40 Best Business Books to Inspire Great Leaders
Whether you have an official title or not, you probably lead in your professional or personal life — maybe even both. While some people believe leadership is a talent you are born with, many more will tell you leadership is a skill you learn and refine. That’s why there are so many books on the subject! This list includes our favorite business books to inspire great leaders.
Productivity and Success
- The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals (Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling) - Need to get stuff done? This book will motivate you to think differently, act on lead measures and provide accountability with a simple framework for mobilizing teams of volunteers, employees and C-Suite executives.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen R. Covey) - He’s since become an expert on leadership, penning several bestsellers, but his first book from 2004 remains on a lot of “must read” lists. The latest edition includes a Q&A with the author where he talks about some of the most important things he’s learned about leadership and hiring. He writes, “I am convinced that when recruiting and selecting is done strategically…it pays enormous long-term dividends.” Stephen R. Covey is also the author of The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything and First Things First.
- Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (Eric Barker) - A former Hollywood screenwriter, Barker uses science to take down some common myths (for example, “Nice Guys Finish Last”) and help explain success. In an interview with Forbes, he says his best career advice is to have “your own definition of success, know your strengths, and pick the right company!”
- Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (Jim Collins) - Collins, a management guru, is a voracious researcher and author. His 2001 book won a following beyond the business world that included football coaches, pastors and school principals by addressing a single question: can a good company become a great company, and if so, how? In Good to Great, Collins looks at more than 1,400 companies and finds that greatness is not primarily a function of circumstance, but mainly a matter of conscious choice and discipline — something that doesn’t happen overnight. Jim Collins is also the author of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies and Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.
- Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell) - What sets high-achievers apart from the rest? This book explores the demographics, characteristics and patterns of successful people. Malcolm Gladwell is the author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
- The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success (William N. Thorndike, Jr.) - This book (recommended by Warren Buffet) is a compilation of interviews with eight CEOs who share similar leadership styles. While it may be written for CEOs and investors, the lessons apply to all industries.
- Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track - And Keeping It There (Les McKeown) - This book walks leaders through the stages of organizational growth and success with practical examples and tips both for those in the organization, and those leading it. Les McKeown is also the author of The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success.
- Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge (Henry Cloud) - A book about resiliency, human behavior and leadership to guide organizational clarity and encourage personal and professional boundaries. Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist and author of Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t and Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward.
- Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Daniel Goleman) - Learn about the research and theory behind emotional intelligence and why it matters for leaders. Goleman explains the five skills leaders can use to increase emotional intelligence levels and thrive. Daniel Goleman is the author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and Working with Emotional Intelligence.
- Leadership: Theory and Practice (Peter G. Northouse) - This book is often used as a textbook in leadership courses as it outlines various types and styles of leadership. Northouse presents a read perfect for the seasoned leader looking to examine daily practices and apply leadership theories to everyday situations.
- The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery (Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile) - Learn more about yourself and how you impact others. The Enneagram is a personality type system that describes the energy and presence each type of person brings to others. The Road Back to You explores the Enneagram from a Christian perspective and is a fit for those looking to grow in faith and self-awareness.
- Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow (Tom Rath, Gallup Press) - In his book StrengthsFinder 2.0 Tom Rath walks readers through an assessment and analysis of personal strengths. In Strengths Based Leadership he explores why people follow and describes how to improve teams by focusing on individual strengths as opposed to weaknesses. Tom Rath co-authors many books including How Full is Your Bucket? and Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.
- The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions — And What to Do About It (Henry L. Thompson) - This book breaks down the impact stress has on the brain and in the workplace. Thompson offers strategies to build resilience to stress and to improve emotional intelligence when placed in a tough situation. A fascinating read for leaders of all types and backgrounds.
- The Truth About Leadership: The No-fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know (James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner) - An easy read outlining the most critical elements of exceptional leadership and why they matter. Kouzes and Posner team up to offer other titles such as Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader and The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.
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Tenacity and Grit
- The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders (Ira Chaleff) - Often we focus on leadership and neglect the concept of followership. But in reality, the best leaders know how to follow well and invest in others. Ira Chaleff is a leading researcher and co-author of The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations.
- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace) - This is the story of Pixar leaders and the factors that contribute to the company’s wild success. Leaders of all sectors will enjoy the stories of perseverance and risk embraced by the creative team and those who manage them.
- Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. (Brené Brown) - In the latest book from researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown, we learn a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and ideas and dares to develop and grow. Brown writes, “One of the most important findings of my career is that daring leadership is a collection of skills and practices that are 100 percent teachable. It’s learning and unlearning that requires brave work, tough conversations, and showing up with your whole heart. Easy? No. Because choosing courage over comfort is not always our default. Worth it? Always. We want to be brave with our lives and our work. It’s why we’re here.” Other titles by Brené Brown include Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead and Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.
- Earning It (Joann Lublin) - Lublin talked to dozens of current and former CEOs — all women — about getting to the top — as women. She covers everything from the timely topic of sexual harassment to husbands who were stay-at-home dads to the glass ceiling. In an interview about the book, Lublin told Forbes her most important lessons from the women she interviewed involved getting noticed, taking calculated risks, taking on tough tasks and showing your value early on.
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Angela Duckworth) - Angela Duckworth is a psychologist who says talent is not enough — instead, we all have to do the work to succeed. She works with students, teachers, parents and business executives to help them understand that while talent is a starting place, passion and persistence may matter just as much.
- HBR’s 10 Must Reads Boxed Set (Harvard Business Review) - This series of books designed for business leaders shares the top 10 leadership reads on a topic. You’ll find yourself accessing these essays often for a quick, inspiring read and a practical reference guide. Look for similar books by HBR on topics like management, emotional intelligence and decision-making.
- Leadership Insight: The New Psychology of Grit, Success, & Well-Being (Gene Harker) - As a psychology and organizational researcher, Gene Harker explores the legacy of a leader. What if we measured a leader’s success not by effort or hours worked but instead by positivity and impact on others? In Leadership Insight Gene Harker provides practical examples of how everyone can grow in leadership ability and help those around them.
- Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth (Samuel R. Chand) - This book, written for church leaders and pastors, applies widely to all communities of faith and purpose. Leading is tough, and this book teaches leaders how to navigate and learn from the pain. In fact, Chand says that if you’re not hurting, then you are not truly leading. Samuel Chand is also the author of Who’s Holding Your Ladder? Selecting Your Leaders, Leadership’s Most Critical Decision and Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision and Inspiration.
- Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Phil Knight) - When Warren Buffet calls it “The best book I read last year,” it is worth putting on your reading list. This book from the guy who created Nike is raw, personal and honest as it describes how building a big company is not an easy road.
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Motivation and Perspective
- Developing the Leader Within You (John C. Maxwell) - John C. Maxwell takes a close look at different styles of leadership and outlines principles for inspiring and motivating others. Maxwell writes, “The truly born leader will always emerge, but to stay on top, natural leadership characteristics must be developed.” John C. Maxwell is the author of several award-winning books including No Limits: Blow the CAP Off Your Capacity, Winning with People: Discover the People Principles that Work for You Every Time, and The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential.
- Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us (Daniel H. Pink) - Leadership is all about motivation and some say this book offers a different take on what we traditionally think is motivating. This somewhat controversial book says that rewarding employees is not about money, but instead about letting workers feel fulfilled. Pink says, “To motivate employees you must give them autonomy, mastery and purpose.” Daniel H. Pink is also the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.
- Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (Hans Rosling) - Remember when Bill Gates announced he was giving every 2018 college grad in the country a copy of his favorite book? This is it! The billionaire software genius calls it one of the most important books he has ever read.
- First, Break All the Rules (Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman) - According to Business Insider, Facebook’s HR Chief suggested all of their managers grab a copy of this book to learn about leadership lessons from more than 80,000 managers working at 400 different companies. The researchers determined the best managers challenge rules by focusing on employee strengths and ignoring weaknesses.
- The Greatest Salesman in The World (Og Mandino) - A classic self-help book published in 1983, The Greatest Salesman in the World is all about empowering yourself. Author Og Mandino says, “Victory comes only after many struggles and countless defeats, yet each struggle, each defeat sharpens your skills and strengths, your courage and your endurance… and thus each obstacle… forces you to become better… or quit.”
- Lean In: Woman, Work and the Will to Lead (Sheryl Sandberg) - The COO of Facebook talks about the importance of engaging with every employee, encouraging debate and addressing the elephant in the room as it appears. Inc. Magazine wrote an article declaring Sandberg shares “some unique and surprising leadership qualities that every boss could learn from.” Sheryl Sandberg is the co-author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.
- Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow (Craig E. Johnson) - This resource will walk you through the ethical dilemmas leaders face and case studies of how to navigate both the positive and the negative outcomes.
- The Power of Positive Thinking (Norman Vincent Peale) - First published in the 50’s, this classic book offers a practical guide to happiness. Peale writes, “Believe in yourself. Have faith in your abilities. Without a humble but reasonable confidence… you cannot be successful or happy.” Words of wisdom for every leader, especially a leader intent on inspiring their team! Norman Vincent Peale is the author of many books including You Can If You Think You Can and Enthusiasm Makes the Difference.
- The Seat of The Soul (Gary Zukav) - In an interview with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Oprah said this book changed her life and her career, teaching her about intention. Zukav writes that “Every action, thought, and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect.” He talks about accountability for our intentions and how to address every thought and feeling from a positive perspective.
- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Simon Sinek) - Sinek’s TED talk is the third most-watched talk of all time and his bestselling book is an excellent fit for anyone looking to inspire others. It’s an easy but powerful read. Simon Sinek is the author of other popular books including Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t and Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team.
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni) - This brief collection of stories will illustrate issues that are holding your team back. According to the book, the five dysfunctions of a team are the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. Often, knowing the problem your team is facing can be the first step to finding a helpful solution and leading team members through the tough work of reaching team health. Patrick Lencioni is the author of many books including The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues and The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.
- Followership: How Followers Are Creating and Changing Leaders (Barbara Kellerman) - Kellerman outlines types of followers within an organization and offers wisdom on how to lead to teach employees at all levels of the organization. Barbara Kellerman is the author of many books including The End of Leadership and Professionalizing Leadership.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie) - This book has been around for so long, it has its own Wikipedia page. First published in 1936, this book teaches the basic idea that leadership (like so much in life) is all about people, a lesson that hold true all these years later. You’ll learn the six ways to make people like you, the 12 ways to win people to your way of thinking and the nine ways to change people without resentment.
- Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (Liz Wiseman) - Why do some leaders drain team energy and others recharge it? Offering practical examples, Liz Wiseman explores how leaders can give back to others and build talent as opposed to diminish it. Liz Wiseman is the author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools and Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.
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- It Starts with One: Changing Individuals Changes Organizations (J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen) - Organizational change initiatives fail 60% of the time. Leaders need to learn how to activate, manage and evaluate change within the organizational context. The authors of this book describe how individual change can serve as a catalyst for organizational change and the three major barriers leaders need to work through to improve.
- Leading Change (John P. Kotter) - Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the thought of changing significant aspects of your organization? Then this is the book for you. John Kotter is a respected change management author, both in the academic world of leadership and in the practical world of business. He has written other titles such as Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions and Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life.
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Chip Heath and Dan Heath) - Why is change so hard for us? This book explores two sides of the mind — the rational and the emotional — and how the tension between the two contribute or hinder positive change. Chip Heath and Dan Heath are the authors of Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
Regardless of your official leadership title, your ability and skillset can improve through learning and digging deeper into these leadership topics. Get inspired and commit to personal and professional growth. Don’t have time to pick up a book to read? Many libraries offer free access to audiobooks with your library card. Ask your local librarian about it and start learning today!
Michelle Boudin is an investigative reporter for WCNC TV and a freelance writer.