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  • Writer's pictureGraham Plant

20 books every business leader should read

Updated: Aug 19, 2018

Being a leader in business today requires an absolute commitment to continuous learning. And one of the best ways to keep learning and on top of industry trends is dumping tv time and picking up a book or your Kindle.

Forbes reported that when Warren Buffett was once asked about the key to success, he pointed to a stack of nearby books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

And he’s not alone. Many entrepreneurs and business leaders make reading a major part of their daily lifestyle.  Here's a couple worth noting:

  • Bill Gates reads about 50 books per year, 

  • Mark Cuban reads more than 3 hours every day

  • Elon Musk is an avid reader 

  • Mark Zuckerberg resolved to read a book every 2 weeks throughout 2015

  • Oprah Winfrey selects one of her favourite books every month for her Book Club members to read and discuss

There are many out there. Most entrepreneurs I meet or listen to on podcasts refer to a number of books as references they have used for their success.  For me, reading books provides inspiration, guidance and motivation.  Knowing others have tackled similar (or bigger) challenges and been successful can be very comforting.  Kind of handy having some of the world's most successful people sharing your journey via their books too. 

My library is segmented into leadership, management, analytics, marketing, startup / entrepreneurship, biographies and personal development (plus the odd running, adventure and fiction book).

In no particular order here are the 20 books for managers in my library or kindle that I find myself referencing again and again. Many of them play pivotal parts in my coaching program and strategic planning guides and I thank the authors every time I pick up a book.

1. "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

I first heard about Extreme Ownership from a Mixergy interview with an entrepreneur. The interviewee said it was an inspirational book and changed her outlook. A book by Navy Seals on business sounded a little abstract to me, but I checked out the reviews, then bought it for my Kindle. It is an incredibly insightful book on what leadership means and how to execute leadership. Jocko and Leif are great storytellers and the the experiences they recount from their time in Iraq are incredible even without the leadership lessons.

The guys served together in the most highly decorated Special Operations unit from the war in Iraq. Their hard-earned lessons learned in leadership - at every level - defined their success on the battlefield. They now teach those same leadership principles to companies seeking success by building their own high-performance, winning teams. Each chapter provides background on the learnings, key take-outs and then a real-world example of how they applied those learnings to a business challenge.

I finished the book inspired. It validated much of my own views on leadership, as well as delivering some salient points and tips I could apply in my coaching business.

Seth Godin is the master of making you rethink what you do and why you are doing it. A marketing guru, entrepreneur and prolific author I have many of his books in my library. In The Big Moo Seth taps into 33 of the world's smartest business thinkers to provide their best ideas on to remarkablize your business. Contributors include such luminaries as Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Peters, Guy Kawasaki, Mark Cuban and Seth Godin himself.

It's a little scary when I look back at this book and see that it is now 13 years since it was first published!

Most organisations get so comfortable with what they do that they stop innovating and growing. While most business leaders know that innovation and risk is key to growing, many are terrified at the prospect of getting it wrong. Growth means change, change means risk, and risk means danger. These short stories will challenge and inspire you to take risks and pursue remarkable over ordinary.

3. "Good to Great" by Jim Collins

The first time I was given this book I was told to read it by my CEO. I picked it up begrudgingly and then found myself intrigued. Jim Collins asks the question: "Why do some companies become great, while others languish at merely good? Is it random chance, or is there some common thread among the companies that achieve greatness?"

Before you settle down with a cup of tea ready to engage in a nice read, be warned, this is a business book and not a casual read. Collins starts with a list of companies that made the leap from good to great as well as comparison companies to help understand what made the difference. Detailed research and interviews drew out the factors that demanded further analysis to validate what made the difference.

Case studies and real data make this reference book an insightful read and provide the modern day leader with valuable learnings.

4. "How the Mighty Fall" by Jim Collins

In contrast to Good to Great, this book by Collins focuses on why leading companies, seemingly in possession of every competitive advantage, so often manage to blow it. Following a similar approach to his other books, Collins reviews corporate histories seeking the signs of impending destruction in the periods preceding serious performance stumbles, in both the the subject companies and comparison companies. 

This in depth research identifies why companies fail and how that failure is shaped and the resulting impact that it had. Like any tail of woe, the stories are compelling. The learnings are many for the leader trying to navigate their business to success by avoiding failings of those who have preceded them.

I remember when this book came out and the impact it had on my own views on business and the direction my career was heading. It made be reflect on what was my passion and what I wanted to spend most of my time doing. It was a catalyst for me becoming a coach, developing my digital skills and taking a more active role in the start-up space.

Gary Vaynerchuk (or Gary Vee) delivers an easy to read guide on how to turn your real interests into real businesses. Having spent years building his family business from a local wine shop into a national industry leader, he has practiced what he preaches in this book and transformed his entire life and earning potential by building his personal brand.

Gary Vee is direct, unvarnished and passionate. You may not like everything you read or hear from him, but he will challenge and inspire - a great book for anyone looking to find their entrepreneurial way.

6. "ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Rework by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson is as concise as it is challenging. The guys take the "way we do things" and turn those concepts on their ear. Successful entrepreneurs and business leaders in their own right, they practice what they preach and have the scorecard to prove it works.

What I like most about this book is the one page chapters and simple clear messages. It's a book you can pick up and put down as and when the mood takes you so you don't need to set aside time to plough through it to the end before you have some take-outs. Now, much of this book is quite provocative and it definitely challenges the norm. Not everything you will want to apply, but I am sure you will latch on to many of the guys practices and advice as you "rework" your business.

7. "Remote: Office Not Required" by by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried

Following on from Rework, the guys produced Remote which poses the argument for remote work and outlines how to improve productivity and happiness in the workplace, without necessarily having a workplace! The compelling message for me was that it is unrealistic to think all the best people for your company are within a comfortable commute from your office. Seems obvious huh?

As with Rework, the books is a very easy read segmented into distinct chapters that are more like short blog posts that enable you to pick the book up when the mood or the need grabs you.

With my own work-life becoming more and more location independent, this book was as insightful as it was instructional. If you are looking to build a business and engage the best people (wherever they may be) this practical guide will give you the support and tips you need to build a business that can be successful with a distributed workforce.

I first heard Cameron Herrold on a podcast as an interviewee on Mixergy and found his message fascinating. Having been down a similar approach using NLP in another business, I enjoyed his approach and the practicality of his Vivid Vision message.

Herrold is known as the CEO Whisperer and is also a noted author. His claim to fame is supported by the hundreds of companies he has helped achieve exponential growth by doubling their profits in just three years or less. Vivid Vision walks through an exercise he teaches CEOs on how to create compelling visions of the future state of their business and their lives.

This book is not a "how to" guide for creating flashy mission statements and aspirational one line vision statements. Let's face it they don't really motivate employees or impress customers, investors, and partners anyhow.

Herrold explains how to create inspirational, detailed, and actionable three-year mission statements for your company in simple steps that will result in your own Vivid Vision. By focusing on mapping out how you see your company looking and feeling in every category of business, you can creates a holistic road map to success that will get all of your team and partners excited.

As a business coach I tell my client's they must read this book. I leverage my own learnings from Herrold in my business and that of my clients. Want to get excited about the future? Then create a Vivid Vision.

The Zappo's story is one that many of us have heard, but have you looked into the back story? Tony Hsieh is a successful founder / entrepreneur who has learned invaluable lessons on what it takes to create successful business with passionate corporate cultures. “Delivering Happiness” demonstrates how being committed to helping employees grow both professionally and personally can delivery outstanding business results.

The book has now become a business and there are fantastic resources available online to those wanting to leverage the Zappo's experience in creating a winning culture for their business. This book is a guide on how to develop a truly customer-centric, as well as an employee-centric, organisation, delivered in a form that can be shared with your entire team.

If culture matters to you and your business, you will find this book an great resource.

The Heart of Change by John Kotter and Dan Cohen delves into the subject of transformational change and to the core of how successful change actually happens in a business. The key message in this book is that in order to make any transformation successful, you must change more than just the structure and operations of an organisation. You need to change people's behaviour, which we all accept is difficult.

This book presents a guide for leaders on how to help people think and feel differently in order to meet your shared goals. Obviously designed to complement Kotter's bestseller Leading Change it leverages Kotter's eight-step process. Kotter and Cohen explain how organisational change at scale can be done effectively, using real-life stories of people in organisations.

As a leader, change is constant and failure to execute change effectively can destroy not only your career, but your business and the livelihood of your team and shareholders. Embracing change and understanding how to bring people along the change curve with you is an important skill.

Seeing how others have executed change provides some terrific lessons and practical guidance.

Sir Ernest Shackleton is in my top five most inspirational and extraordinary leaders. The story of Shackleton and his crew of the aptly named "Endurance" is an amazing story of leadership, comradeship and endurance. He has been called "the greatest leader that ever came on God's earth, bar none" for saving the lives of the twenty-seven men stranded with him in the Antarctic for almost two years.

This book is a must read for anyone leading a team. His actions have made him a model for great leadership and masterful crisis management. The book is well structured and each chapter provides a summary of learnings and take-outs. A member of my management team once spoke to me about the challenges he was having with his team, so I gave him this book. I spoke with him a week later and he told me later that things weren't so bad - after reading the exploits and challenges of leadership facing Shackleton, any job looks easy.

So if you manage a team, or want to be a great leader, make sure you read this book.

I first read S.U.M.O. (whcih stands for Shut Up, Move On) some years ago when I was heading up a business that was part of a public company. I got a lot from it and have since shared it with many people who have worked in my teams and people who have been through my coaching program.

It's a phrase to reference when we (or others) are acting or thinking in a way that is hindering our ability to succeed. 'Shut Up' means stop what you're doing, take time out to reflect, let go of baggage and beliefs that hinder your potential. 'Move On' means tomorrow can be different from today, look for new possibilities, don't just think about it, take action.

The message from McGee is a simple one, if you want things to be different in your life, you have to make different choices and take different actions. One of the key learnings for me was not to let the things out of my control get the best of me, and focus on the things that were in my control that I could change.

Working in a large public company there is plenty of things that can derail you (if you let them) that you have zero control over. Yet there are many things you can control, and one of those is how you react to events and the actions of others.

I love the message from this book and its easy to apply actions. This is a great book for bringing things into perspective and getting you to focus on what really matters.

Anyone going into a new job has probably been asked the question at an interview, "So what are your plans for your first 90 days?" The motivation for this question has probably come from this book by Michael Watkins.

This is a book full of strategies and tactics for successful leadership and designed to help you make an impact and get traction in your role as a new leader quickly.  It doesn’t matter whether you are an individual contributor or a leader of leaders - there are plenty of practical learnings. The First 90 Days provides a framework for getting organised, creating a plan, prioritising what it important and staying on track.

It doesn't matter if you have been in a leadership before, of you are a first timer, this book will provide some valuable insight and advice on what you can do to be successful.

Jeffrey Gitomer is a sales guru with plenty of front and lots to share. With over 200,000 copies of The Sales Bible sold, this book was listed as one of ""The Ten Books Every Salesperson Should Own and Read"" by the Dale Carnegie Sales Advantage Program.

Gitomer describes methods and techniques that really work-every day, in real-world selling situations and it is a must have reference for the business developer. My own copy has tags, dog eared pages and highlights throughout it and I still reference it today. When re-engineering my sales team I used this book as a key reference in my solution selling training program and pushed my sales team to invest in themselves with a copy. I even sent my best sales person across the country to attend a Gitomer conference to soak up the energy.

Gitomer reminds us that "People don't like to be sold, but they LOVE to buy" and that "All things being equal people buy off people they like. All things not being equal, people still like to buy off people they like".

We all sell whether we admit it or not. Being a leader requires exceptional selling skills and this book is a guide that will help you win more than you lose as you lead the sales charge from the front!

This book by Patrick Lencioni is a little different from the normal management book. The lessons are presented in an easy to read fable about a retired CEO who strives to understand what causes misery at work.

The story focuses on Brian Bailey, a retired CEO, with years of success as a leader, who experiences poor customer service at a local restaurant near his retirement home. As an inquisitive problem solver and lover of managing people, he begins a quest to determine why this small local restaurant is experiencing poor service, and more importantly, why its employees seem so miserable.

Lencioni argues that regardless of the job and regardless of whether an employee loves what he or she does or not, three attributes (Anonymity, Irrelevance and Immeasurement) impact employees ability to be productive, engaged, deliver meaningful results, and feel a sense of job fulfilment. The journey that the key character takes on reinventing his local restaurant delivers some stark and insightful learnings.

I used this book many years ago as a reference for a team I managed and made it the centre of our management conference and it was a driver for developing a better business and a happier workplace.

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. If you're like me trying to juggle 15 things at once, it can be challenging to stay on top. I used to get to the end of the day and look at my "to do" list and find that very few tasks had been completed, but I had lost an inordinate amount of time on distractions and tasks that weren't on my "to do " list.

Cal Newport presents a book in two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.

The book is a pretty easy read and there are numerous take-outs that you can apply immediately. I found myself highlighting sections on my Kindle time and time again with new tips that I could apply to improve my productivity.

17. "Our Iceberg is Melting" by Holger Rathgenber and John Kotter

In a similar style to Lencioni's book, Holger Rathgenber joins up with John Kotter in a fable to illustrate Kotter's eight principles of change outlined in another book, Leading Change by the same author. The characters in this book are penguins facing a threat to their lifestyle because their current habitat, the iceberg where they live, is melting. The book goes through how the penguins discovered the problem which highlights a need for change and how they then go through the change process using Kotter's eight principles for change.

I used this book for another management conference for a large business I was running and facing massive change to help the executive team understand why change was important and how we needed to work together to institute that change. The book is a very simple short read and the characters represent personas of people you would find in nearly every workplace.

It's a simple story with a powerful message.

I found this book by Dan Norris a really interesting read and it came at a time when I was developing a new start-up idea. Norris puts to the reader that most of us have always wanted to make something, but for any number of reasons haven’t. Could be a book, a business, a podcast a blog or any number of things.

The argument Norris puts forward is that we are all creative, and that there is a creator in all of us.

Countering this Norris explains there is also a force called Hate, which will work against our creativity and stops us from making things.

This book explains how Hate can be controlled, and overpowered and to let your creative side be nurtured and grow - and create that thing you have been wanting to create now!

So if you have that little voice inside of you picking at your conscience and reminding you that your dream of creating something meaningful is still waiting, this might be the inspiration you need - it got me moving!

I am undeniably a Seth Godin fan (as you may have gathered) and find his books thought provoking and entertaining. In Tribes, Godin presents a book that is about leadership and community. The book has many quotable quotes from Godin that great references. Once such quote is “The very nature of leadership is that you’re not doing what’s been done before. If you were, you’d be following, not leading” .

Godin explains that a tribe is any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea. As humans it's in our nature to seek out kindred spirits that we can connect, work, live and socialise with. The digital revolution has broken down the geographical and communication barriers that once bound us which is enabling new tribes and new businesses.

The digital landscape has millions of blogs and many social networking sites that are enabling tribes to grow and countless new tribes to be born. But the question is asked "Who is going to lead us?" So if you are someone that wants to make a difference and embrace leadership, the magic of the web has provided the tools you need at your fingertips. Could you be the leader?

Another quote to leave you with as you contemplate getting your own copy, "Life's too short to fight the forces of change. Life's too short to hate what you do all day. Life's way too short to make mediocre stuff. And almost everything that is standard is now viewed as mediocre."

I'm sure this book is known to you already, even if you haven't yet read it. Blink changes the way you'll understand every decision you make and ensures you'll never again think about thinking the same way. This is a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant - in the blink of an eye - that actually aren't as simple as they seem.

Blink reveals that great decision makers aren't those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of "thin-slicing" - filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables. Gladwell also explores why our "gut-instinct" is more than just a feeling, and references the power of the brain in making great decisions, that sometimes seem like snap decisions.

As leaders we live and die by the decisions we make. Understanding how we make decisions, and why others make decisions, can be the difference between success and failure


I left many books out that I will probably wish later were included. But this list is organic and no doubt it will change over time.

I'll also list my top books for startups in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

If you have any books I should be reading, please let me know - always looking for a good read!

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