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8 books that can help make you a better leader

You won't learn to lead just by reading books. But finding out how other people succeeded can trim the learning curve.

Is it possible to teach leadership? Business schools say it is, and they'll relieve you of many thousands of dollars and years of your life to prove it. A quick glance through airport bookstores would indicate that publishers share the same opinion, even though many of the shelves full of management books offer slender tomes that are essentially built-out PowerPoint slides.

Maybe "Can you learn leadership?" is the wrong question, or a question too vague to be useful. Instead, I asked people from all walks of life which books helped them become better leaders than their bosses. They may not have learned some abstract idea of leadership but rather a practical takeaway of how to be a better manager in the real world.

Some of these, you'll notice, aren't exactly books. Leaders, apparently, don't always follow directions, which may be a lesson in and of itself.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He learned he had pancreatic cancer in September 2006, and a year later, he was told it was terminal. Shortly thereafter, on Sept. 18, 2007, Pausch gave an inspirational lecture called "The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," which became widely distributed on YouTube; he co-wrote a best-selling book of the same name before he died in July 2008.

The book resonates with T. Kent Hikida, a New York architect and principal at The Switzer Group. "'The Last Lecture' did what every good lecture does," Hikida says. "It taught you a lesson while you didn't even know you were being taught. Pausch calls this the head fake. And nothing's wrong with achieving your childhood dreams!"

The Matheny Manifesto by Mike Matheny

This is a sports book, but it's really about parenting, responsibility, and managing organizations. Mike Matheny, at age 41, got the job of succeeding the legendary and longtime St. Louis Cardinals baseball manager Tony LaRussa. Matheny had no professional managerial experience, though he had a 13-year career as a player. His teams got to the postseason three times in his first three years as a manager.

"The Matheny Manifesto" started as a letter to the parents of a Little League team he coached after he retired as a player and before he was hired as a manager. The letter was not kind, but it clearly outlined his expectations. The emphasis, for the kids, is on "playing the right way," meaning being on time and in uniform, paying attention, and not griping about the umpires. For parents, it's about stepping back and trusting the coach during games, rooting for the team and not individual players, and spending as much time as possible with the kids playing ball.

The book "taught me the value of letting your kids' coaches be their coaches, the value of not being among the legions of parents who ride and berate their kids at play," says Gordon Bock, a prisoner advocate with CARE Vermont. "In fact, given how parents' voices create a neurological response in the child beginning in the days of their being in utero, I don't shout their names in encouragement either. Such parental yelling doesn't help the kids' central nervous system. It does interfere with the relationship that you want the kid to build with the coach. I save my hollering at sporting events to ones in which my progeny are not playing."


Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian and biographer. Her book "Leadership: In Turbulent Times" follows how leadership crises were managed during the administrations of Abraham Lincoln (the Emancipation Proclamation), Theodore Roosevelt (labor strikes), Franklin D. Roosevelt (the Great Depression), and Lyndon Johnson (civil rights).

"The book provided me with fascinating reminders that private battles are not that uncommon, even for some of the greatest people in history," says Tristan Louis, CEO of Casebook PBC. "While traditional narrative tends to focus on a straight upward trajectory, the analysis of how each individual's crisis helped shape their subsequent resurgence and success along with a too-short final chapter on lessons learned—it could probably be its own book—make this book a must-read for any leader."

You Can Negotiate Anything by Herb Cohen

Herb Cohen is billed as "the world's best negotiator." That may be debatable (see what I did there?), but "You Can Negotiate Anything" is an undeniable classic. And since so much of leadership is about negotiation, you should add this to your bookshelf.

"The book is all about different styles of negotiating, depending on the nature of the thing negotiated and depending on the importance of the relationship with the other party—important vs. unimportant, one-shot negotiation (Russian style) vs. building an ongoing relationship," says Emmanuel Angel, a guitarist and businessman who's got a doctorate in measurement and statistics in education from the University of Pennsylvania. "The book details the nature of human interaction around a negotiation and getting the other side to invest time and energy in the negotiation, making it harder psychologically for them to walk away empty-handed."

Angel adds, "The more you get the seller to think, generally the more leverage you have. These ideas can be applied to any negotiation."

Short takes

Tom Levien, a business consultant who for many years was an executive at Hibu, likes James Clavell's "Shogun." "The author equated how loss of face was to lose honor, which puts an individual in a situation where they're compelled to regain their honor or to put you in a situation of dishonor," Levien says. "The lesson I am conscious of in business and interactions in general is to act to deliberately allow people to maintain or increase their dignity, specifically in cases where it would be easy to dishonor them."

Michael Roberts, dean of science at Coastal Carolina University, cites "Reframing Organizations," by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. His takeaway: "Be aware of the fact that people may have different frameworks than you—and lead accordingly. As a bench scientist, it exposed me to the importance of seeing things outside of my own frame of reference, which is often a challenge for scientists." Roberts confesses to being a little slow on the uptake: After reading the book for a course, he says, "I immediately pissed off a colleague by making a decision that paid no attention to their frame, though this ended up reinforcing the value of the lessons."

Don Davis, author and one-time White House correspondent for United Press International, likes the Mark Twain novel "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." "Managerial lesson: If you handle things right, someone else will paint the fence and enjoy doing it."

Marie Dalby Szuts, head of people operations at Figma, suggests "Conscious Business," by Fred Kofman. "So many useful lessons about unconditional responsibility; it was hugely influential in how I think about building teams."

"Robin Hood has it all," says Kevin Wells, a Boston-based technology marketing exec. "Leadership amidst adversity, how to outwit treachery, the guide to keeping your men merry, how to use a bow properly. I highly recommend it."

Turning the page

The best way to learn leadership is to get out there and lead—and learn from your mistakes. These suggestions, though, may shorten your learning curve, helping you to be more effective and avoid mucking things up.

More options for your bookshelf:

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.