Books on Leadership - Part II

As you may recall, we left off with the following question, "So those are all the bad kinds of leadership books, what are the good ones?" 

Bad news on that one. There isn’t necessarily a “good” type of leadership book. You see, the make or break for any leadership book is really the reader. That means the best kind of leadership book is the one that actually gives one individual reader insights on how to lead: that helps that individual understand how to change, that motivates that individual to change, and that makes an impact on the way that individual works with people. Put it another way: Every person is going to have a different “best” leadership book. For me, the Tom Peters’ books fill that bill (which you probably guessed if you’ve read any previous posts; and I quickly acknowledge that many people put these firmly in the third type — least bad — listed in my previous blog.) For others, it is a discussion of what to do with all that moving cheese.

And this is the trap one falls into when trying to define a “good” leadership book — I already have a fundamental belief in the soap that Peters is selling, so does reading his book create a real change in the way I lead or just re-emphasize the leader I already am? As an executive at our company once said (paraphrase), “No one wants to change their leadership style. It got them to where they are today, so why change it?” In other words, while people may go into leadership books with the best of intentions, most only want reinforcement that what they are already doing is the correct leadership approach. Each reader comes in pretending to want seismic change, but actually is just looking to reinforce pre-existing attitudes. And each reader then defines a “good” leadership book through the lens of his or her own myopia.

It becomes quickly obvious that one person’s successful leadership book is another person’s door stop. The previously mentioned Cheese book is a great case in point. A executive in one company read this book and it resonated so completely with him it became required reading throughout the company. For some it worked, for some it didn’t, and for some it was just another chance to suck up.

This all finally leads us (no pun intended) to the realization that a successful leadership book is the one that leads readers to an epiphany about themselves or about leadership in general. For the Cheese leader, the epiphany came from reading the Cheese book. Just because it did not resonate with me does not mean his understanding and realizations were any less profound. All he was trying to do was share that epiphany and make everyone a better leader. And leadership training (which is what leadership books are all about) is really just about trying to share an epiphany. For me, my epiphanies have come from Tom Peters and training with the Disney Institute. And much of the leadership training I’ve provided is my attempt to have others experience those same epiphanies.  To some people, my training is successful, to others … well … maybe not so much.

But that is the curse of leadership training, the fact that the whole concept of trying to train leaders is really crazy. As much as we want to believe that everyone has the ability to be a leader, it is not true. There is such a thing as a natural-born leader. And there are people who have the basic abilities of leadership.  And for those people, the training and reading and studying about how to be a leader will make them better. But there are also people who couldn’t lead their way to sand while on the beach.  And all the training and reading and studying in the world is wasted on those who do not have the skills. It’s like the old joke about teaching a pig to sing — all you do is annoy the pig. I know this is not a popular attitude, I know we are supposed to believe that everyone can do everything, but I ask you to be honest. (Not about yourself, but about others.) We all know people who, no matter how much “leadership” training they are subjected to, will only become irate pigs. 

Which leads to the final point — there really is no such thing as leadership training. There is only the task of reminding people what the appropriate skills are, of helping them come to grips with the way they lead, and (few and far between) providing true insight into different ways to approach leadership. 

And that is why there is no such thing as a “good” leadership book, and why leadership books are seldom of value. But that won’t stop me. I’ll keep reading them — looking for the one point that will make a difference, hoping to gain that one insight that will help others, and searching for that Holy Grail.

And, at the risk of setting yourself up for ridicule, what do you consider the really good leadership books out there?

Posted on Oct 14, 2009 by Mike Jacka

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  1. It's an old book (1985), but the best examples of styles and attributes of leadership that I've seen.  They are taken from real events, not preaching, and disected to see what was different about these people.  The authors look at people like Ray Kroc, Edwin Land, and Ronald Reagan among others.  One of my Harvard professors used it as a text for his course.  "Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge" by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. 

  1. One of my favorite leadership books of all time is the best selling Launching a Leadership Revolution by Orrin Woodward & Chris Brady.  Rated as one of the Top 33 Leadership Gurus in the world by Top Leadership (, Woodward's (and Brady's) book discusses the 5 levels of leadership and is an extremely practical tool for anyone from a leadership novice to the most seasoned vet.  It quotes extensively from historical examples from many fields.  The extensive bibliography at the back of the book is worth the price alone. It is beginning to be used in business schools and corporations across the country and I have found it to be extremely helpful in my own leadership journey. This is a very unique book that can reach any audience and definitely does not take a "one-size-fits-all" approach to leadership.


  1. Mike, I still use things I learned from you and Paulette.  So your leadership training did resonate with me at least!

  1. To me, one of the best writers on the subject of Leadership is John Kotter.  I recently re-read one of Kotter's older books entitled, "A Force For Change:  How Leadership Differs From Management."  Yes, much of any book on leadership is common sense.  But, if it truly were common sense, why don't many so called leaders actually practice it?  The book was published in 1990, so the company examples Kotter uses are, of course, dated.  But, it's a good, quick read.  The "motivational aspect" of leadership Kotter summarizes well in one paragraph on page 63.  And, I particularly like a line from the chapter on Establishing Direction that reads, "Planning works best not as a substitute for direction setting but as an activity that is complementary to it."  Good stuff.

  1. Friday night was karaoke night. I am the first to admit I am not a singer,but I decided to break with the stuffy cop stereotype. I hopped up on thestage and gave them a tune. (No, I had not been drinking.) With my fullpolice uniform on, I performed “I Fought the Law and the Law Won,”written by Sonny Curtis.

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