Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

7 Books All Great Leaders Should Have on Their Shelves (and Eventually Read)

person reading
Verity E. Milligan/Getty Images

A senior executive wanted her management team to think more deeply about their role as leaders, so she asked each of them to read a book about leadership. Little did she know that just the act of choosing a title would take most of her managers weeks to decide.

I don’t envy them: There are literally thousands of good (and not-so-good) books to choose from. As someone who regularly works with leaders trying to improve themselves, I’ve read a lot of them myself. In addition, I’ve developed the strong belief that managers shouldn’t just read about literally being better managers, but also focus on concepts like strategy that help them to continue growing—you’ll see that belief woven throughout the list below.

When looking through it, don’t feel pressured to buy every single title. Instead,
ask yourself: Which category is most interesting to you? Or, what would your boss (or customer) say you most need to learn about to be more effective? As long you’re personally interested in the topic or it’ll help you in an area with room for improvement, it’s a good place to start.

Here are my top picks in each category:

1. For Strategy and the Big Picture: Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results by David Peter Stroh

To advance, you need to learn to see the connectedness of cultures, institutions, economies, families, organizations, cities, and nations to one another. That’s what “systems thinking” is. This book is not about “business” per se, but it is about how systems impact society, and since society is what powers businesses and organizations, it’s interesting—and relevant

Another great option is Business Strategy: A Guide to Effective Decision-Making by Jeremy Kourdi. Some authors dumb down a topic to make it easier to understand. That didn’t happen with this book, but if you can get through it, you’ll learn a lot about process from creating a vision to executing on a plan.

2. For Problem Solving and Decision-Making: Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision Making Skills By Michael Kallet

This book is a lot easier to get through than the previous one. It offers some great problem solving methods that you can apply to work or in other aspects of your daily life. It doesn’t make as many clear connections to business (so you’ll want to choose another one if that’s a priority for you), but if your goal is simply to learn general strategies for tough calls, this book’s for you.

3. For Self-Development and Self-Awareness: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

This isn’t a “how to” book for aspiring leaders, per se, but it’s just as important. Researcher and author Brene Brown helps the reader understand why dropping the the facades we create can make us more successful, and happier. It’ll help you bring your true self to work which’ll inspire others and make you more productive.

4. For Motivation, People Skills, and Leading Others: The Leadership Challenge, 5th Edition by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

For more than 30 years, people have seen this as the fundamental sourcebook on everything related to leadership in a business. In this edition, the authors have updated the stories and examples throughout the book to keep it relevant with the modern workforce.

Another great option is Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't by Simon Sinek. This book is filled with examples of why servant leadership works so well. If you’re not familiar with the term, “servant leadership,” it’s a management philosophy that claims a leader’s job is to “serve” those they lead, versus the traditional (and maybe outdated) idea that the employees simply work for the boss. Sinek is a researcher and ethnographer by education, so the book is full of examples of why and how “eating last” is key to motivating and inspiring others.

5. For Teams, Groups and Playing Well With Others: The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues by Patrick Lencioni

Patrick Lencioni has been using a parable format to make reading about leadership and business enjoyable for two decades. This one’s great because it provides equally good advice for being on a team as it does for leading one.

Another great option is The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book) by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills. Life and enlightenment may not boil down to four simple agreements, but the author’s take on Toltec philosophy is timeless, and the Agreements offer a initiation into the world of self-development.

6. For a New Way of Thinking: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Have you ever heard the saying “Don’t believe everything you think?” This book supports that idea. Duckworth shares the role of mindset, and how learning to successfully process feelings like failure, disappointment, and boredom can make us more resilient, and happier.

7. For Inspiring a Culture of Innovation and Learning: Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner by Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn.

Sastry and Penn have landed on a proven feedback process that helps us learn from our mistakes. There is one pre-requisite for this book, you’ve got to be willing to take some chances that may result in failure. Of course, the other possibility is that your willingness to risk could result in outstanding success.

It’s no coincidence that only three of these books have the word “lead” in the title. That’s because leadership is a diverse collection of skills and talents that are applied as the need arises. Regardless of their level of seniority, great leaders are generalists who have a range of skills and knowledge, from creating and executing a strategy to understanding human nature.

Have a favorite book on this list or one you can’t wait to read? Tweet me and let me know.