In a capitalist world, good leaders are hard to come by, especially for subordinates who just want someone who sees and supports them. Instead, most workers must suffer managers who only care about productivity and quotas.
I’ve worked in several office environments and have had hands-off leaders and hands-on leaders. And while there’s no formula for what makes a good and bad leader, what I’ve realized is that it comes down to how leaders treat those they lead. Workers will stick it out with a toxic company if their managers protect and support them. Alternatively, workers will leave a good company if their managers are toxic.
I learned pretty quickly that a good leader (i.e., manager) can make or break my career. But what happens when I want to step up and be the leader? Well, like for everything else, I turn to the top leadership books. There is so much information out there that I think it’s important to read at least two or three of these books to triangulate which advice works for your situation.
Each one of these top leadership books is written by an author who’s also a leader and wants to teach readers how to lead and inspire. Most of these books are specifically for those leading in the workplace. However, many of the principles can also work for leaders in social situations or within families.
Top Leadership Books
Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
Brown walks readers through what happens when they dare to lead, especially in a culture that thrives off of uncertainty. She talks about how true leaders see the potential in others and nurture them to grow. It’s not about having the right answers but rather the right mindset.
Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change by Stacey Abrams
Abrams is pretty much a modern legend at this point with how she doggedly ensured the rights of voters during the 2020 election. In this book, she talks about how leaders from marginalized communities can advance their careers. She gives practical advice on everything from networking to persistence. More importantly, she encourages readers to lean into their “otherness” rather than hide it away.
Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee
Leaders cannot be dictators. Successful leaders understand that they have human beings with emotions working under them. More times than not, our emotions get the better of us, which is why Primal Leadership discusses the importance of emotional intelligence in leaders. The book also describes various leadership styles and provides advice on how to lead effectively.
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
The Navy SEALS know a thing or two about leading effectively. Their leaders understand what needs to be done in order to successfully complete some of the most dangerous missions in the world in some of the most dangerous places in the world. This book talks about important factors that leaders need to understand in order to ensure their team’s success.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
It’s hard to have a list of leadership books without this classic. Carnegie talks about how anyone can get anything they want and to achieve their maximum potential. While not specifically a leadership book, Carnegie’s lessons are universal and will give current and future leaders the tools they need to positively influence those around them.
Lead Like a Woman: Gain Confidence, Navigate Obstacles, Empower Others by Deborah Smith Pegues
More often than not, leaders are automatically assumed to be men. As such, women have to work twice as hard to become leaders and to get respect. Pegues talks to readers about how being a woman can be an asset by discussing 12 traits that can help women succeed as leaders and 12 that can hold them back.
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald
We live in a globalized world that is only now learning to interrogate biases. In Blindspot, Banaji and Greenwald discuss how a lifetime of being exposed to cultural biases on everything from age to race can affect how we interact with others. While not specifically a leadership book, Blindspot provides important education on addressing biases, something every leader should do.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
So here’s a classic of a classic. Tzu’s ancient treatise on military strategy, strength, and success is still relevant for a reason. Although warfare has changed and most leaders fight in boardrooms rather than battlefields, Tzu’s strategies for leadership can be translated for the modern world.
The High-Potential Leader: How to Grow Fast, Take on New Responsibilities, and Make an Impact by Ram Charan
Charan discusses High Potential leaders (i.e. hipos) in his book. In this modern world, hipos need to adapt to modern vicissitudes of a finicky economy. Charan talks about what makes a hipo and how you can become one and thus find yourself with an in-demand skill.
What happens after you actually become a manager? When Zhuo became a manager at 25, she found herself overwhelmed by the logistics that included everything from hiring to messaging. In her book, she talks about how great managers are made and provides some insights from her successful career.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
Duckworth’s book isn’t specifically about leadership. However, in a world where it seems like you must compete for everything, it’s important to have grit. In Duckworth’s book of the same name, she talks about how grit, or focused persistence, is the key to success when everything and everyone else fails. As a leader, there will be situations where grit will be what gets you to the finish line.
Blue Ocean Leadership by W. Chan Kim and Renée A. Mauborgne
The “blue ocean strategy” is a groundbreaking model for discovering new markets. In this book, the professors who first outlined the strategy over a decade ago now adapt it for leaders. Blue Ocean Leadership discusses everything from getting and keeping employees engaged to which acts of leadership are needed at each level of an organization.
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Sinek explores leadership not from the angle of the individual but rather from a team. He discusses why an organization such as the Marine Corps has successful leaders who marines are willing to go into dangerous situations with and for. Sinek argues that successful leaders are those who have their employees’ best interests at heart and promote a supportive environment.
Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by L. David Marquet
This book is a true story of how Marquet learned to let go of his natural instinct to control everything and instead gave control to those in his team. Marquet walks readers through how leaders should designate roles to their subordinates and turn them into leaders in their specific avenues. Doing so can make for a successful team in which each member takes and successfully maintains responsibility.
It’s all in the title. Maxwell is an expert in leadership and has distilled his knowledge on leadership into his 21 laws on what make a good leader. With over 30 years of experience, he walks readers through his triumphs and mistakes.
Want to learn more about the top leadership books and books about work in general? Check out our articles on The Best Business Audiobooks, Modern Career Books, YA Books About Entrepreneurs, The Best Books for Aspiring Entrepreneurs, and Books About Tech Startup Culture.