The best books on exceptional leadership: what distinguishes a good leader from an extraordinary one

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm an executive coach, adjunct faculty at several top-tier business schools, and run a boutique firm consulting firm focused on organizational strategy solutions. My diverse and eclectic background in mergers & acquisitions, organization effectiveness, and strategy execution, coupled with two decades of experience in emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, helps me grasp challenging people issues. I'm passionate about the topic of leaders as coaches having written several papers and columns. My research, and writing led Penguin to commission my book Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership that, released globally in late 2021 to much acclaim, is recommended by several academics as an essential read for aspiring and experienced managers. 


I wrote...

Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership

By Ruchira Chaudhary,

Book cover of Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership

What is my book about?

This is a book for our times. Businesses are facing a new reality, characterized by a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. This new reality has forced organizations to depart from conventional command-and-control practices to a completely new model - a model in which leaders support and guide, rather than instruct and control, their team members. 

Exploring some of the key ingredients of impactful leadership, Coaching offers tips and tricks, backed by research and incisive insights, on how to become an effective leader-coach. Interviews with corporate leaders and academics further enrich the narrative. Guaranteed to make for a very interesting read, the book will be useful to leaders, aspiring leaders, and especially those that wish to transition from being just good leaders to extraordinary ones.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

Ruchira Chaudhary Why did I love this book?

Wharton Prof Adam Grant, one of my favorite authors, has a very refreshing take on leadership.

He says today, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others: most people operate as either takers, matchers, or givers. The takers, according to Grant, are people who are trying to get as much as possible from that person and contribute as little as they can in return.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people he refers to as ‘givers’. These people are not givers in the sense of being charitable, or being volunteers or donating time or money—they are merely looking to help others by making an introduction, giving advice, providing mentoring or sharing knowledge, without any strings attached.

Grant seems to suggest that success depends heavily on how leaders approach their interactions with other people. 

I loved the example he dug from the annals of history to reinforce this point—that of Frank Lloyd Wright. The architect and writer whose distinct style who designed numerous iconic buildings but looking back at his ‘legacy or lack of it.’, we discover he rarely mentored and championed other architects. 

By Adam Grant,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Give and Take as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A groundbreaking look at why our interactions with others hold the key to success, from the bestselling author of Think Again and Originals

For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today's dramatically reconfigured world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. In Give and Take, Adam Grant, an award-winning researcher and Wharton's highest-rated professor, examines the surprising forces that shape why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. Praised by social scientists, business theorists, and corporate…


Book cover of Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

Ruchira Chaudhary Why did I love this book?

Hit Refresh is such a fascinating tale – its Satya Nadella’s life story – his childhood in India, immigrating to the U.S. and the life lessons learned to lead along the way.

He succinctly and candidly tells the inside story of how a company rediscovered its soul and transformed itself. 

My favorite part is how Nadella describes his role at the helm of Microsoft: The C in CEO for Nadella stood for culture. He liked to believe the CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture.

"Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO. The culture change I wanted was centred on delivering a growth mindset, to be customer-obsessed, diverse, and inclusive, and working as One Microsoft to get us there."

He devoted much of his first year to listening to employees at every level in the organization anonymously, individually, or in focus groups.

It’s a truly inspirational story of how Nadella transformed a broken, toxic organization into one of the most sought-after places to work in Silicon Valley.

By Satya Nadella, Greg Shaw, Jill Tracie Nichols

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"At the core, Hit Refresh, is about us humans and the unique quality we call empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before." - Satya Nadella from Hit Refresh

"Satya has charted a course for making the most of the opportunities created by technology while also facing up to the hard questions." - Bill Gates from the Foreword of Hit Refresh

The New York Times bestseller Hit Refresh is about individual change, about the transformation happening inside of Microsoft and the technology that will soon…


Book cover of The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different

Ruchira Chaudhary Why did I love this book?

A few years ago at my son’s annual townhall in school, the principal outlined the school’s strategic game plan on a powerpoint presentation.

One of the slides that stayed with me projected a visual from the book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.

I went back and read the book, only to realize that it resonated deeply with how we in the corporate world today (not just in schools at the elementary, middle, or senior levels) are quick to pronounce verdicts: below average, average, exceeds expectations.

The book poses some pertinent questions, and rightly so: Who came up with this principle of average? Why are we following it everywhere?

How often have we as managers just given up on people that we perceive are not ‘leadership’ material. Often these same average or poor performers can be great performers in different contexts.

Todd Rose failed class after class and was let go from job after job and eventually tried to embrace his true calling. He is currently a faculty member at Harvard Graduate School of Education as the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program!

By Todd Rose,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Are you above average? Is your child an A student? Is your employee an introvert or an extrovert? Every day we are measured against the yardstick of averages, judged according to how closely we come to it or how far we deviate from it.

The assumption that metrics comparing us to an average—like GPAs, personality test results, and performance review ratings—reveal something meaningful about our potential is so ingrained in our consciousness that we don’t even question it. That assumption, says Harvard’s Todd Rose, is spectacularly—and scientifically—wrong.

In The End of Average, Rose, a rising star in the new field…


Book cover of Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell

Ruchira Chaudhary Why did I love this book?

Trillion Dollar Coach is an absolutely brilliant read about a legendary coach and business executive who coached some of the best and brightest leaders in Silicon Valley.

Campbell coached, among others, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, and Sundar Pichai at Google, Steve Jobs at Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook.

Much like my own rather strong beliefs on this topic, Bill preached that to be a great manager, you have to be a great coach.

Success as a leader was about taking others along on the journey. The higher you climb in the corporate world, the more your success will depend on making other people successful. That is the hallmark of a good leadership coach.

The book is full of examples, life lessons, anecdotes, and practical tips on how leaders can become better coaches.

By Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, Alan Eagle

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trillion Dollar Coach as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 Wall Street Journal Bestseller
New York Times Bestseller
USA Today Bestseller

The team behind How Google Works returns with management lessons from legendary coach and business executive, Bill Campbell, whose mentoring of some of our most successful modern entrepreneurs has helped create well over a trillion dollars in market value.

Bill Campbell played an instrumental role in the growth of several prominent companies, such as Google, Apple, and Intuit, fostering deep relationships with Silicon Valley visionaries, including Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt. In addition, this business genius mentored dozens of other important leaders on both coasts, from…


Book cover of The Edge: How Ten CEOs Learned to Lead--And the Lessons for Us All

Ruchira Chaudhary Why did I love this book?

Prof Useem, who teaches leadership at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sent me a signed copy of this book through my spouse (a Wharton alum) and I cannot recommend it enough.

He eloquently equates a leader’s job to standing on the cliff edge, getting a grip on unfamiliar landscapes, and acquiring the skills to lead organizations in this constantly evolving, ever-changing business landscape.

I think this book is more relevant than ever given our turbulent times – Prof Useem draws on the experiences of ten bold CEOS to show us how, in a world characterized by unprecedented challenges of global pandemic and economic disruption, leaders need to find the edge for leaping across and breaking new ground on the other side.

An engaging and practical guide to being the ambidextrous leader who constantly propels the organization forward, without letting go of its core.

By Michael Useem,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A leader's job-in a radically changing world-is standing on the cliff edge, getting a grip on unfamiliar landscapes, and acquiring the skills for leading the enterprise into new territory. In a world facing the unprecedented challenges of global pandemic and economic distruption, every leader needs to find the edge for leaping across the breach and breaking new ground on the other side.

Michael Useem provides rare insight into how ten leaders confronted hard realities. He looked close-in at the lide and work of people such as Bill McNabb of Vanguard, Jeffrey Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles, Alex Gorsky of Johnson…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief as they reconcile and decide to live together again. She steps in to become her parents' eldercare manager when her mother’s condition worsens, facing old family dynamics and disappointing limitations to available services. Throughout, she attempts to help her parents maintain their humanity in their final years.

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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