The best leadership books to read before the sh!t hits the fan

Why am I passionate about this?

The world is growing more turbulent, and every leader today has to be ready to be a crisis leader. I have been studying and teaching leadership and crisis leadership at Harvard for more than two decades. I have deployed to major incidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and trained crisis teams around the world. I have seen that effective crisis leaders make “worst days” better. They unite and inspire, they protect communities, and, most important, they save lives. That’s why I have a passion to help current and aspiring leaders ready themselves and their organizations for whatever the world throws at them. 


I wrote...

You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most

By Eric J. McNulty, Leonard Marcus, Joseph M. Henderson , Barry C. Dorn

Book cover of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most

What is my book about?

You’re It provides offers gripping, real-world stories of crisis leadership along with proven, pragmatic tools and techniques for leading in the most difficult circumstances along with real-world stories that show the advice in action. It helps you understand how to lead with influence beyond your authority “up” to your boss, “across” with your peers, “beyond” to external stakeholders, as well as “down” with your team.

You’re It shows you how to be at your best in high-stakes, high-pressure situations. It explores making tough calls, communicating effectively, and rallying unity of mission and action. The content was developed at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and has been the center of the curriculum there for 20 years. Now you can put the insights to work as you lead.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Being Essential: Seven Questions for Living and Leading with Radical Self-Awareness

Eric J. McNulty Why did I love this book?

I have seen how important it is for someone trying to lead to understand themselves as a person—to be comfortable in their own skin, even in trying circumstances. To be effective, you have to be authentic and have presence. It’s harder than it seems.

Dunston walks through a series of simple, yet profound questions that help you master the balance of “be and see.” That is, being the real you and as the leader others need to see. I refer to the “essential” questions regularly and find more meaning through them every time. The answers help build self-awareness, confidence, and the ability to show up ready for any challenge.

I regularly recommend this book to my leadership students.

By Dain Dunston,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Being Essential as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Being Essential presents the seven questions that will help any leader discover an authentic path to the true self and master a virtuous cycle of self-awareness that fosters purpose, value, and joy at work and in life.

Leaders often know what they need to do, but don't have a clue who they need to be. Without a true essence of self, their leadership can feel void of purpose and confidence, affecting both teams and stakeholders. But when leaders discover their essential selves-who they are at their cores and why they show up-it enables them to reach a state of "radical…


Book cover of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Eric J. McNulty Why did I love this book?

Braiding Sweetgrass may seem an odd choice for crisis leaders.

However, I find it essential reading for two reasons: One, is that I derive some of my understanding of people and organizations through learning about non-human systems. Nature has a lot to teach us. Kimmerer provides a deep, yet accessible masterclass on the lessons she’s taken from her close relationship with plants. Second, Kimmerer, as a Native American, opened my eyes to a different way of knowing.

When you have to work with people and communities different than your own, it is critical to appreciate how they see things. That’s a situation I face regularly, and I find openness to different logic models and worldviews to be vital to building cooperative, collaborative relationships.

By Robin Wall Kimmerer,

Why should I read it?

45 authors picked Braiding Sweetgrass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Called the work of "a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose" (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, "anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love," by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take "us on a journey that is…


Book cover of The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design

Eric J. McNulty Why did I love this book?

This is another counter-intuitive recommendation, but I find I learn a lot about leading by getting outside the confines of leadership books.

Heller is a pioneer in social design, solving complex challenges by working with communities rather than doing something to them. The emphasis on listening and iterating solutions are directly applicable to leading through crisis and change. The process she outlines is approachable and her stories compelling. My copy has lots of highlighting.

For me, Heller’s approach takes away the pressure of trying to have all the answers by reminding me that when you ask the right questions and involve the right people, the answers will emerge. 

By Cheryl Heller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Intergalactic Design Guide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"As homo sapiens' entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the
qualifying round."
- David Orr, Earth in Mind

Design has built global brands, disrupted industries, and transformed our lives with technology. It has also contributed
to the complex challenges we face today. In The Intergalactic Design Guide, business strategist and designer Cheryl Heller
shows how social design can help address our most pressing challenges, from poverty to climate change.

Social design offers a new approach to navigate uncertainty, increase creativity, strengthen relationships, and develop
our capacity to collaborate. Innovative leaders like Paul Farmer,…


Book cover of The Power of Pressure: Why Pressure Isn't the Problem, It's the Solution

Eric J. McNulty Why did I love this book?

My work on crisis leadership uses applied neuroscience to help people get “smarter their brains” by learning to work with and, in some cases counteracting, their instinctual reactions and ingrained patterns.

Jensen, who has worked with elite athletes as well as executives, draws on some of the same science (and more) in a practical approach to how to handle pressure. He goes through how to use breathing to tame anxiety and increase focus.

One insight I’ve found particularly useful is remembering what’s not at stake in a high-stakes situation. No matter what happens, your family, friends, and pets will still love and support you, for example. Knowing what you can count on makes a seemingly overwhelming challenge more manageable.

By Dane Jensen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Power of Pressure as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Be energized, but not overwhelmed

What’s the most pressure you’ve ever been under? How did you react? What helped? What didn’t? Over the past five years, Dane Jensen has asked these questions of thousands of high performers—from Olympic gold medalists to Navy SEALs, politicians, executives and busy parents. What has emerged from these conversations is that while everyone’s experiences under pressure are unique, pressure follows patterns and develops in predictable ways. If we can recognize the patterns, we can improve our ability to sidestep the biological traps that can sabotage us—and use the energy that accompanies pressure to thrive. The…


Book cover of Flux: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change

Eric J. McNulty Why did I love this book?

Crises always come with ambiguity that complicates decision-making and communication. I’ve watched otherwise competent leaders stumble because they don’t deal well with uncertainty.

Rinne draws on her life story (an interesting tale on its own) to sketch out a series of “superpowers” for handling the turbulence that life increasingly throws our way. My favorite of the superpowers is running slower.

Rinne includes a quote from Frank Partnoy (author of Wait) that I keep at the front of my journal: “A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires a pause.” I use that to slow myself down (which isn’t always easy). 

By April Rinne,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Flux as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover eight powerful mindset shifts that enable leaders and seekers of all ages to thrive in a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty.

Being adaptable and flexible have always been hallmarks of effective leadership and a fulfilling life. But in a world of so much—and faster-paced—change, and an ever-faster pace of change, flexibility and resilience can be stretched to their breaking points. The quest becomes how to find calm and lasting meaning in the midst of enduring chaos.
 
A world in flux calls for a new mindset, one that treats constant change and uncertainty as a feature, not a bug.…


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I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

Book cover of I Am Taurus

Stephen Palmer

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Philosopher Scholar Liberal Reader Musician

Stephen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. This book traces the story of the bull in the sky, a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull.

Each of the sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also a view of ourselves through the eyes of the bull, illustrating our pre-literate use of myth, how the advent of writing and the urban revolution changed our view of ourselves, and how even bullfighting in Spain is a variation on the ancient sacrifice of the sacred bull.

I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

What is this book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. In I Am Taurus, author Stephen Palmer traces the story of the bull in the sky, starting from that point 19,000 years ago - a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull. Each of the eleven sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Spain and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also an attempt to see ourselves through…


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