5 Books Every Leader Should Read

My bookcase is full of business books I didn’t buy. That’s right. They came courtesy of hopeful writers and hopeless former CEOs who, for some odd reason I’ll never understand, thought their top executives needed to be up on all the latest management fads.

Thank God they didn’t ask for book reports.

The modern business book is, without a doubt, an extraordinary waste of time and focus. Never mind the opportunity cost – all the great things you could have been doing instead of wasting your precious time on useless nonsense.

I can’t overstate this, folks. We live in a time of unprecedented information and communication overload. The amount of content competing for your eyeballs is out of control. The level of noise is deafening. The relentless tug is distracting and addictive.

In the midst of all that, you’ve got to find a way to focus. If you want to make something of yourself, your business, your organization, it’s never been more important to focus on what really matters.

Of course, there are exceptions: those rare individuals who, through experience, observation, reason, and insight, come up with concepts that are groundbreaking, inspiring, and maybe even life-changing.

Growing up in the high-tech industry I was mostly influenced by the people I knew and worked with, by my experiences in the real world. But there were a handful of books that had a profound impact on the way I think and behave. They were critical to my success in a highly complex and brutally competitive world.

“The Tao of Leadership: Leadership Strategies for a New Age” by John Heider

As a young executive, my instincts were to dominate and control, to use position and power to get people to do my bidding. Reading this humble little book was like a proverbial “everything you know is wrong” experience. Its 81 timeless lessons based on the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu changed my entire perspective on leadership. You can read it in an hour, but I’ve reread it so many times my copy is more scotch tape than paper.

“What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School” by Mark McCormack

Looking back on my career, I can definitely see why McCormack wrote the book. Success is all about understanding what works and what doesn’t work in the real business world. Not only did McCormack’s eminently practical lessons help get me through my early years, they were instrumental in helping me make the transition from engineering to sales, to marketing, and ultimately, to executive leadership. No kidding.

“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

While not a business book per se, Rand’s masterpiece on the greatness of man taught me to believe in myself and trust my gut. Her message of accountability and self-reliance resonated strongly with my own work ethic. And her description of free-market capitalism – the symbiotic beauty of business relationships – has been an endless source of inspiration throughout my career.

“The Prince” by Machiavelli

I came upon Machiavelli later in my career but the timing couldn’t have been better. The Renaissance philosopher’s 500-year-old lessons on achieving long-term political success and power translate remarkably well into today’s hypercompetitive business world and our cultural emphasis on entrepreneurship. I actually found my own observations to be startlingly similar to his. Go figure.

“The Practice of Management” by Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker was the father of modern management. Like Machiavelli, he was a great observer and a brilliant thinker. He was the first to understand that business is about the behavior of individuals, that managing companies is about managing people, and the importance of serving customers. He coined the term “knowledge worker.”

Drucker taught generations of influential executives how to effectively run big, complex organizations. He invented many of the management concepts used by every company to this day, including managing by objectives, decentralization, outsourcing, simplification, and focus.

Every current and aspiring manager should read Drucker – a lot of Drucker. Once you do, I doubt if you’ll pick up another business fad book by one of those popular gurus again, except maybe for a laugh.

Those are the five authors that made the biggest difference in my career. With rare exception, as far as I’m concerned, you can toss all the rest. Which brings up something I’ve never thought about before: why in the world do I keep all those books in my bookcase? I guess they’re not even worth the time to throw them out.