Leadership Development: Best Business Books to Read

Leadership Development

Leadership Development

What are the best business books to read for leadership development?

For a long while I had dismissed leadership development as a topic overblown by it’s own self-importance. For me, so many of the best business books that I had read (over 450 in the past decade) talked about leadership as if they were spectators in the stands watching a football game – they described what happened (or should happen) but offered few clues as to how to go about doing it well.

That all changed when I was commissioned to RAP (create book summaries) a series of leadership books for a national leadership body under the Book Rapper banner (my book summary service).

Two things shifted for me.

  • Firstly, I immersed myself in the leadership literature to gauge who was saying what and how. This means I had a better understanding of the leadership landscape.
  • Secondly, I wrote my own leadership book, Disruptive Leadership because I felt that I understood the pattern in which development was heading.

The following books ten business books represent the core ones I used to write my book. Plus each one was carefully selected to be worthy of a Book Rapper issue – only one book in nine that I read made that elite list.

Thus, here are my best business books for leadership development.

1 Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

Warren Bennis - On Becoming a Leader

The word ‘classic’ is often over used. This book is one that deserves this title.

On Becoming a Leader was originally published in 1989 and was one of the first to present the view that ‘a leader must be authentic’.

Bennis is considered “one of the pioneers of the contemporary field of Leadership studies”. Source: Wikipedia

Most leadership development fails to produce leaders because they focus on the wrong things.

They treat leadership as if it’s a thing to do, a means to an end. Instead, leadership is a side effect, a by-product of a way of being. In particular, leadership occurs as a result of being fully expressed as a human being in the pursuit of something worthwhile.

To become a leader, Bennis suggests we follow the same path to become a fully functioning human being. It all starts with knowing yourself. Who are you? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Know what you want and how to engage others to help you fulfil that.

Read this if you want to be a leader anywhere in your life – at home, at work, in your community. Start with this basic question: Am I being all I can be? Answer honestly and you’ll know what to do next.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Becoming You – The Key to Becoming a Leader.

2 James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

James Kouzes and Barry Posner - The Leadership Challenge

Any leadership book that has been updated and revised five times over 25 years, has sold over two million copies and been translated into over 20 languages needs to be discussed as part of your leadership development.

The Leadership Challenge asks two core questions that provide the context for your leadership:

  1. What did you do when you were at your personal best as a leader?
  2. What qualities do you look for and admire in a leader – someone whose direction you would willingly follow?

From over 100,000 responses from around the world over a 30-year timeframe, Kouzes and Posner have identified five core practices and ten leadership commitments.

They present leadership as a challenge because it’s not easy to make extraordinary things happen.

Read this if you want to benchmark what many people think are the keys to creating leaders.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Act – How to Attract Willing Followers.

3 Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones - Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? What it takes to be an Authentic Leader

Traditional leadership research focuses on the internal qualities and traits of the person in charge.

In contrast this book focuses on the relationship between the leader and their followers. It shows that what’s needed changes according to the current context and people involved. And it follows that the prized qualities of what makes an effective leader also changes.

Goffee and Jones offer three leadership axioms: Leadership is situational, non-hierarchical and relational.

Further, this means leadership happens throughout an organisation and not just in the appointed roles. Plus, leadership is a relationship between two groups of people: those leading and those following.

This expands the previously narrow focus on many leadership development programs that focus on the person leading exclusively and in isolation.

Read this if you want to stop being a plastic role-driven authority reliant on your position in a hierarchy to get things done. If you’re ready to start being an authentic leader and let some of your foibles hang out then this book is for you.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Authentic – The Key to Having a Following.

4 Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linksy - The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

In a world of clarity and relative certainty, leadership can set a clear path. However, in a world of constant change and uncertainty, effective leadership needs to take on a new form.

We can know the answer to a technical challenge in advance. However, adaptive challenges are more complex and the solution is usually unknown.

Adaptive Leadership acknowledges that some of our leadership challenges resemble being a sea-captain sailing in uncharted waters. And as leaders we can’t go it alone.

It also points to the end result that all leadership development should serve: making change happen.

This book is built on solid experience in the field, grounded in strong academic thinking and delivered in a highly practical form. It’s taken a lifetime of work to produce it and now it’s over to you to spend your life time practising it. Read this if you’re up for this challenge.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Thrive – Lead to Fulfil Your Purpose.


5 Jim Collins, Good to Great

Jim Collins, Good to Great

Good to Great has a broader view of organisations than merely leadership. And it does begin with two powerful ideas.

Firstly, all great companies need great leadership. And, whilst the business press typically celebrates the charismatic leader, the Good to Great research uncovered that a different leadership style was required. Collins called it Level 5 Leadership – a mix of personal humility and professional will – you might know it as Servant Leadership.

Secondly, to build an organisation we typically set the vision of where we want to go then build a team around that. The Good to Great research showed the opposite was a better approach – gather the right team then work out where to go.

The remainder of the book addresses what a leader needs to create to transform a good organisation into a great one.

Read this if you want your organisation to be great. While we all say we want this, look inside to decide if you’re willing to do what it takes to make it happen.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Greatness – What to Focus on to Transform Your Organisation.

6 Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Sheryl Sandberg - Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead

Lean In is the story of being a woman at work and at home as told by one person working at the top of the corporate tree. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook.

Sandberg proposes that the feminist revolution of the past century has stalled because women have failed to keep pushing for change. Men still run the world and women continue to avoid the responsibility required to fight for equality in workplace pay and opportunity.

Further she proposes that the lack of women in leadership is fuelled by external factors based on the stereotypes and biases collected over centuries of male rule. It’s also caused by women not being ambitious enough to step up and fill the leadership gap. It’s a bold call to arms.

Read this if you want to help forge equality in the gender wars. It’s not just for females who need to step up at work. It’s also for males who need to step up at home. Make the world better for both sexes.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Leading Women – How to Close the Leadership Gap.

7 Logan, King and Fischer-Wright, Tribal Leadership

Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright - Tribal Leadership - Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organisation

The number one challenge for every business is to build a community or a tribe. This includes your internal team, your suppliers and your customers or clients.

To do this you need to build a culture. Yet, despite this basic proposition, many leadership development programs fail to cover this aspect of leading the way.

Tribal Leadership offers five levels of culture. Stages One to Three are low performing teams. The goal is to be stable at Stage Four with the occasional step into the brilliance of Stage Five.

Read this if you want to lead a small or large tribe – an internal or external group. This book is a super practical road map of leadership that relies on observing language and behaviour, which takes it beyond the usual leadership clichés in so many books.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Tribe – A Roadmap for Leading Extraordinary Teams.

8 Barbara Kellerman, The End of Leadership

Barbara Kellerman - The End of Leadership

If I stood on the rooftops and started shouting ‘The End of Leadership’ you would probably dismiss me as being another raving loony.

However, Barbara Kellerman is probably one of few people on the planet who could write such a damming leadership book and ensure she and her work remained credible.

The premise of this book is simple: the power of leaders is failing and at the same time the power of the follower is rising.

It’s a dramatic shift that points to the elephant in the room – why we’ve all been groaning at the lack of quality leadership in business and in politics.

Kellerman suggests leadership, as we know it, has ended and that our usual leadership development methods have failed badly.

She presents a thorough analysis of leadership around the world and across workplace sectors. Plus she offers an important historical context that exposes the seismic shift. It’s a slow train that’s been coming for a while and is now gaining pace with the rise of the Internet and social media. This is a must-read for leaders everywhere – particularly those within the leadership industry. It’s an overdue wake up call.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Leaderslip – The Demise of the Leader and the Rise of the Follower.

9 Ori Brafman and Rod A Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider

Ori Brafman and Rod A Beckstrom - The Starfish and the Spider

The sub-title of this book is: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organisations.

To describe a team or an organisation as ‘leaderless’ is a disparaging comment – or at least is used to be!

It typically meant ‘ineffective, without purpose and operating like a rabble’.

With the rise of the Internet, leadership has been completely redefined.

Our usual context for leadership development is to lead a centralized or hierarchical structure. This implies, leaders and followers – or perhaps more likely a boss who barks orders and a team that follows along acting them out.

This book focuses on a different beast: a decentralized organisation does not need a leader. Think Wikipedia, viruses, Peer-to-Peer software and Alcoholics Anonymous.

When you flip the organisational context in this way you also flip leadership – instead of being a spider leading from the top, you become a starfish that has no top and must find new ways to inspire and coordinate action.

Read this if you want to be challenged. It will force you to rethink everything you think you know about leadership and organisation development.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Leaderful – The Power of Decentralised Organisations.

10 Grenny, Patterson, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzler, Influencer

Grenny, Patterson, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzler - Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change

If leadership is measured by your ability to influence the behaviour of others to achieve the results you want, then it pays to adopt a wider perspective of the action you need to take.

At a general level, this book presents six ways to create change that go a long way further than simply being a better individual leader. They also include the social dynamic and the environmental (structural) context in which we work.

In this way, Influencer presents a new way to lead. It scales up the leadership development conversation to include a bigger, less personal viewpoint. Read this if you’ve been part of the flood of leadership in the drought of engagement. The old model of command and control no longer works because we don’t want to be told what to do. Instead, join the new way to lead by using strategies for influencing the behaviours that matter.

The Book Rapper version of this book is called: Influence – The New Way to Lead.

Summary: Best Leadership Development Books

This is my list of the best business books for leadership development. For me, they fit into three neat categories:

1 The Classics

This includes the first four books on this list – On Becoming a Leader, The Leadership Challenge, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. These books form the basis for the core leadership ideas offered over the past 25 years.

2 The Contemporary

This includes: Good to Great, Lean In and Tribal Leadership and these books represent current issues in leadership around the servant leader, gender and culture.

3 The Disruptive

This includes the final three books on the list – The End of Leadership, The Starfish and the Spider and Influence. These books represent a changing of the guards and in the spirit of disruption may at first look less like leadership, as we know it. In my view this is the future that leadership development needs to address.

Book Rapper's Best Business Books for Leadership Development

Want more to boost your Leadership Development?

Instead of buying all of these books individually, buy the Book Rapper Lead The Way Bundle. It’s effectively a 12-month DIY leadership course that includes a visual book summary of each of these ten books, plus an audio and video presentation of each book. It also includes a full copy of my book Disruptive Leadership, which connects the dots between the books and provides a framework for your self-paced course. Lead The Way here.

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