Read change in 7 ways: books on leading change

Seven book recommendations spanning social psychology, science and history on leading change.

Stop start. Stop start. Why is change so hard? Because we live in a world that’s drenched in good ideas. Companies are tasked with transforming themselves quickly and continuously – when they fail to evolve, they simply do not last. Spanning social psychology, science and history, through metaphors, stories and studies, this collection reveals insight on techniques to lead change more effectively

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1. Switch: How to change things when change is hard by Chip and Dan Heath 

“Some is not a number and soon is not a time.” This quote embodies Switch, which examines the barriers to change. The insightful book celebrates and stretches the ‘rider and the elephant’ metaphor, coined by social psychologist Jonathan David Haidt. According to the model, the rider is rational and can plan ahead while the elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct. For change to happen we have to find the balance between the two. The Heath brothers also add an important third frame to the original model: the path. The journey is where obstacles to change often occur. With scientific references, learn why the brain resists change and how to switch your behaviour. 

2. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence by Dacher Keltner 

Watch out. Power will go to your head. As a professor of psychology, Keltner is well placed to examine the power paradox – that the path to power comes from being a good person, but once in power, people tend to turn bad. While seeing the world from other people’s perspectives can land you a powerful position, case studies prove why power chips away at our emotional intelligence. The underlying message behind this illuminating read is that we should strive to be powerful through empathy and by building authentic relationships, rather than manipulating others to satisfy selfish needs.

3. Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan

How well can you read your organisation? If you’re using a single lens, it’s likely that the answer is ‘could do better’. Using eight metaphors, including the brain and the machine, Morgan shows managers how to break free of management traditions by revealing pros and cons for each. He writes that all management theories are based on implicit images or metaphors that “persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways”. He argues that while they create insight, they also distort. Where there are strengths, there are also limitations. He cleverly balances each. 

4. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen 

Most executives, and organisations, know what they should be doing, but never under-estimate the ability of smart people to live in a state of denial. Confronting difficult conversations effectively is a critical element of leading change. Based on 15 years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project, Difficult Conversations helps us reframe our feelings to create meaningful, value-adding conversations. We can’t control other people’s feelings, so the top piece of advice is to express our feelings, which enables us to better listen to the other party. Read this book for a step-by-step approach to having tough conversations with successful outcomes. 

5. The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael D. Watkins 

The first 90 days of any new role defines how successful you will be… or not. This book serves as a vital checklist of what to do and how to do it – in the time span of a financial quarter. The cornerstone of early job transition success is personal brand. How you act and engage with the organisational culture – and its politics – is key. Watkins argues that your colleagues and manager form feelings about you based on early opinions that stick. Reversing these initial assumptions is hard. To build credibility for yourself you need to ensure you’re perceived as someone willing to learn and someone that invests in the organisation. 

6. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bronnie Ware  

Bronnie Ware spent years as a nurse in palliative care. Her patients all went home to die. Based on her experience, she pulls out five fascinating and insightful themes centred on ‘I wish’. Would you act differently if you knew what you’d regret in life the most? It’s worth considering. 

Do you wish for the courage to live life while being true to yourself rather than living the life others expect? Do you wish you’d give yourself a break and stop working so hard? Perhaps you deeply desire the courage to express your true feelings? Maybe you wish you’d stayed in touch with your friends? Or, do you simply wish to be happier? These themes are worth examining. After all, you only live once. 

7. Man's Search for Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust by Viktor E Frankl 

What better way to end the list than with Man's Search for Meaning, which reveals the disturbing account of Frankl who reports on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II. A Viennese psychiatrist before the war, he uniquely observed the coping mechanisms of humans up against all odds. He describes his psychotherapeutic method – making purpose in life salient in order to feel positive about living. In the face of tragic adversity, he found that people who gave away their last scrap of food survived the longest. He endured the camp by putting his creativity to work and immersing himself in a more positive, imagined, outcome. This sobering book sends a message: to survive change, we must put our minds to work. 

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