Be a great manager with these 12 leadership books.

October 1, 2018

Be a great manager with these 12 leadership books.

By Drew Fortin October 1, 2018

I’m an avid reader and I’m always digging into the latest and greatest business books. Especially when it comes to people management, I tend to talk in frameworks or concepts I’ve come across over the years.

I realized how much of a geek I was when I co-hosted a PI webinar over the summer on five management myths and caught myself referencing book after book. Since then, I received many requests to publish a list of my favorites. So, without further ado, here’s a list of 12 books that have had the biggest impact on the way I manage and lead.

Drew’s list of must-read books on leadership and team management (in no particular order):

Leadership book on table in the PI office

1. “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni

Lencioni’s seminal book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” is a must-read for anyone on, or managing, a business team. Shortly after reading, I realized all the hot air behind the pervasive use of “results-driven” in business plans and LinkedIn profiles. (You might as well hang a “world’s-best” sign in a coffee shop window.) It’s a quick read, in fable format, that allows you to understand how establishing trust is necessary in order to have tough conversations and commit to goals so managers and team members can hold each other accountable. The outcome, not the impetus, is results.

2. “Organizational Culture and Leadership” by Ed Schein

I think this is actually a collegiate textbook, but I read “Organizational Culture and Leadership” cover-to-cover and recommend reading it in its entirety to anyone interested in change management or cultural transformation. Shein is a world-renowned consultant and former MIT professor. If you’re looking for the best chapter, I recommend Chapter 16 entitled “A Model of Change Management and the Change Leader.” This was the first time I came across the concept of “learning anxiety.” Shein outlines eight tactics leaders must implement to establish “psychological safety”—something that is absolutely critical if you want a “fail fast” and continuous learning culture.

3. “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott

Scott nailed it with “Fierce Conversations.” In addition to having an incredibly pragmatic and useful framework for teeing difficult conversations, Scott uses examples from her own work and life to show leaders what it means to truly care about your team members, to listen, to hold them accountable, and inspire them to greatness. Just as it’s often a team leader’s job to coach and motivate others, Scott also speaks of the damage and emotional wake leaders cause when they lack self-awareness and empathy.

4. “Conflict Without Casualties” by Nate Regier, Ph.D.

Regier shares useful strategies for addressing tough situations and responding to those playing the blame-game. Regier sheds light on the fact that in different situations each of us chooses the role we play—the victim, the rescuer, or the persecutor. Regier gives some clear advice on how to identify which role you’re being asked to play in the trifecta and viewing them differently as leadership tenets—vulnerability, resourcefulness, and persistence.

5. “HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself”

If you’re looking for a definitive guide to getting your work-life organized and focusing on self-awareness, look no further. This book by Harvard Business Review is a collection of 10 famous articles written by management greats. They cover topics such as leadership, time management, self-awareness, and how being a truly great leader means blurring the lines between work and home life. It kicks off with a bonus article by Clayton Christensen titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

6. “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen M.R. Covey

Although Lencioni introduced me to the critical importance of trust, Covey really drove the concept home for me. Trust is the backbone of any relationship in work and life. And, it all starts by trusting yourself. Otherwise, it will be nearly impossible to trust others. Covey unpacks how lack of self-trust usually results in being overly judgmental and holding yourself and others to impossible standards. On the flip side, Covey talks about how trusting too much could mean that you never hold people accountable. Whether it’s setting expectations, meeting them, and holding yourself and others accountable—it takes practice to find the middle ground.

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7. “Scaling Up” by Verne Harnish

In “Scaling Up,” Harnish unveils a very simple goal-crushing formula combining strategy, people, execution, and cash—with worksheets and rubrics throughout to boot. Intended to be more of a reference piece, each page is packed with insights and ideas for running your team and company like a finely-tuned machine. I found the section on accountability and team meeting cadence particularly helpful. If you struggle to communicate a strategic vision and plan, the book is chock full of easy frameworks and processes to clearly articulate your goals, get your team(s) aligned, and have an amazing impact on growth and the bottom line.

8. “The Alliance” by Reid Hoffman

As the working world continues to evolve, so does the social contract businesses have with their employees. Hoffman uses “The Alliance” to share his perspective, which formed while he led LinkedIn as CEO and co-founder. Noting an all-time low in trust between employer and employee, Hoffman advocates for a new, transparent, and mutually-beneficial contract—a “tour of duty” as he calls it—geared to giving employees a leg up in their career while allowing the company to remain flexible while it scales. As you hire employees, you have the opportunity to set clear expectations about what it means to perform in a role and how long you anticipate someone will stay in that role. This clarity allows for trust to be established and it empowers employees to follow their passion.

9. “Good to Great” by Jim Collins

Obviously a classic. Collins’s “Good to Great” uses real-life examples to show how great leaders use strategy, execution, and leadership skills to take their company’s performance to the max. It’s no surprise that the people leaders surround themselves with can make or break a company. Collins touches on his famous analogy of getting the right people “on the bus” first and then working with them to design their ideal role. He also puts emphasis on leadership remaining humble and always putting what’s best for the company ahead of their own needs. Although basic, it’s awfully impactful when you read example after example of great strategies and the leaders who led them.

10. “Whale Done!” by Ken Blanchard

“Whale Done!” by Blanchard, a renowned management expert, focuses on the power of positive relationships. Highlighting strategies used by whale trainers at SeaWorld, Blanchard advocates that leaders place emphasis and praise on desired behaviors and essentially ignore all that are undesirable. The thinking is that psychologically we all crave rewards and positive accolades. So much so that we’ll subconsciously stop behaviors that illicit no response. No one can deny the power of positive. Although short and to the point, I challenge you to be truthful, specific, and positive with feedback on a regular basis. It’s much easier said than done. (Note: The book was published in 2002, prior to the release of “Blackfish” in 2013. While nobody endorses the captivity and isolation of orca whales, the concepts still apply.)

11. “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott

Scott’s “Radical Candor” opened the floodgates to managers everywhere finally being able to breathe and give their team members in-the-moment feedback. In addition to its namesake, Scott uses the book to talk about how leaders can trap potential in their team members with “ruinous empathy.” On a broad scale, Scott advocates for providing an all-inclusive culture that’s open to feedback and continuous learning. If you think you want to try radical candor, read the book. Don’t pay it lip service. I’ve personally witnessed a few occasions where managers have used the book as a license to eviscerate employees versus taking the time and care to tailor candor to the needs of each team member.

12. “Outbound Air” by Tom Foster

“Outbound Air” outlines the growing pains all businesses go through as their organizational structure starts to materialize. Foster uses a fictitious scenario of an expanding regional airport to explain the time strata theory of late management expert Elliott Jaques. This book was my first exposure to the common dissonance created when people that have a specific cap on how far they can plan into the future (time horizon) are placed in roles that require more future planning (time span). According to Dr. Jaques, people’s abilities break naturally into eight levels, which he calls “strata.” It sheds light on why some people may be great as tactical process followers, but not as systems creators or strategists. By no means a show-stopper of a book, I thought it was worth wrestling through to get the essence of the time strata theory.

Leadership is a never-ending journey. One thread that ties it all together is self-awareness—it’s critical to being able to open up and unlock your true potential. If you’d like, you can use tools like the PI Behavioral Assessment™ to understand your management style. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy reading those books. I’d love to learn what books, frameworks, or advice have been most impactful for you, so please share.


  1. Thank you for the book list!
    Lencioni has been very inspiring! I recommend “The ideal Team Player” also by Lencioni, so that you can look for the ideal team players as leader.
    Other 2 books were for me a guide in the last years, “The leader who had no title” by Robin Sharma, I think we need more leaders in the organizations and less managers!
    And the 2nd book “The Orange Revolution” by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton were is possible to find good ideas to create a great team.

  2. Looking forward to diving into these suggestions. I have come across “Whale Done” a few times lately. Thinking this will need to be on my to do list.

  3. Thank you for this list. There are a number of books that I have not read yet. I would also like to suggest a favorite of mine. “Creating the Magic”, by Lee Cockerell.

  4. We just did Leadership training with our management team that used the premise of the “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and Stephen Covey’s Speed of Trust. Great way to look at our teams and fixing the engagement and trust issues.

  5. Love, Love, Love 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. It is an easy read with a great story and very easy to relate to every-day work life.
    The Speed of Trust is my other favorite. It is amazing to really watch and evaluate how much valuable time can be lost when you don’t trust that someone will complete and/or do a good job.

  6. Another great leadership book is: It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, By Capital D. Michael Abrashoff

  7. I am constantly looking for more books to read that will help me in my personal journey to grow in my knowledge so that I can be more useful and inspirational to those around me. “Fierce Conversations” is on my current list of books to read. The Sarah Knight series that I won’t specifically mention titles for because although they are truly insightful and helpful, do happen to have impolite language in the titles. I have extremely low formality, so this doesn’t actually bother me, but because I have high extroversion I prefer to not damage relationships or prevent future relationships because I was socially rude. I have printed this article out and will not only add these to my list, but will also share these with our management team. We can all use some help and guidance in our management and even the best manager will eventually need to manage someone that is difficult for them.

  8. Have read and actually used three of these books in our leadership groups. Am looking forward to Whale Read! It had been recommended to me before and I had forgotten to get it ordered. Have done so now!

  9. “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” was a great book. So was “Good to Great”. These two books will transform your teams and your approach to management, especially combined with PI results for your staff.

  10. There are so many excellent leadership books out there (and your list definitely has a lot of them). Another book I feel brings a lot to the table is ‘The Power of Thanks” by Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine.

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