Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of leadership books in the broad category of wisdom literature, many of which would nest under the study of leadership. I do have some favorites. While many authors have influenced my perspective, in the spirit of saying “when the student is ready, the master appears,” the books listed below “appeared” to me at a time when they were uniquely helpful to my development. These are 7 of my 40 definitive ‘Foundational Favorites‘ listed in no particular order.
To be clear, these are books that have been uniquely useful to me in my leadership journey. To learn more about my thoughts and experiences with all 40 of my favorite leadership books, visit our Books page.
1 & 2: Living the 7 Habits & The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Of the thousands of leadership perspectives that I have studied over the past 40 years, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and one of the sequels, Living the 7 Habits, by Stephen Covey have had the most profound influence on my approach to leadership. The timeless principles captured in his work have helped me successfully navigate the stormy seas of organization transformation as President of the Nabisco Foods Company, CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and today as Chairman of Avon Products. I highly recommend them.
3: A Simpler Way By Margaret J. Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers
A very provocative read that challenges many of the leadership paradigms of the 20th century. The primary goal of this book is to examine how we can make life less arduous and more delightful. Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers challenge us to think differently about how to organize human activities. To me, the essence of the idea is that life tends to self-organize. Networks, patterns, and structures naturally emerge without external imposition or direction. The hypothesis is that “organization” wants to happen naturally in a way where things can get done and people can be at their best. I guarantee this book will challenge your thinking. I also guarantee that it will enlighten your thinking, as well.
4 & 5: True North & Authentic Leadership by Bill George
Bill George’s two books, Authentic Leadership and True North, were enormously helpful to me during my tenure as CEO of Campbell as I tried to lift my corporate leadership game to a higher level. For me, the fact that Bill had cultivated the perspective captured in these two books as a successful CEO was very meaningful. I felt that he had “walked a mile in my shoes” and deeply understood the challenges I was facing every day. In particular, his True North model was very helpful to me as I tried to develop a more fully-integrated approach to my leadership profile. Also, as I move into Phase III of my “Journey to Authentic Leadership” (Giving Back), I continue to find this book helpful.
Bill spoke about his journey with our global leadership team one year. I was deeply moved by the authenticity of his remarks. I believe his presentation was one of the highest-rated presentations we have ever had in this forum. It spoke to everyone professionally and personally.
6: Talent Is Overrated By Geoffrey Colvin
Years ago, I participated in an event in Atlanta where Geoff interviewed me in front of several hundred diversity and inclusion practitioners. Over the years, I’ve been interviewed quite a lot and I found his questions to be a very big “cut above” an everyday interview. As I read his book, I also found his work to be a very big “cut above” similar work in this area. I was looking for some writing that I could share with my CEO Institute class that emphasized the importance of hard work. I believe that leadership is like anything else in life, if you want to be good at it, you have to work at it. This book pays that notion off in spades. His concept of the power of “deliberate practice” is developed to an inarguable extent. And, as the subtitle suggests, it is “What Really Separates World-Class Performance From Everybody Else.”
7: How to Win Friends & Influence People By Dale Carnegie
A timeless classic that is often overlooked in today’s “here and now” pop leadership culture. This book was published in 1937 and gets directly at the challenge of connecting with people in a constructive and influential way. While times certainly have changed since 1937, the essence of connecting with people has not. This treatise on winning friends and influencing people is a must for every leadership library.
What are some of your ‘Foundational Favorites’ — the books that you consider a “must-have” in any leadership library?