Leaders become great in one of two ways: They’re either born that way or they learn from someone who was born that way. Most of us fall into the latter camp, but we don’t always have access to a model leader. But the best leadership books can make anyone lead as though they were born to do it.
Some lessons are timeless, delivered to us from the ancient world through people like Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and Chinese general Sun Tzu.
Then, beginning in the early-mid 20th century, we see the beginnings of the self-improvement genre we recognize today through books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People.
The genre continued to proliferate to the point where now it’s not only common but practically expected that industry titans and highly successful people pen their own leadership tomes to share all the insights they’ve attained while climbing to the top of the world.
And then there are the random leadership books, like Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, which may be derivative, illogical and confusing to some, but nonetheless inspiring to others.
So whatever kind of person you are, wherever you are in life, you’re bound to be able to find a leadership book that speaks to you and helps you grow. Perhaps more importantly, it could help you learn how to lead and improve your leadership in any context; business, personal or otherwise.
We rounded up some of our favorite leadership books below. They’re all multifaceted in their approaches to teaching about self-growth, leadership, strategy and basically how to inspire people to get moving together toward a goal.
1. The Art of War
The Art of War is a bona fide classic leadership and military text. Adages now common today like “know your enemy” come from this ancient text from Chinese general Sun Tzu. Seriously, pretty much everything we think of when we think of battle strategy likely has its roots in this book. Read it to learn how to think about problems and strategize your way to victory.
If you know one Roman emperor besides Julius Caesar or one adherent of Stoicism, it’s likely to be Marcus Aurelius. His book, Meditations, is merely a collection of the emperor’s thoughts and musings on life (his meditations!) rooted in his Stoic philosophy. To that end, the book encourages self-reflection and self-examination, with the ultimate goal of being able to view things clearly and pursue good. No leader hoping to be able to lead with transparency and focus should skip it.
3. How to Win Friends & Influence People
At the end of the day, a leader must be able to influence. Whether it’s the people working for the leader or outside people whose assistance the leader seeks, the right influence can guarantee success like nothing else. If it seems like you’re doing everything right but not achieving the goals you’ve set, for yourself or for a business, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People may help you.
4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
In his seminal self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey takes readers on a journey of self-actualization that can be attained through the titular seven habits. Essentially, if you abide by certain principles and what Covey calls the character ethic, as embodied in the seven habits, you can set and achieve the goals you wish. Whether you’re seeking to lead yourself or a company, this book has tools to help you.
5. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
Simon Sinek’s leadership philosophy is rooted in inspiration. Inspired employees bring their best selves to work, which is great for them but also for the business that will become more innovative and successful. Therefore, good leaders should inspire their employees. That’s the message and goal of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. If you’re trying to change how you communicate to inspire people, this leadership book has everything you need.
6. Tribal Leadership: Leverage Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
There’s no organized group in the world that doesn’t consist of smaller groups, often with competing interests and priorities. The best leaders figure out how to turn that potential fatal weakness into a strength. That’s what Tribal Leadership: Leverage Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization seeks to teach. If you’re looking to get the most out of the various tribes of your organization, and therefore get the best work done, this book’s unique perspective and insights will help.
7. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us
For a totally unrelated but also great leadership book themed around the idea of tribes, turn to Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Rather than focus on how to get different so-called tribes to work together, this book teaches you how to build tribes, essentially coalitions. No leader can accomplish goals alone. As the saying goes, it takes a village. If you want to build a loyal village that can help you achieve your goals, there’s no better leadership book than Tribes.
8. The 48 Laws of Power
For a more popular, if not so rigorous, leadership book, The 48 Laws of Power has been cited as a useful book among a certain class of celebrity elites, including people like Will Smith, DJ Calvin Harris, Drake, Michael Jackson and Jay-Z. At the same time, it’s popular in U.S. prisons for its straightforward list of what it describes as “laws of power” drawn from the history of powerful figures across time. If you’re looking for a straightforward manual on power and how people use it and, consequently, how you can use and acquire it, The 48 Laws of Power will deliver.
9. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Traditional leadership books admittedly can be dreadfully boring. While reading for knowledge is great, sometimes nothing illustrates lessons better than a proper novel.
Patrick Lencioni addressed that narrative problem with his fictional leadership book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Instead of citing real-world examples to illustrate a given principle, the book tells the story of Kathryn Petersen, a CEO who must bring a dysfunctional team together before it sinks the company.
Through the course of reading, you’ll learn how teams succeed and fail and ultimately keep the lessons and tools learned when you’re faced with your own team debacles. If you want to be the best team leader you can be, this book will show you the way.
10. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever
Leadership at its core is, in many ways, just good people coaching. A great leader must not only inspire and execute well but also improve those around him or her, making their work better and improving the organization.
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is a practical guide for how to work with and ultimately coach the people you lead to do their best work. It even includes a series of templates to help you treat employees with respect and get to the core of any issue quickly so it can be promptly resolved. The end result? Satisfied employees better positioned to do their best work and their appreciation of the coach who helped get them there.
11. Radical Candor (Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity)
Kim Scott’s Radical Candor (Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity) is, dare we say, a radical book. If you’ve ever had a manager who couldn’t get to the point or was beating around the bush (or if you’ve been that manager), this leadership book will answer your prayers. The book suggests that people can be clear, direct and kind at the same time. With the tools in this book, you don’t have to be a pushover by avoiding raising relevant problems but you don’t have to be a screaming jerk to make your point either.
As long as you avoid common communication pitfalls, the book promises to help you reach a place of radical candor: a place where praise is common but appropriate criticism is too, creating more accountability, cohesion and candor for everyone in an organization.
12. Principles: Life and Work
A staple of any self-help or leadership book section of a book store, Principles: Life and Work gives any would-be leader the principles that author Ray Dalio, a billionaire businessman and investor, used to achieve his success. The book’s lessons all stem from the ideas of radical truth and radical transparency and can help any group make decisions in an organized and effective manner. Truly, if you’re thinking about starting up any kind of business or group, understanding Dalio’s ideas in this book will apply to and improve every aspect of your organization, whatever your goals might be. The proof of the ideas is in the pudding after all.