Over the past two years, I have read quite a large number of Leadership books. Some great, some less so. In this short article, I want to share the ones that have been the most influential in shaping my thinking. These are the ones that have stood out for me and I continue to reference.
Some of them might overlap in terms of what is covered in the book but I have found that each of these is unique enough that you don’t get a sense that you’re getting the same message repeated over and over again.
I have tried to prioritise them in the order I would read them. Although this isn’t easy – I think it’s helpful to know the order in which I would read them, with hindsight.
The decision to start my own business was heavily influenced by this book. Instead of thinking about my career and my life as two separate entities, this forced me to think differently and deliberately look to see if I could blend the two.
It’s a bestseller so a lot of people will have read it. But information isn’t enough. In order to realise the value of a book like this, you have to undertake the tasks within it. The exercise of writing your eulogy from the perspective of a member of your family, your community, a colleague and a friend is extremely powerful yet one I suspect few people actually do.
The reason I have included this one is that leading people effectively requires you to lead by example. Therefore, you should be looking to raise the standard of your performance and behaviour wherever possible.
The Four Hour Work Week and Tim Ferriss’ related podcast have some excellent principles that you can apply to your life/career/business. Ferriss deconstructs world class performers to understand how they think, which is the driver of their behaviour. He has interviewed Tech Billionaires, Rock and Film Stars and even Military Leaders sharing the principles that they apply in their lives which you can then replicate.
One of the key points from the Four Hour Work Week is the ruthless application of the 80:20 principle. 20% of the work delivers 80% of the results. Work out which tasks are more important than the others and focus on them first.
The Obstacle is the Way is a great introduction to Stoicism. Stoicism is a practical philosophy, a way of living, that was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans to help them lead contented and fulfilled lives. One of the central components is the idea that ‘you cannot control what happens to you but you can control how you react’.
US Fighter Pilot, James Stockdale was shot down during the Vietnam War and held as a POW for seven years. During that time, he was repeatedly tortured and held in solitary confinement. Stockdale credits stoicism with saving his life because it helped him build the mental models to endure this horrific experience.
Tony Robbins describes ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ as ‘probably the most important book ever written’ which makes it worth paying attention to.
Victor Frankl was an Austrian Psychotherapist who was imprisoned In Auschwitz during the second world-war. He treated his captivity like an experiment using the experience to understand what kept men alive and what caused them to wither away. Frankl discovered that having a ‘central purpose – a reason for living’ was the deciding factor that led people to survive in the most brutal of circumstances.
His theme of purpose has been built on by Simon Sinek whose viral TED Talk brought the idea back into contemporary thinking.
John McCain was also a US POW in Vietnam. His book, ‘Character is Destiny’ takes a selection of values and brings them to life using stories of people that exemplify them. For example, Victor Frankl as mentioned above is used to explain the value of dignity whereas Pat Tillman (ex-professional footballer player who joined the Army and was killed in Afghanistan) is used to explain the value of citizenship.
As McCain states in his introduction:
It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.
I have chosen to put these two together because I believe that biographies can give us a valuable insight into great leadership.
People that achieve great things rarely do it alone. It is their ability to connect with people and focus them on the achievement of a common goal that leads to their success.
Lee Iaccoca climbed the corporate ranks of Ford in the 60’s only to be fired by Henry Ford Jr. He left Ford to takeover Chrysler when they were close to bankruptcy. This is a story of turnaround leadership in the most challenging of circumstances.
Ben Franklin was a polymath, someone who mastered a broad range of subjects including business, science, diplomacy and writing. Biographies on people like this give you an insight into how they think because their behaviour is indicative of how their mind works. If someone, such as Franklin, has mastered such a broad range of subjects he must be ‘thinking and behaving differently’ to his peers – and it is these insights that are valuable to leaders.
We learn how to lead based on the examples of those around us. For some, we might not have many examples and they might not be very positive.
But even if we are surrounded by great leaders, we can always learn more.
The act of ‘taking onboard high quality information, ingesting it, analysing it and coming up with new ideas based on it’ is crucial if you want to develop a deep expertise in a subject.
Actively studying people that ‘think and behave differently’ widens the number of good examples that you are exposed to.
In turn, this has a compound interest effect.
If you can understand how Marcus Aurelius (former Roman Emperor) thought about ‘values and how to lead a good life’. You can then blend it with Ben Franklin’s approach to ‘networking and his understanding of creating win:win partnerships’. Add an understanding of character as explained in McCains book and challenge the status-quo like Tim Ferriss and you will have a wealth of context and understanding to apply to your situation.
At the end of the day, if you want advice about a major decision in your life, ‘do you want advice from someone who has read 10,000 books and watched one hour of reality TV or someone who has watched 10,000 hours of reality TV and read one book’.
Ask yourself – where do I sit on that spectrum? Am I satisfied with that – and more importantly – what am I going to do about it?
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