The best books about actually being a leader

The Books I Picked & Why

My Life in Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way

By Frances Hesselbein

My Life in Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way

Why this book?

Peter Drucker, the great 20th-century leadership thinker, called Frances “perhaps the finest leader I have ever known.” Although Frances led a non-profit for girls, the Girl Scouts USA, she influenced corporate giants along with public sector and military leaders around the world with her philosophy, her wisdom, and her clarity about mission and values. She was also a pioneer when it came to valuing diversity and living those values. She wrote many books, but My Life in Leadership is my favorite, telling the highly detailed story of how a young girl from Johnson PA developed into a force that would subtly influence how excellence in leadership is defined.


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The Heart of Business: Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism

By Hubert Joly

The Heart of Business: Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism

Why this book?

Joly is a French executive and former McKinsey numbers whiz who improbably engineered the resurgence of a struggling Best Buy by putting his faith in what he calls “human magic.” CEOs often talk about “putting people first” but Joly details precisely how he did this and shows why it is essential to what he calls “the next era of capitalism.” He is especially poignant in linking his own early experience working a series of soul-destroying low-wage jobs and his determination to create a working environment in which people felt- and were- valued. Joly is especially clear on the link between an engaged workforce and engaging work. This is an unusually thoughtful and reflective book by a CEO.


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Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters

By Vice Admiral Sandra Stosz

Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters

Why this book?

Vice Admiral Stosz’s extraordinary career as a US Coast Guard leader culminated in her being the first (and so far only) woman to head a major service academy. I came away from her memoir hugely inspired by her honesty and courage. I also loved her vivid descriptions of long stints on the icebreakers that ply Arctic and Antarctic waters in order to prepare the way for scientific teams, often as the only woman. Her grace and goodwill in those adventure-filled situations come shining through– and sea narratives by women are very rare.


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The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership

By Sam Walker

The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership

Why this book?

The Captain Class examines what it takes to build a dominant and dynastic sports team: the 1949-1953 New York Yankees; the 1956-1969 Boston Celtics; the 2011-2015 New Zealand All Blacks, the Cuban Women’s volleyball team 1991-2000, Barcelona’s professional soccer team 2008-2011, Australian Women’s Field Hockey in the 1990s, The San Antonio Spurs 1997-2016. The answer may surprise those who believe the presence of an undeniable GOAT (greatest of all time, or superstar) is the key ingredient of superb and sustained success– or those who attribute sustained success to great management, overwhelming talent, or unlimited money. Rather, Walker examines the impact of exceptional player-leaders who carry the team’s culture in their bones and inspire teammates to make outsized effort through their fierce dedication and strategic intelligence.


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True North: A Memoir

By Jill Ker Conway

True North: A Memoir

Why this book?

Conway’s journey from a childhood spent on a remote Australian sheep ranch to the first female president of Smith College is remarkable and searingly honest written memoir is more than a chronicle of success. With humor and insight, Conway renders the loneliness of being the only woman in the room, the costs (in her case, early struggles with depression and substance abuse), and the sources of support and resilience that kept her going. So many leadership books identify desirable leadership traits without describing the actual experiences that go into developing as a leader. This beautifully written book vividly shows what leading looks and feels like.


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