Leadership Books - Essential Reading

In the field of leadership, as in other fields, there are the good, the bad and the ugly.

In the field of leadership, as in other fields, there are the good, the bad and the ugly. Rob Goffee shares his choices of books that examine leaders and leadership from all angles.

Leadership Books  Essential Reading

On Becoming a Leader: The Leadership Classic Revised and Updated

Warren Bennis

Leaders are always important to an organisation, especially in uncertain and challenging times — such as these. Bennis reminds us that the best leaders serve as anchors and guides.

He has always asserted that leaders are not born, but made. In this classic guide, after defining the qualities of a good leader, he points out those who demonstrate these qualities and follows with useful strategies for an aspiring leader. He makes the point that great leaders do not impose ideological constraints when problem solving. They seek creative and thoughtful solutions that address the circumstances of each difficult problem. Bennis advises board members to listen carefully to the one who finds the courage to speak the truth — he or she is likely to be the next leader.

(304 pages, Basic Books, 2009)

The Leadership Challenge

James M Kouzes and Barry Z Posner

In every organisation, there are those people who seem to emerge as natural leaders. They make suggestions, point out areas of inefficiency and have vision. It is up to the leaders of organisations to empower these trailblazers to speak up. This type of leadership can be taught and emulated. Kouzes and Posner offer a field guide for anyone who finds himself in the position of creating everyday heroes in the work place. In short, management must build community, turn information into knowledge and, most importantly, provide direction and support during uncertain times. Company leaders must be the video as well as the audio for the message they want to broadcast to their employees. It’s not just a job; it’s a calling — a leadership challenge.
(416 pages, Jossey Bass, 4th edition 2008)

Organizational Culture and Leadership

Edgar H Schein

Consider the following situations. How does the culture of physicians who highly value autonomy influence the discussion surrounding health care options in society? What type of leadership does an executive demonstrate who values returns for stockholders above all else? What questions arise when we consider the cultural attitudes of scientists whose holy grail is innovation in the field of genetic engineering? Each of these examples highlights the reality that cultures do exist within different professional worlds. Schein believes leaders need to understand the cultural assumptions groups bring to a discussion before they can facilitate communication within organisations, especially within very diverse multicultural groups.
(464 pages, Jossey Bass, 4th edition 2010)


James Macgregor Burns

Burns proposed in this Pulitzer Prize-winning study of leadership that the most important quality a leader can possess is the ability to inspire others to rise to the challenge of working for the greater good. He was the first to introduce the concept of transformational leadership, the idea that the best leaders are those who inspire others to work together toward the achievement of higher aims. This classic, first published in 1978, continues to inspire thinkers and students of leadership. It should be required reading for anyone who hopes to lead any organisation.
(544 pages, HarperPerennial, 2010)

Leaders We Deserve

Alistair Mant

While James Macgregor Burns sees the good in leaders, Mant looks at the darker side of leadership. He asks what propels some dubious or dangerous leaders to rise to positions of power. In a Jungian exploration, he has created archetypes such as the mother-dominated entrepreneur Ronald Reagan and the religious zealot, the Ayotollah Khomenei.
(256 pages, Wiley-Blackwell, 1985)

Men and Women of the Corporation

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

In this book, first published in 1977, Kanter looked at the careers of those in corporations and how they were shaped by the distribution of power in the organisation. Not surprisingly, she discovered that only a miniscule number of women held positions of leadership. Kanter writes in the afterword to this edition that, in the 1990s, the corporate culture was transformed and, out of necessity in an evolving global economy, adopted flexibility in all areas of personnel. This new global vision opened doors for minorities as well as women. It is no longer a white man’s world, and the whole organisation benefited from this change in culture.
(416 pages, Basic Books, revised edition 1993)

The Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli

Often regarded as the first true leadership book, The Prince shocked its readers with its proposals of ruthless action and the suggestion that a leader’s ends justify his means.  Written in the early 1500s, at the time Cesare Borgia, the Duke Valentino (‘The Prince’) claimed power in eastern Italy, the book encourages risk taking and ambition. Machiavelli admired and assisted Borgia in an era when the only way to ascend to power was to be born a prince. Eventually, he paid a high price for his admiration; he wrote his famous work while in exile. Machiavelli, a respected scholar of Italian history, also authored The Art of War.
(260 pages, Capstone, 2010)

A Journey

Tony Blair

This engaging account of Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister opens with his confession that, before being elected to the highest office in the land, he had never held any position in government. He came to office as the victorious leader of the Labour Party after Labour had lost four elections in a row. Blair suddenly saw himself as “the person who was the owner of the responsibility, the person not explaining why things were wrong but taking the decisions to put them right.” He was the man in charge while, he admits, he knew nothing about how government really worked.
(736 pages, Hutchinson, 2011)

Tao Te Ching


Tao Te Ching is a guide to virtue, understanding, humility and, ultimately, peace. This classic by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was first published in this Penguin Books translation in 1963. Since then it has helped Westerners appreciate how yin and yang — the polar forces of nature — are interconnected and interdependent. The two poles are complementary and in constant motion, interacting with a whole system. Lao Tzu instructs students to surrender to the flow, because to resist it is futile.
(96 pages, Penguin, 2009)

A Long Walk to Freedom: An Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

As one of only a few black African lawyers, Mandela writes that he did not seek a life in public service: instead, he accepted the calling of a struggle against the apartheid government of South Africa. This act of bravery resulted in 27 years of imprisonment, the loss of two marriages and separation from his family. Yet, his generous spirit endured. It is an inspiring story of the belief in one’s country and the power of servant leadership.
(748 pages, Abacus, 1995)

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