Must Reads for Leaders: 10 Invaluable Books for Moving Hearts and Minds

Paul Jun | October 22, 2014

The Roman philosopher Epictetus once said, “Books are the training weights of the mind.” Seneca, Roman statesman and philosopher, opined that, “The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.”

Combine these two pieces of wisdom and you have an undeniable truth: reading is an exercise that enriches our minds and our lives and the way we think, feel, and behave. It allows us to gather an assortment of dots, but more importantly, to connect those dots to expand our knowledge.

It’s easy to gravitate towards the comfortable, familiar reads. Reading is an exercise in thinking, and to get better at it, it’s important we go beyond our comfort zone and tackle more difficult subjects that seemingly have no relevance. The challenge lies in connecting these seemingly unrelated topics, cross-pollinating ideas and concepts, to reach a new understanding about ourselves and the world.

It is through this exercise that we gain new ideas and insights about what we’re doing and, ultimately, how we can do it better.

Below is a subjective take on the books that I feel are timeless and helpful in both your personal and professional endeavors.

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays translation)

Marcus Aurelius, a ruler of the Roman Empire, wrote in his journal during his time at war—a meditation where he reminded himself of all his principles and past teachings. Stoicism is a school of philosophy that teaches us how to deal with the obstacles we face in our lives.

As a leader, you will undoubtedly deal with a barrage of negative emotions and roadblocks, both internal and external. They can cripple us, but what Stoicism teaches is that they can also be a profound advantage.

“If anyone can refute me—show me I'm making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I'll gladly change. It's the truth I'm after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”

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2. Mastery by Robert Greene

Those who have done great work, who made an impact in their domain and lead fulfilling lives, did so because they mastered their skills and deeply connected with their field. Think Darwin, Mozart, Temple Grandin, Michael Jordan, and others.

Robert Greene debunks many of history’s greats while also providing a practical look into how we can utilize these findings in our own lives. From deliberate practice, to apprenticeships, to overcoming roadblocks, Mastery is an invaluable read in understanding how these seemingly gifted historic icons pursued mastery and how we can embark on the same path.

“The basic elements of this story are repeated in the lives of all of the great Masters in history: a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus. They excel by their ability to practice harder and move faster through the process, all of this stemming from the intensity of their desire to learn and from the deep connection they feel to their field of study. And at the core of this intensity of effort is a quality that is genetic and inborn—not talent or brilliance, which must be developed, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject.”

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3. Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

Dr. Brown’s research is focused on vulnerability and how that openness fosters connection, innovation, relationships, and more.

Vulnerability isn’t about meeting someone and expressing all your deepest desires, fears, doubts, and secrets. Instead, vulnerability is a process—a catalyst for love, belonging, joy, empathy, and creativity. Culling from over a decade of research, Dr. Brown’s work shows that vulnerability may be the missing element that not only brings teams together, but strengthens the bond.

Be sure to check out her two popular TEDTalks on listening to shame and the power of vulnerability.

“The research has made this clear: Vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process. This is true whether we give, receive, or solicit feedback. And vulnerability doesn't go away even if we're trained and experienced in offering and getting feedback. Experience does, however, give us the advantage of knowing that we can survive the exposure and uncertainty, and that it's worth the risk.

Again, there's no question that feedback may be one of the most difficult arenas to negotiate in our lives. We should remember, though, that victory is not getting good feedback, avoiding giving difficult feedback, or avoiding the need of feedback. Instead, it's taking off the armor, showing up, and engaging.”

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4. Linchpin by Seth Godin

This book should be a must-read before being hired or joining a team.

A linchpin mindset is all about leaving behind the industrial way of doing things, like saying, “this isn’t my job.” A linchpin is someone who would be missed if they were gone.

As always, Godin does a masterful job explaining what used to work and why it doesn’t anymore, while also providing a new roadmap—or rather a mindset—on how to become a linchpin in your workplace. Being a cog in a machine is neither fun nor fruitful.

“If your organization wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for? I think it’s unlikely that they’d seek out someone willing to work more hours, or someone with more industry experience, or someone who could score better on a standardized test. No, the competitive advantage the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion. All of these attributes are choices, not talents, and all of them are available to you.”

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5. inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity by Tina Seelig

Creativity is the lifeblood of innovation, change, and growth.

Dr. Seelig has a Ph.D in neuroscience from Stanford University where she also teaches creativity and innovation. Her work is focused on decoding creativity and helps individuals and organizations realize that it’s a renewable resource.

From how to brainstorm properly, to why the design of our office space matters, to how to get people to take the stairs instead of the escalator, Seelig’s extensive research and examples provide a fresh and insightful look into why and how creativity must be fostered and championed.

“In fact, play is an important variable for successful creative teams. Simply put, when you play, you are having fun. When you have fun, you feel better about yourself and your work. And when you feel better, you are much more creative and deliver more. To quote Pixar’s Brad Bird, who directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille, ‘The most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never in the budget—is employee morale. If you have low morale, for every dollar you spend, you get about twenty-five cents of value. If you have high morale, for every dollar you spend you get about three dollars of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.’”

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6. Lying by Sam Harris

The moment teammates feel compelled to lie, however small or large, it’s a sign that the very foundation that builds morale, understanding, empathy, and belonging are in danger. Trust is fragile but immensely powerful, and one small lie after another can sabotage the foundation that creates thriving organizations.

"To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook, while illuminating a psychological and social landscape whose general shape is very easy to recognize. People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.”

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7. Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman is a remarkable designer, writer, and interviewer.

What I particularly love about this book is that it contains a wide range of perspectives—anthropologists, marketers, designers, psychologist, CEOs of large companies, and more. You aren’t looking at branding from one angle but from many vantage points. It enriches your understanding of the topic and allows for great cross-pollination of ideas and insights. This book, along with all her other work, especially her podcast Design Matters, is one of the most enriching resources to get a grip on this topic.

“The word ‘brand’ is derived from the Old Norse word brandr, which means to ‘burn by fire.’ From this 11th-century Northern Germanic origin, the word has blazed a mighty path into the vernacular of the 21st-century modern life. Ancient Egyptians marked their livestock with hot irons, and the process was widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, not to mention in the American West centuries later. Such branding helped ranchers, both ancient and contemporary, to separate cattle after they grazed in communal ranges; in addition, herders with quality livestock were able to distinguish themselves from those ranchers with inferior animals. The dynamics of the brand reputation helped build better businesses even back then, and the role of the brand—a barometer of value—has continued ever since.”

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8. Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War edited by Larry Hedrick

Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C. He was praised by the likes of Plato as an “enlightened monarch.” He was known for his benevolence, justice, kindness, and deep-seated desire for mankind to live in peace. He was also known for being the first to write a document chartering human rights.

Although this book goes through Cyrus’s history and achievements, the leadership lessons expressed in this book are timeless. Many of them focus on dealing with allies, understanding the self-interest of your team, encour-aging high performance and standards, and proving that your words are backed by your deeds. Even the renowned management guru Peter Drucker calls it “the best book on leadership.”

“We discussed how wonderful it would be if a man could train himself to be both ethical and brave, and to earn all he needed for his house-hold and himself. That kind of man, we agreed, would be appreciated by the whole world. But if a man went further still, if he had the wisdom and the skill to be the guide and governor of other men, supplying their needs and making them all they ought to be, that would be the greatest thing of all.”

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9. Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

This book is about transitioning from an amateur mindset (short-term gratification) to turning pro (long-term focus). Steven Pressfield shares his own personal struggles in turning pro, escaping the work he was called to do, and how he returned to it. The removal of immediate gratification, showing up, paying your dues, doing the work, an appreciation of your craft, shipping and not looking back—these are the laws that govern the behavior of a true professional.

“What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.”

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10. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Writing is the quintessential form of communication in any industry—letters, emails, memos, reminders, blog posts, you name it.

Stanley Fish does an excellent job of taking some of history’s greatest opening lines and paragraphs, dissecting them to help the reader understand why they’re so powerful, and providing tips on the principles of an effective sentence. He emphasizes that it isn’t so much about following rules, but rather understanding different styles and how they apply to specific scenarios.

“Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead. The shaping power of language cannot be avoided. We cannot choose to distance ourselves from it. We can only choose to employ it in one way rather than another. We can choose our style, not choose to abandon style, and it behooves us to know what the various styles in our repertoire are for and what they can do.”

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When the culture of an organization values learning, especially reading, it reflects a willingness to learn and change minds, to be open to new ideas and concepts that may indeed bolster both personal and professional endeavors. This kind of disciplined, relentless learning will be a catalyst for growth and change on every level.

I hope you devour, dissect, and discuss the lessons in these books with your teammates. But more importantly, if a book profoundly impacted you, I hope you share it with someone.


About the author: Paul Jun is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.