All that glitters is not gold.
The same with books. Not all leadership and management books entitled “how to become a leader” have the potential to actually make you one.
In fact, they can be totally useless reads and time wasters. Some may even have quite an opposite effect. They can undermine your efforts to set the tone of a proper leadership style.
Strikingly, books on leadership have been invading the publishing industry in leaps and bounds. In one year only, for example, there were 15,000 of them in print. And if you search Amazon for “leadership books” right now, you’ll get over 60,000 results.
How do you figure out which one is worth your attention and time? What are the best and the worst books on management?
Let’s first debunk the common misconception about the power of leadership books to turn you into an omnipotent champion on the spot. After that, scroll down to the greatest and the most disappointing picks, based on the experience of entrepreneurs and managers who’ve read them and tried some ideas in action.
Why Some Books Help Leaders Grow and Others Don’t
Consider the top three reasons why even bestsellers on leadership may not drive the desirable results.
1. Marketers do their job well.
You must have come across hundreds of management and business books.
Some of them might boast of attention-grabbing titles which are often phrased so for marketing purposes, while the content may bring little to no value at all.
Here’s what marketers use to boost book sales:
- Power words that convert (new, easy, secrets, win, etc.)
- Powerful names (e.g., Jesus like in the title Jesus CEO by Laurie Beth Jones)
- Numbers (XX Rules / Lessons / Tricks, etc.)
- Emotional appeal (e.g., words like failure or sabotage for evoking fear or inspiration and passion for curiosity and anticipation)
- Daring phrases (e.g., The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton or The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman)
2. Authors don’t do their job well enough.
Let’s agree that distilling the essence of leadership into a single book is close to impossible, because the topic is broad and all-embracing.
But the main point here is that some authors don’t even try to do that.
It may be due to the lack of knowledge. Another reason is that they don’t focus on the quality of content they create but rather aim at using a book to “sell” oneself, enhance reputation, enable word-of-mouth advertising, promote one’s courses/programs, etc.
3. Leaders don’t do anything after reading.
Even if reading is your hobby or habit, but you read just for the sake of reading, it’s not enough for a drastic improvement in your performance. You should act in order to move forward and develop a robust growth strategy for your business and your authentic self.
Take a look at the best books on leadership and see how they helped founders, business owners, and managers achieve personal and professional growth.
7 Best Leadership Books Ever Written (Reviews From Entrepreneurs)
1. How to Be an Inclusive Leader by Jennifer Brown
Published in: 2019
Why do you need a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in your company? How can you improve it and what initiatives to invest into?
Jennifer Brown answers every question to the fullest and introduces you to a four-stage framework she calls the Inclusive Leader Continuum to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace:
This path can help executives become inclusive leaders, enhance team cohesion, increase the level of productivity, and eventually, get higher profits.
Simon Bacher, Co-Founder of Simya Solutions:
“When I opened the book, Jennifer Brown’s sincerity and writing style stole my heart immediately. She became my personal coach who taught me how to find my voice and achieve better team communication. Developing language apps, we’ve got colleagues from diverse cultures, strata of society, and nationalities who work remotely from over 60 countries. For uniting our team and expanding our company’s DEIB strategy, we refer to this book as a manifesto and a perfectly-planned roadmap. It’s full of invaluable recommendations, activities, and tools that helped our agency reach the next stage in our continuum. The two other books by Jennifer Brown – Inclusion (2017) and Beyond Diversity (2021) – are also must-reads for every manager.”
2. The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Published in: 2019
It’s a follow-up book of Extreme Ownership written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in 2015. However, it can be read as a standalone.
The authors chronicle their experiences in the military (both served as Navy SEAL officers). They tell hard-hitting stories from the Iraq War that are translated into lessons for leaders and can be easily applied in the non-combat context.
Brian Campbell, Founder and Lead Water Geek at Water Filter Guru:
“This book hits the nail on the head when it comes to handling people and managing your business on a daily basis. It emphasizes the importance of balance and instructs a leader when to take the reins or when to take a step back and let the employees take control. The Dichotomy of Leadership taught me how to effectively encourage my employees without becoming too overbearing, be open to new ideas while still being firm, and be calm but not passive. This positively affected the workplace culture and is the reason for Water Filter Guru’s steady annual growth in our water treatment services, even for a very niche industry.”
3. Humble Leadership by Edgar Shein and Peter Shein
Published in: 2018
Humble Leadership is written by Edgar Shein and his son Peter Shein who co-founded the Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute together.
They explain the four levels of leader-follower relationships:
- Level Minus 1 – hostile, discriminatory, and coercive
- Level 1 – impersonal (at a professional distance)
- Level 2 – absolutely humane, humble
- Level 3 – intimate, bonded
The authors claim that a static hierarchy in an organization is essentially outdated, while servant leadership is a new go-to in modern society. They also believe that trust, openness, and collaborative teamwork are the keys to a healthy organizational culture.
Nunzio Ross, CEO and Founder of Majesty Coffee:
“It’s a book that challenged my views on traditional leadership. It’s all about working with your team and uplifting them to improve, being more humane and person-like rather than god-like, without the Us vs Them mentality. I never shy away from coffee taste testing, for example, or having a coffee or non-coffee chat with any member on the team. Leadership rooted in humility unleashes the greatest results, and I’ve been actively following this principle. Since I’ve led our company as a collective effort from my team and myself, it has been a fruitful journey that I always share with newly-bud entrepreneurs starting their own companies.”
4. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Published in: 2013
How can a woman possibly take charge of her career with discrimination, pay gaps, sexism, and harassment still constant barriers?
The former Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, makes those obstacles quiver in their ugly shoes with her book Lean In.
It’s undeniably one of the best entrepreneurship books for female leaders. It helps women entrepreneurs feel empowered during their entrepreneurial journeys, develop assertiveness, and successfully climb the jungle gym of their careers.
Stacie Tyler, Owner and CFO of Walk Big Media:
“From one woman to another, Sheryl Sandberg’s perspectives resonated with me a lot, so much that it felt like reading about my own real-life struggles as a businesswoman in this cutthroat industry. The ex-COO of Meta talks about how we, women, unintentionally hold ourselves back when it comes to pursuing our careers because of the gender gap. Sandberg’s go-getter attitude is infectious and has inspired me to be an assertive entrepreneur myself. Her practical advice on career-building, negotiation techniques, and mentorship provided a blueprint for me to move my business forward.”
5. The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman
Published in: 2010
How much does an average MBA program cost? Somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000+.
Kaufman assures the reader that a business school isn’t worth the money. An MBA degree is not a vital requirement to become an effective leader, build a thriving business, and manage teams successfully. Everything you need is in your copy of The Personal MBA.
Kevin Huang, Founder and CEO of Ambient Home:
“Josh Kaufman taught me the best lessons on creating value for customers, setting prices, bringing a product to market, managing finances, etc. But most importantly, his book gave me the fullest understanding of such phenomena as loss aversion, scarcity, and novelty, as well as some examples of strategies to apply those. Our company is using them now for succeeding in online persuasion attempts and boosting sales of indoor/outdoor furniture. The book is aptly titled because it serves as a business leadership handbook in place of getting an MBA, saving you thousands of dollars.”
6. Leadershift by John C. Maxwell
Published in: 2019
What is leadershifting and how to leadershift?
Maxwell demonstrates the 11 critical shifts that should be made by a leader who strives to improve and innovate in today’s fast-spinning world. He highlights that true and honest communication is one of the soft skills every founder needs to achieve transformational leadership.
Josh Tyler, CEO of Giant Freakin Robot:
“It’s a must-read book on the significance of innovation and the acceptance of change to become an agile and highly flexible leader. It helps you see the direction where humanity’s heading to and what’s coming next in the future of technology. I started leadershifting with the three fundamental principles from the book: learning, unlearning, and relearning. They have become the drivers of my all-round development and improvement of my manager’s skills, in particular. Leadershift is a constant reminder to better myself with essential changes in my manager’s career.”
7. Leadership Is an Art by Max DePree
Published in: 2004 (revised edition)
The book largely focuses on mindfulness in leadership and belongs to the category of books on motivational management.
It talks about fostering work enthusiasm, improving workplace happiness, and building a greater corporate culture, among other things. Describing the “why” rather than the “how” of each process, it doesn’t lack examples.
Max DePree is supporting his arguments with true-to-life stories from his family business, Herman Miller Inc., an office furniture company, in which he started working in the 1960s and became its Chief Executive Officer in the 1980s.
Nat Miletic, Owner and CEO of Clio Websites:
“Leadership Is an Art by Max DePree is one of my all-time favorites. As I’m running a creative web development & design company, the emphasis on innovation and collaboration resonated with me the first time I read the book. It shares valuable lessons on leading teams toward success and allowing team members to take charge whenever needed. I’ve been following its leadership principles to this day, focusing on healthy relationships with my colleagues, openness, and transparency in sharing ideas on our web design projects.”
The Most Disappointing Books on Leadership
Now to the books that disappointed the leaders who read them or were of no use at all.
1. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts
Published in: 1985
“It was quite a disappointment for me because I didn’t see any actual secrets in the book,” reveals Brian Nagele, CEO at Restaurant Clicks.
“It’s packed with historical facts about Attila the Hun. Of course, his charisma is undeniable, and Wess Roberts makes an accent on it. The author also illustrates Attila’s lust for being in charge and his path to self-identification. But there’s nothing ground-breaking. It’s also a weird feeling to be taught by someone like Attila the Hun, known for his brutality and inhumane behavior, and perceive this man as a role model in people management,” Brian points out.
Wess Roberts draws Attila’s roadmap to empowerment and portrays his leadership traits, mainly focusing on resilience and decisiveness.
2. The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
Published in: 2000
Here’s why The 48 Laws of Power may not be the best book for an aspiring leader, according to Ben Michael, practicing Lawyer and Ffounder of Michael & Associates:
“In a rather provocative manner, Robert Greene eggs leaders to play a dirty game to win the competition. Oftentimes, he refers to unlawful and unethical actions from those who have already tried playing such cruel survival games in business. It’s quite a dangerous read for individuals who believe everything a book says and like to go to extremes because each statement from the book hints at the idea that a leader has only two options: either become a victim of a larger business “shark” or survive by breaking laws and abusing one’s power: crushing enemies, manipulating, using others as scapegoats, and so on.”
Indeed, the majority of Laws of Power in Greene’s book are based on deception, manipulation, and domination. To beat the competition, he says, you need to analyze competitors and use their weaknesses to your benefit.
3. Toilet Paper Entrepreneur by Mike Michalowicz
Published in: 2008
“As a manager who plans and monitors day-to-day activities and operations of a plumbing service agency, I expected more actionable tips and tactics for leading business to success. The overall humor makes it a fun read worth a giggle rather than an instructional one,” emphasizes Martina Genao, the director of operations at the Emergency Plumbing Squad.
“The only part in which the author steps aside from jokes is about the three sheets that he suggests as substitutes for a business plan. At Emergency Plumbing Squad, we tried and tested this approach, but the results made us switch back to different types of business plans we had been working with before,” Martina adds.
In Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, Mike Michalowicz encourages entrepreneurs to throw a business plan into a trash bin and substitute it with three alternative documents:
- Prosperity Plan
- Quarterly Plan
- Daily Metrics
However, there are no data or case studies on why and how they can outperform business plans.
Pick the Right Book for Becoming a Great Leader
Like with everything else, there may be lots of poorly-written books on leadership out there. Certainly, they aren’t worth your precious time. That’s why it’s significant to make a wise choice when selecting a title and that’s when you can rely on book suggestions and lists like this one.
Explore some more business and management books recommended by Branson, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and other successful leaders.
Have you added those to your reading list already? Thumbs up and a bonus book for you!
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