Recently, I wrote that leaders should be readers. Reading has a host of benefits for those who wish to occupy positions of leadership and develop into more relaxed, empathetic, and well-rounded people. One of the most common follow-up questions was, "Ok, so what should I read?"
That's a tough question. There are a number of wonderful reading lists out there. For those interested in engaging classic literature, Wikipedia has a list of "The 100 Best Books of All Time,"and Modern Library has picks for novels and nonfiction
. Those interested in leadership might consult the syllabus for David Gergen's leadership course (PDF) at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government or the syllabus his colleague Ron Heifetz uses for his course on adaptive leadership (PDF).
But if I had to focus on a short list for young business leaders, I'd choose the 11 below. I've only included books I've actually read, and I tried to compile a list that includes history, literature, psychology, and how-to. Variety is important — novels can enhance empathy; social science and history can illuminate lessons from other times and fields that might be relevant to your own; and at the very least, reading broadly can make you a more interesting conversationalist. But I have tried to make all the choices directly relevant to young businesspeople interested in leadership.
Invariably, many people will think some of the choices are poor or that the list is incomplete, but I hope it can serve as a start for young business leaders looking for literature to help them chart their careers.
Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor's Handbook. Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 A.D., Marcus Aurelius is considered one of history's "philosopher kings," and his Meditations were perhaps his most lasting legacy. Never meant to be published, Marcus' writings on Stoicism, life, and leadership were the personal notes he used to make sense of the world. They remain a wonderful insight into the mind of a man who ruled history's most revered empire at the age of 40 and provide remarkably practical advice for everyday life. This is the translation I've found most accessible.
Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived life in the Nazi concentration camps. Man's Search for Meaning is really two books — one dedicated to recounting his frightening ordeal in the camps (interpreted through his eyes as a psychiatrist) and the other a treatise on his theory, logotherapy. His story alone is worth the read — a reminder of the depths and heights of human nature — and the central contention of logotherapy — that life is primarily about the search for meaning — has inspired leaders for generations.
Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full. Tom Wolfe founded the New Journalism school and was one of America's most brilliant writers of nonfiction (books and essays like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) before he became one of her most notable novelists
. Often better known for his portrait of 1980s New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full is his novel about race, status, business, and a number of other topics in modern Atlanta. It was Wolfe's attempt, as Michael Lewis noted, at "stuffing of the whole of contemporary America into a single, great, sprawling comic work of art." It's sure to inspire reflection in burgeoning leaders.
Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker. One of the first books I read upon graduating college, Liar's Poker is acclaimed author Michael Lewis' first book — a captivating story about his short-lived postcollegiate career as a bond salesman in the 1980s. Lewis has become perhaps the most notable chronicler of modern business, and Liar's Poker is both a fascinating history of Wall Street (and the broader financial world) in the 1980s and a cautionary tale to ambitious young business leaders about the temptations, challenges, and disappointments (not to mention colorful characters) they may face in their careers.
Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't. What does it take to make a great company, and what traits will young businesspeople need to lead them? Jim Collins introduced new rigor to the evaluation of business leadership in his instant classic Good to Great, with a research team reviewing "6,000 articles and generating 2,000 pages of interview transcripts." The result is a systematic treatise on making a company great, with particularly interesting findings around what Collins calls "Level 5 Leadership" that have changed the face of modern business.
Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Persuasion is at the heart of business, where leaders must reach clients, customers, suppliers, and employees. Cialdini's classic on the core principals of persuasion is a sterling example of the cross application of psychological principles to business life. Based on his personal experiences and interviews — with everyone from expert car salesmen to real estate salespeople — Cialdini's book is riveting and, yes, persuasive. It serves as a great introduction to other works by modern writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt, who translate theories from the social and physical sciences into everyday life.
Richard Tedlow, Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built.Richard Tedlow taught one of my favorite business school classes, The Coming of Managerial Capitalism, and this book is something like a distillation of a few of the high points of that class.Giants of Enterprise chronicles the lives of some of the businesspeople — Carnegie, Ford, Eastman, Walton — who shaped the world we live in today. It's a brief introduction to the figures and companies who built modern business for the young business leader seeking to shape the future.
Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Financial capital is at the heart of capitalism. Any young person aspiring to business leadership should understand the financial world we live in. Ferguson is one of our era's preeminent popular historians, and The Ascent of Money traces the evolution of money and financial markets from the ancient world to the modern era. It's an essential primer on the history and current state of finance.
Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Clay Christensen was recently ranked the world's greatest business thinker by Thinkers50, and his breakout book was a thoughtful tome on innovation and "disruption" called The Innovator's Dilemma. All of Christensen's books are essential reads, but this is perhaps the most foundational for any young leader wondering how to drive business innovation and fight competitors constantly threatening to disrupt his or her business model with new technology.
Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey's book represents the best in self-help. His advice — about prioritization, empathy, self-renewal, and other topics — is both insightful and practical. Seven Habits can be useful to the personal and professional development of anyone charting a career in business.
Bill George, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. A hallmark of next-generation business leaders is a focus on authenticity. Bill George has pioneered an approach to authentic leadership development articulated well in his second book, True North. George (who, full disclosure, I've coauthored with befo
re) conducted more than 100 interviews with senior leaders in crafting the book, and offers advice for young leaders on knowing themselves and translating that knowledge into a personal set of principles for leadership.
So what are your picks? Aside from a list for "young business leaders," are there others you'd propose?
This article first appeared on the HBR blog site and is reprinted here with permission. John Coleman is a coauthor of the new HBR Press book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.