I am a reader. Like pretty hard core. I have a library in my home, along with large bookcases in both my work and home offices, all filled to overflowing. Yes, I know I could get e-books or audio versions, and have, but there is nothing quite like holding a book in your hand and uncovering just the nugget of insight you need to address a current situation. Because of the value I place reading and learning, I am often asked if I had to suggest just one or two books to someone, what would they be? Hard question. Depends on the person and the situation. There are a few authors, however, whose ideas and approaches have made me a better leader.
Good to Great is his classic, and should be required reading for any leader. Two of his concepts that are especially important for organizations are the hedgehog concept — what are you passionate about, what can you be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. Do that. The second is the Stockdale Paradox, which is to be brutally honest about your current sitation AND have an unwaivering faith that you will prevail. He has also written a corresponding monograph on Good to Great in the Social Sectors but that should be read as a companion piece to the book, not a stand alone. If you’re not a big reader, Collins also has numerous articles and podcasts (as well as other great books) where he shares his insight.
Like Collins, it is hard to pick just one Kotter book to recommend, however Leading Change is definitely high on the list, primarily because 70% of major organizational change efforts fail. Yep, 70% — that’s not a typo. Kotter takes you through eight steps that bolster your chances of success. It seems so easy when you see it in print, and yet so hard to be patient with the process when you are in the midst of it. One big takeaway — we tend to under communicate by a factor of 10! Just because you think you have “said it” a lot (probably to lots of different groups who each have heard it one or two times . . . when they may or may not have been paying attention) doesn’t mean the message is clear. If you’re not in the midst of a change initiative, pick up What Leaders Really Do, which is a master class on the difference between leadership and management — both of which are critical for success, but require different skills and abilities.
Leadership is an Art is my favorite of DePree’s books, perhaps because it was my first exposure to his approach to servant leadership. Unlike Collins and Kotter, who are scholars and researchers, DePree was chairman and CEO of Herman Miller Inc., widely recognized for it’s innovation, management and a best company to work for. DePree’s view on leadership is that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must because a servant and a debtor.” And also, “In a day when so much energy seems to be spent on maintenance and manuals, on bureaucracy and meaningless quantification, to be a leader is to enjoy the special privileges of complexity, of ambiguity, of diversity.”
These three barely scratch the surface of my recommended reading list, but they are a great place to start. What books brought you important nuggets of leadership insight? There might be just a bit more room in my bookcase . . .