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December 2022

My Top 5 Desert Island Leadership Books

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I was recently asked by Shepherd Books to select my Top 5 books on leadership. There are probably as many leadership books sold per minute as Fairtrade bananas, and in my view most of them fail because they are just not practical enough to help. So here is a round-up of the only ones I think you really need to bother with (assuming, of course, that you have already read Leadersmithing!).

The Prince

I first read Machiavelli’s The Prince on my MBA and it is a brilliant wake-up call for leaders. He was vilified for writing it, because he skipped the customary hand-wringing about virtue and morality to focus on what really works. Some of it sounds brutal to the modern ear, but the key leadership lesson it taught me is that, for leaders, perception is more influential than reality. The more people you lead, the less they will be able to get close enough to you to understand your every thought and intention. So most followers guess, based on the distant messages they pick up through the grapevine and through any visible signals your behaviour provides. Machiavelli would not be surprised by fake news: control perception, and you control reality.

Emotional Intelligence

A necessary corrective to Machiavelli is Daniel Goleman’s classic on Emotional Intelligence. Leadership is always a balance between being right and being liked, but you can be both if you have excellent EQ. Goleman sets out the theory, before introducing a practical approach to increasing your emotional competence. The model he developed, which is at the heart of the EQ psychometrics he inspired, starts with self-awareness and your ability to read others, then considers your ability to manage yourself, and your ability to manage others in relationship. It is this last set of competencies that is so vital for delivering through others as a leader, as excellence in this sphere correlates with better organizational performance through increased discretionary effort and enhanced motivation.

Who Really Matters

Art Kleiner’s Core Group Theory was an aha moment for me, because it teaches senior leaders how to use their power well. The theory explains how top leaders act on their organisations like a magnet on iron filings: the slightest clue or cue they give ripples out, and is amplified and copied by everyone that follows them. This makes it crucial that leaders are careful about even the smallest behavioural choice they make: their priorities, who they pay attention to, the jokes they make – all of these will be seen as role model behaviours and replicated by those trying to impress. There is no such thing as off-stage for a leader.

The Enchiridion

Epictetus is the Stoic who inspired the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism is the intellectual origin of cognitive behavioural therapy and a way for leaders to train themselves to focus on the things they can change, rather than breaking their hearts over things over which they have no control. The Enchiridion has the virtue of being much shorter than Aurelius’ Meditations, and contains pithy observations and advice like ‘it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgment concerning them,’ and ‘don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.’ Leaders need to be good at detachment, and Stoicism can provide valuable tools to help.

Mr Happy

The leader’s most important job is to set the right culture for their organization. People will copy what you do, not what you say. This simple little book shows you the truth of that: When Mr Miserable comes to stay, Mr Happy doesn’t give him pep talks. He just keeps on being happy until Mr Miserable is too. As a leader, you need to relentlessly role model the behaviour you want, until it finally catches on.

What would your Top 5 be?