Reading (or listening on Audible) is your best secret tool for growing your career.
The most fundamental thing that sets a top performer apart is relentless self-improvement. While no one book will instantly transform your career, the weight of continual investment in yourself will make all the difference over the arc of a career.
The books that have had the most impact on my leadership style in recent years come from The Arbinger Institute. They have put out three titles in a series:
I’ve recommended Leadership and Self Deception to many people. Those who have read it always find that it influences their leadership style. The second book goes in a different direction and deals with conflict resolution. It is a great book, but less directly about career growth. The third book is really a broader, deeper explanation of the first. So, read Leadership and Self Deception, and if you like it, go deeper with The Outward Mindset.
The books that have had the most impact on my execution ability are those by Chip and Dan Heath, a pair of brothers. They have written five books so far.
I recommend all the books, but I’ve posted the process from Decisive on my office wall and try to use it for every important decision. If you want to read just one book to improve your ability to deliver good results at work, I would start here.
Important note: Nothing about Leadership and Self Deception or Decisive is specific to management. They are completely applicable to any high performer.
No book list for professionals is complete without “the classics:”
- The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. The seven habits covers the foundations of personal behavior to be, as the title says, highly effective at work.
- The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard. Ken is the father of Situational Leadership, a key concept for how to work with others who are at different stages of expertise, from novice to master, in a given skill. As a bonus, this book is very short and can be read in a couple of hours.
- One Minute Mentoring, by Ken Blanchard and Claire Diaz-Ortez. Another great book by Ken Blanchard that is a recommended short read for both mentors and mentees.
- Peopleware, by Demarco and Lister. An older book now, it was pioneering in the space of understanding the dynamics of taking care of a team of people in the modern workplace.
- The Goal, by Eli Goldratt. The authoritative book on the Theory of Constraints, and how to optimize any process for maximum throughput. It is set in an industrial context, but easily applied to technology businesses and software development.
- What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard Bolles. The classic book on both how to identify what kind of work best fits you and how to find a job when you need one.
Sometimes you need to invent completely new ideas or disrupt existing thinking. Over the past twenty years I’ve used the book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, and it’s related Whack Pack, by Roger von Oech to achieve this. Roger’s book, a bit like Decisive, gives you a toolkit for a task. I hold about 70 patents; using this book helped me come up with many of them.
How Amazon accomplished all it has (and how your company can do the same): Working Backwards. Written by my old boss, he now says it should be titled “The Invention Machine” and he is right. It describes how Amazon invents, systematically.
Two books on why we do what we do.
I believe that I Moved Your Cheese is the more powerful book, but to get the full benefit, you need to read Who Moved My Cheese first. The good news is that both of these books are very short. You could actually read both back to back in a dedicated evening.
Behave by Robert Sapolsky - if you want a deep and fascinating look at our behavior and unavoidable (no really, unavoidable) biases
Supporting Diversity: Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg.
In 2010, I contributed to the Ownership leadership principle at Amazon. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win provides multiple intense examples of taking ownership and how it is core to success.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck - The title is misleading. The book is not about slacking off, but rather how to focus your attention on what matters most to you. Excellent yet fun book.
Deep Work - Great book on the importance of focused work time. The author admits that it applies less to executives who must task switch, but it is a secret weapon for individual contributors not in a large team management role.
Executive Presence - the best book I have been able to find with specific instructions on how to develop the elusive trait of executive presence.
Radical Candor and Crucial Conversations - two books on how to have tough talks. The first is focused on getting and giving tough feedback at work. The second includes this but is more broad (and thus more complex) on how to have any tough conversation.
Understanding Flow State
Flow is the key to working at peak performance and enjoying it at the same time.
The Art of The Impossible - the best book on the topic, tells you specifically how
The Rise of Superman - comes before Impossible, sets up the evidence for it
Finding Flow - By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the founder of the field, the original work
Antifragile by Nassim Taleb - long, in depth study of how design and economics work and how you can benefit from bold bets and long odds. If you want to think this is the book for you
Principles - many people love this book by Ray Dalio. It is long, but if you want to build principles for your life or business from the ground up, it is the right guidebook
Finally, we come to Philosophy, and understanding the human mind. Any and all of these books will enrich you as a leader and human being:
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- Letters from a Stoic - Seneca
- The Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
Transparency: If you buy these books from the links here, I’ll get an Amazon Associates fee, usually 4% to 8% of the purchase price. If that bothers you, by all means get them another way.