feel proud of one another. I read this book from cover to cover again about a month ago – there is so much there as Ed brings in so much of his amazing life and gleans so many lessons about leadership and life
I confess that I am biased about this book. I have met Ed several times and swayed by his modesty, smarts and how well he listens. The last time we met, Ed told me a great story. He and his editor were having trouble with the flow of the book. So he asked a couple of the Pixar script writers who worked on the film Monsters INC to read the draft and make suggestions. Ed said they spotted the problem right away and came up with a great solution. Ed has resources that other authors don’t! That beautiful cover is a Pixar design too.
8. Leading Teams by the late J. Richard Hackman. When it comes to the topic of groups or teams, there is Hackman and there is everyone else. If you want a light feel good romp that isn’t very evidence-based, read The Wisdom of Teams. If want to know how teams really work and what it really takes to build, sustain, and lead them from a man who was immersed in the problem as a researcher, coach, consultant, and designer for over 40 years, this is the book for you. Oh, and if you want the cheat sheet – although you are missing enough that you are mostly cheating yourself — check out Hackman’s HBR piece, the very definition of profound simplicity, a lifetime of wisdom and (I am guessing) the results of 1000 studies summarized in six concise points.
9. Give and Take by Adam Grant. Adam is the hottest organizational researcher of his generation. When I read the pre-publication version, I was so blown away by how useful, important, and interesting that Give and Take was that I gave it one of the most enthusiastic blurbs of my life: “Give and Take just might be the most important book of this young century. As insightful and entertaining as Malcolm Gladwell at his best, this book has profound implications for how we manage our careers, deal with our friends and relatives, raise our children, and design our institutions. This gem is a joy to read, and it shatters the myth that greed is the path to success.” In other words, Adam shows how and why you don’t need to be a selfish asshole to succeed in this life. America — and the world — would be a better place if all of us memorized and applied Adam’s worldview. I love this book — I give it to Stanford students and executives all the time, especially when they worry aloud that, to get ahead, their only choice is to be a selfish asshole.
10. Parkinson’s Law by the late C. Northcote Parkinson. You’ve probably heard of Parkinson’s Law, which he first proposed in The Economist in 1955: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I had as well, but I never knew much about C. Northcote Parkinson, nor had I read his 1958 gem of the same name (I didn’t even know it existed) until Huggy Rao and I started writing Scaling Up Excellence and my well read co-author pointed me to this collection of essays. Parkinson was quite a guy — a scholar of public administration, naval historian, and author of over 60 books. For our scaling book, I was especially taken with his arguments, evidence, and delightfully polite English sarcasm about the negative and predictable effects of group size and administrative bloat. I am also a big fan of The Peter Principle, which is similar in some ways, (I wrote the forward to the 40 Anniversary Edition), but Parkinson’s Law is an even better book.
11. To Sell is Human by Dan Pink. You might ask, what does this have to do with management and leadership? Read the book. Dan does a masterful job of showing how, to lead and motivate others, to protect and enhance of the reputations of the people, teams, and organizations we care about, and to have successful careers as well, we all need to be able to sell people our ideas, products, solutions, and yes, ourselves. Dan’s ability as a storyteller is what makes this book stand above so many others — his stories are not only compelling, they make evidence-based principles come alive. To be honest, I had not devoted much attention to this book until my wife picked up a copy and read the whole thing from start to finish in about a day. She then spent the next week raving about all the ways Dan’s book would help her as CEO of a non-profit – in everything from fundraising, to inspiring employees and volunteers, to dealing with the media, to convincing new prospects to join her organization’s board. Then I read it myself. As much as I admire Malcolm Gladwell, I believe that Dan Pink just might be the most skilled writer we have at translating behavioral science research. His stuff is so fun to read, it doesn’t distort or exaggerate findings, and he does a masterful job of teaching us how to apply the lessons in his books.
12. The Path Between the Seas by historian David McCullough. On building the Panama Canal. This is a great story of how creativity happens at a really big scale. It is messy. Things go wrong. People get hurt. But they also triumph and do astounding things. I also like this book because it is the antidote to those who believe that great innovations all come from start-ups and little companies (although there are some wild examples of entrepreneurship in the story — especially the French guy who designs Panama’s revolution — including a new flag and declaration of independence as I recall — from his suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and successfully sells the idea to Teddy Roosevelt).
As my Stanford colleague Jim Adams points out, the Panama Canal, the Pyramids, and putting a man on moon are just a few examples of great human innovations that were led by governments. If you want to learn about what world class scaling “clusterfug” looks like, read about how the French messed things up – and if you want to learn about skilled scaling (with some horrible side-effects) and the amazing U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, find the time to read this rather massive masterpiece.
In addition to these twelve, I was tempted to add Collaboration by Morten Hansen, the best book on the topic ever written and The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett, which is stunning analysis of why — once organizations are broken into specialized groups — all sorts of bad things that undermine the greater good, along with some mighty thoughtful ideas about how to overcome these problems and make the best use of such specialized and isolated “stovepipes.” And while I removed Who Says That Elephants Can’t Dance, by former IBM Lou Gerstner from my top 12, it remains the best book on the transformation of a large company that I know of — the first half is especially strong.
I would love to know of your favorites — and if want a systematic approach to this question, don’t forget the 2016 update of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time by Jack Covert, Todd Sattersten, and Sally Haldorson.
Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Follow me on Twitter @work_matters, and visit my website and posts on LinkedIn. My latest book is The A–hole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Before that, I published Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. My main focus these days is on working with Huggy Rao to develop strategies and tools that help leaders and teams change their organizations for the better — with a particular focus on organizational friction. Check out my Stanford “FRICTION Podcast” at iTunes or Sticher.