12 leadership influence books that changed my career

I read two books a week. I love reading because I can choose books on precisely what interests me. I was never a fan of school because there were so many subjects I was not interested in – like Algebra III.

Anyway, when I was a young, struggling single mother of four children I became a voracious reader. I could not afford books at the time so I would sit on the floor of book stores and read about how I could get a job that would provide for my family.

The library did not have cutting edge management and leadership books so I would go to the book store while my children were in school.

When I became a manager I realized everyone wasn’t like me so I went back to the bookstore on the weekends to learn how to be a better leader.

Fast forward to today where I am a two-decade CEO and my husband and I still go to the bookstore each Saturday and Sunday on my quest for knowledge.

I always come home with at least one book. A Nook doesn’t work for me. I like to turn down the pages, highlight and write on them. In front of our house, we put in a “Little Free Library” to share some of what I’ve learned over the years.

The books below never made it to the library. I cherish these and re-read them often. You can learn business skills anywhere.

You’ll notice that all of these books are about relatability, connectivity, self-awareness, compassion, listening, influence, discernment – the soft skills that have to be developed, not acquired.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – Before I read this book I didn’t realize how easy it is to analyze our habits, the cravings behind them, the cues that trigger them and the reward we get once we act on them. The hardest part is to change the routine that we implement when the trigger is tripped.

Defining, articulating, and implementing routines is key to creating productive habits yet we also need a sense of belonging with a community to instill sustainability.

Duhigg shows you how to do this. Since I’ve read this book I have been using an app and a really pretty day planner to keep track of my routines. The payoff is that so much more of my world is in focus as the clutter of impulsivity and thoughtless action has faded to the background.

Uninvited by Lysa Terkeurst – TerKeurst is president of Proverbs 31 Ministries and the New York Times bestselling author of this book. Her openness and vulnerability made me feel like a friend.

I wanted to call her for coffee after I finished the book. She doesn’t just share empathetic anecdotes for readers in a rut; she shares her own deeply personal experiences of rejection–from the perceived judgment of the perfectly toned woman one elliptical over to the incredibly painful childhood abandonment by her father.

She focuses on digging down to the roots of anxiety and providing tools for overcoming self-doubt and handling the pain of rejection. With biblical depth, gut-honest vulnerability, and refreshing wit, Terkeurst helps you overcome the two core fears that feed your insecurities by understanding the secret of belonging.

Managing Transitions by William Bridges, Ph.D. – This book was recommended to me when I had to lay off four people within 30 days in a new position.

The office was not productive and while employees were busy, there wasn’t income to pay them. I tried very hard to find them other jobs and was not successful for all of them.

I labored a lot over how to keep the remaining employees engaged. What this book taught me was that after any reduction in force we must allow the remaining employees to mourn the people who have gone and celebrate how we enjoyed them and all they did for the organization. Call them. Cry with them. If we don’t mourn those who have left us, we mourn change. And pushing back on change will kill culture and your career.

The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer is the book that got me on the quest to learn more about the power of mindfulness.

This #1 New York Times Bestseller shows that objects (people, their angst, outside situations) are constantly passing before us in three ways: mentally, emotionally and physically. When we are not centered our consciousness gets attracted toward one or more of those three things. If it concentrates enough our sense of awareness gets lost in the object.

This explains why if we are deeply engrossed in a movie we lose awareness of where we are sitting or who else is there. The key is to observe without getting lost in disturbing energy, understanding that if you don’t let go immediately, that force will suck in your focus.

As your consciousness gets immersed in the disturbance, you lose your clear grounding of self, start thinking of yourself as the object and begin to own the unrest. Leaders are served well by using this principle when under fire.

The Way of the Seal by Mark Divine This ex-Navy seal shows us the importance of self-awareness in leadership. Your ‘sentinel’ is your witness to your thoughts. Divine suggests that you use your sentinel to have front site focus as if a sharpshooter. You must know what is unique about you – your ‘unique offer’ as a leader. Then simplify internal and external environments. Use visualization exercises to practice what it is like to live in the space of excellence. Repeatedly envision the specific details of success.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Ph.D. – Brach suggests that we continue to ask ourselves, “What is asking for acceptance?” and provide that for ourselves. Recognize with care and gentleness the passing flow of thoughts, feelings, sensations. Pay particular attention to the difference between being inside thoughts and awakening to the immediate experience of sensations or triggers. We are bothered by situations where we anticipate loss. Work should not be a strategy to prove worth. We must be gentle with ourselves when we are feeling discord.

Necessary Endings AND Boundaries for Leaders – both by Dr. Henry Cloud. Dr. Cloud is the maven of helping people and leaders preserve boundaries. A boundary is simply an invisible barrier between what you will and will not allow. He shows you the right questions to ask to vet whether or not it is time to let go of a certain division of your company, a bad employee or a bad relationship. His systematic approach helps leaders get at the heart of what might not be obvious.

Just Listen by Mark Goulston, M.D. – Goulston is an expert negotiator and has worked with law enforcement in hostage and other high stakes situations. His methods of mediating conflict are practical. Always engage the other party in “yes” questions. Label what they must be feeling and thinking. Ask what they think the other person is feeling. Win their trust. I use the methods in this book for interviews, conflict resolution, fact-finding and many other projects in my work, leadership and personal life.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown – Brown is candid and qualitative on how striving for perfection sets us up for unhappiness. She shows that the number one reason people are happy is because they feel worthy and belong. Conversely, the number one reason people are not happy is because they feel unworthy and alone. This is a powerful message for leaders. Think of where our employee engagement scores would be if people felt they were part of a purposeful team where they truly belonged and were valued.

48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene – At first this book may make you bristle. All the more reason you should read it. This is certainly not a book on servant leadership for which I am a strong advocate. On the contrary, you need to know the hard realities of the work world and how others approach leadership to define how you will be authentic in the midst of any culture. I can’t underscore enough the value of Rule #1: ‘Never Outshine the Master. Always make those above you feel comfortably superior.’ This sounds obsequious. Still, your boss needs to trust you and know you have his or her back. He or she is the single most influencer to help you advance. Aligned together, you can accomplish far more than if you are at odds.

The Pocket Pema Condron by Pema Chodron – I keep this book in my suitcase and read a passage each night when I am out of town. Chodron is an American Buddhist nun whose matter of fact style is refreshing on the topics of: being fearless; developing patience, kindness, and joy amidst our everyday struggles; unlocking our natural intelligence, warmness, and goodness; and breaking free of destructive patterns.

The Art of Communicating by Thick Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In this book he reminds us there are two keys to effective communication: 1) deep listening and 2) loving speech. He suggests that to begin we breathe mindfully and become aware of the feeling of our own suffering that we’ve been ignoring. We, unfortunately, hold these feelings in our bodies and minds. We have spent a lot of time and energy ignoring them. We need not react to feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear. We need not tell the feelings to go away. Those feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves. Pick up the feelings and hold them tenderly in an act of homecoming.

The main themes that all of these books bring together are simple for me.

1.      Everyone is suffering in some way. We are a strong source of support for ourselves and others when we can:

                 *Observe our thoughts like a fly on the wall, letting go of negative emotion immediately when we feel pulled into drama – our own or that of others. Here speed is essential. “I see it happening out there but not in here.”

                 *Name what we are afraid of, put our head in the lion’s mouth and be comfortable with discomfort instead of running from it. Be vulnerable. It is the only way to resolve what chases us and not develop a cold guardedness to it and then everything else, leaving us pervasively numb. “This is what it’s like to feel _____.”

                 * Ask yourself regularly what needs to be released, what you deserve and what you accept. Accept yourself with all your imperfections. “May I be gentle with myself. I may not know ___ but I am still awesome at ____.”

2. When we put ourselves in the place of another we have compassion. When we can’t do this, we have discord.

3. If we can be a third-party observer of our patterns we can identify triggers, and replace our routines with something that gives us the same reward.

“When I feel overwhelmed, instead of eating chocolate I will get up from my desk and walk around.”

4.  Done is better than perfect. Period.

5.  No matter how good, competent or effective we are, there will still be people who lead with flawed character. Identify it when you see it.

Don’t sell out your values. Don’t criticize yourself or be drawn into their anxiety. You are not responsible to fix a problem that you don’t own.

If you want more executive presence tips here’s a link to Mary Lee’s FREE report: 31 Success Practices for Leaders in the High Stakes Corporate World.