Holiday Reading for Leaders

While there are a wide range of business books on the bestseller list, I thought I would again this year offer my list of favorite business writing. Some of these books may not be on the bestseller list, mostly because their authors challenge you to think and provide your own answers. The wisdom and counsel in these books requires readers to muddle their way through their own responses and come up with their own decisions. Just the thing if you have made time for contemplation this holiday season.

My favorite this year is “Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature,” by Joseph Badaracco Jr. (Harvard Busi-ness Press). Badaracco is the John Shad Professor of Ethics at Harvard Business School. His book uses great literature to pose and explore ethical questions faced by the leaders of organizations large and small on a daily basis. He works with Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and a wide range of other wonderful writing as a backdrop. His examination of readiness to take responsibility using Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” should be required reading for all leaders in all organizations. There are lots of questions in this book and no easy answers.

Although not new this year, I ran across a remarkable book by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, both of Harvard as well. I almost bypassed this one as a cross between old-style sales trickery and new-age reframing of positive attitude. But given that both authors have serious credentials in the area of organizational change, I put it to work for a client and saw remarkable results. The book is “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transfor-mation” (Josey Bass Publishers). This book is more of a how-to than a deep exploration (which is unusual for Kegan who writes extensively on stages of adult development). Early in the book, Kegan and Lahey walk through a process for using complaints to identify organizational values and transform complaining into personal accountability. That alone should make the book worth reading for most business leaders.

More practical but not at all simplistic is “The Next Level” by Scott Eblin (Moore-Black Publishing). This book looks at the specific skills needed for the move from director to vice president. Eblin creates a framework based on interviews with organizational leaders to identify the most critical skills for newly promoted VPs. However, it also serves as a practical roadmap for directors who aspire to a bigger job. Eblin reduces the findings into an easy-to-understand grid of what to pick up and what to let go of. This book is also a terrific reminder to executive management about the fundamental requirements of leadership and what it takes to demonstrate them every day.

On the lighter side, almost anything by Patrick Lencioni is a useful and entertaining read. These days, he has his own shelf in the business section at your local book retailer. Lencioni is a former member of Bain & Co. and brings a very practical and engaging touch to his books. Each is told through a fable, which Lencioni uses for comment between chapters. Reviewing his titles, there is something for almost everyone on your list. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “The Five Temptations of a CEO,” “The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive”… you get the idea. My two favorites are “Death by Meeting” (the title says it all) and “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars,” Lencioni’s newest. These are lighter reading than the suggestions above, but very practical for the leader who sees his or her organization in the title.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, December 11, 2006.