12 Leadership Books Every Leader Should Read (My Personal All-Time Top Picks)

books

So you’re a reader, but which books can give you the unique insight you need to make sure not only that the organization you lead is healthy, but that you and your team stay healthy?

I get asked all the time from leaders what my top leadership books are.

I’ve put together my top picks.

These are the books that I may have read recently or years ago, but who’s ideas have left deep marks on my life and leadership, years or even decades later.

Great books shape how we think, and how we think is who we become and how we lead. So read well.

Three quick notes before we get to the list.

First, I’m not claiming these are the top leadership books of all time. They’re simply the books that have most impacted me personally. So it’s totally subjective and you won’t see some of them on any other list of all-time great books. I know that. But still, these are gems I’d recommend everyone read.

Second, just because a well-known book isn’t on the list doesn’t mean it’s not important or that I haven’t read it. Of course, I haven’t read them all by any means, and there are many key books I have read that aren’t on the list. Again, this list contains the books that have most shaped me and that I would recommend.

Finally, the list is not in order…alphabetical or by priority. These are just 12 great reads.

Oh, and one more thing, no the Bible isn’t on this list. I’m a Christian and it’s by far the most important book I’ve ever read. I’ve read it daily for almost all my adult life and regularly as a child. It just goes without saying that it’s the most important book in my view ever. So (commenters), it’s in a league of its own.

Here we go. The top 12 leadership books and what I love about them:

Great books shape how we think, and how we think is who we become and how we lead. Click To Tweet

How the Mighty Fall Jim Collins

This is not Jim Collin’s best-known book, but it’s my favorite book he’s written.

How the Mighty Fall is a study of why once great companies collapse. Collins isolates five stages of decline and doom for once-great companies (including some of his Good to Great companies). The five markers are a chilling reminder of how success goes awry. Collin’s insights into the hubris born of success and the undisciplined pursuit of more are haunting and a great window into the soul and ego of everyone who leads anything.

For anyone who’s leading anything that’s growing or successful, this is a must-read.

Here’s the link.

Good to Great Jim Collins

This is Collin’s best-known book and for good reason. I can’t tell you how many times his concepts work their way into everyday leadership conversations I have with my team.

From “first who” to ‘confront the brutal facts’ to the ‘flywheel principle’ to ‘level 5 leadership’ and the defining role that humility plays in greatness, Collin’s insights have shaped me and the teams I lead deeply.

Here’s the link.

The Advantage Patrick Lencioni

I’ve read pretty much all of Pat’s books, but this is my fave.

If you’re not familiar with Pat’s writings, this is a great place to start because it’s kind of a summary of all his previous work. And being a non-fiction guy, this is one book that doesn’t have a fable (which I appreciate…Pat says everyone else loves the fables...so I’m weird that way.)

I found the section on mission, vision and values to be game-changing.

Here’s the link.

Also, if you’re into podcasts, here’s a fascinating interview I did with Pat for my leadership podcast on why he said no to Steve Jobs, motivating millennials and the three qualities you need to create the ideal team.

Leading Change John Kotter

This is now a classic from Harvard’s John Kotter that I picked up shortly after its release in 1996. And thank goodness.

I was a young church leader trying to lead some very traditional churches through change, and other than the scriptures, this was my guidebook. Kotter is brilliant on the psychology and dynamics of leading change.

This book was so impactful that I later wrote my own book on change called Leading Change Without Losing It, crediting Kotter and adapting some of his principles to the church/non-profit world.

Here’s the link to Kotter’s classic.

The Five Levels of Leadership John C. Maxwell

Of course, there had to be a John Maxwell book on the list. Again, this isn’t his best-known work, but it’s an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to understand how influence works.

It’s a fascinating book because you can instantly recognize how you gain and lose influence as a leader, and what the next step is for you in your development. His framework also shows you why you find some people you work with compelling and others not compelling in their leadership.

Here’s the link.

Predictable Success Les McKeown

Every once in a while your life flashes before your eyes when you read a book, and this was one of those books.

When I first read Predictable Success, I thought Les McKeown had been in every meeting and conversation I’d been in over the last 20 years.

Les outlines 7 stages of growth and decline that organizations go through, and again, his framework (the fun stage, whitewater stage, treadmill stage)  has worked its way into my everyday leadership vocabulary because it is so incredibly descriptive of the real-world dynamics of leading anything.

Here’s the link.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Les McKeown twice on my leadership podcast. To hear about the seven stages of the life-cycle of an organization, listen here. For his brilliant work on creating true synergy on a team, listen here.

Essentialism Greg McKeown

The first books on this list are leadership books for the organizational side of your leadership.

Now onto some that will shape you as a leader. Probably my fave topic.

So let’s start with Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. I love this little book. It was paradigm shift for me. McKeown deals with the problem of overwhelm in leadership in a very powerful and direct way.

Most leaders are running at 100 mph and McKeown shows you exactly why that’s so dangerous and how to stop leading that way.

My biggest takeaway? If it’s not a 9 out of 10, it’s a zero. It’s a key to the disciplined pursuit of less. Again, we talk about that concept all the time on our team. It’s become part of our decision-making framework. Hard to live by, but so worth it.

Here’s the link.

I am getting into the habit of chasing down my favorite leaders for interviews. Here’s my leadership podcast episode with Greg McKeown if you’re interested.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen R. Covey

This perennial best-seller is not overhyped. Read it. Then read it again.

Begin with the end in mind has become axiomatic for a generation of leaders, but it’s still so rare. And read to the end to learn about sharpening the saw. So good.

Here’s the link.

Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman

This book was a gamechanger in 1995 when it was released, and it still is today.

It gives penetrating insight into self-awareness and will help you also see why so many people get stuck.

Hiring for EI has become part of the lexicon in leadership because of this book, and indeed, your emotional intelligence is one of the greatest predictors of your success in life and leadership.

Here’s the link.

Margin Richard Swenson

This underground classic was recommended to me when I was recovering from burnout over a decade ago.

While its analogies are a bit dated, the principles are not. It opened up a new way of thinking for me about rest, self-care and what happens when you create space in your life.

In a world that’s only gotten busier and louder since Swenson wrote Margin, this book is even more essential today.

Here’s the link.

The Genesee Diary Henry Nouwen

Oh, how I love this little book. Again, not one of his well-known works, The Genesee Diary is just what it suggests, Henri Nouwen’s diary from a six month period in the 1970s.

Nouwen was a professor in NYC whose career was taking off. Caught up in success, ego and the trappings of advancement, he took a sabbatical at a Trappist monastery in Upstate New York to find his soul.

His diaries are refreshingly honest, peculiar and at times mundane, but in them, you see a man wrestling with God and God winning.

In many ways, what you find in this little book is the beginning of the man that would emerge from the struggle, a writer that generations of people who want to get closer to God would go on to love.

Here’s the link.

Enemies of the Heart Andy Stanley

So apparently I’m pretty good at putting relatively unknown books on my list.

Andy has written many books that have gone onto become widely read best-sellers. This is one most leaders haven’t heard about.

It’s my favorite book Andy’s written. It’s soul surgery.

I talk to leaders all the time who say they can’t really afford counseling. If that’s you, buy the book instead to get started.

It will move you through all the emotions and twisted craziness you feel when you encounter guilt, anger, greed and jealousy. I promise you if you read it and apply it, you will never struggle with those emotions in the same way again.

Game-changing for me.

Here’s the link.

Andy is a friend and I’ve had the chance to interview him twice on my leadership podcast. You can listen to the most recent episode, where he talks about his latest book, Irresistible, here. I also have an interview where Andy talks about his leadership approach here.

One More Book…

My love for learning, leading and reading eventually turned me into a writer.

Of all the books I’ve written, I’m most excited about my latest, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.

In it, I outline 7 issues almost every leader experiences and almost no one expects. They’re the issues that take leaders out or take us under. And even if your struggle with cynicism, pride, burnout or irrelevance doesn’t cause to exit ministry or leadership, not dealing with those issues can still thwart your potential and kill your team culture. A lot of the book is my journey toward health. It’s a long journey…and an imperfect one. I don’t get everything right, but the difference personal and spiritual health makes is astonishing, in both life and leadership.

I wrote it to help you make progress, spiritually, personally and in leadership. I hope it will guide people in the same way my favorite books have guided me.

Check out Didn’t See It Coming for yourself and here.

Got No Time to Read? Here’s How to Find It.

Leaders are readers.

Apparently, Warren Buffet spends 5-6 hours a day reading. The hard part of course, is, that almost all leaders say they wish they had more time to read, they just can’t seem to find it. Audible helps…but still.

If you’re ready to get far more control over your time, energy and priorities, I can help.

My High Impact Leader course has helped thousands of leaders get time, energy and priorities working in their favour.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

If you’re ready to take control over your schedule and operate at your highest level at work and at home, the High Impact Leader can help.

Here are what some alumni are saying about the course:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – First Priority, Clayton County, North Carolina

“A lot of books and programs make big promises and cannot deliver but this is not one of them. I have read so many books and watched videos on productivity but the way you approach it and teach is helpful and has changed my work week in ministry in amazing ways.” Chris Sloan, Tanglewood Church, Kingston, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell, Invitation Church, Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Red Rock Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to do what matters most in life?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

What Are Your Faves?

So what are your favorite books? Scroll down and leave a comment.

I can’t wait to see what you add to my list next!

41 Comments

  1. Dean Brookes on June 9, 2019 at 1:39 am

    I recommend Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. She gets to the heart of the leader with much depth and insight. It is really good on the question of self-leadership. I notice that an expanded edition of the book has been published this year.
    Another gem is by Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership. It would be one of the best text books available on leadership, with short, pithy and relevant chapters with excellent content

  2. Steve L on May 30, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    I am reading Leading Change right now, and added How The Mighty Fall. Add in Silos by Lencioni and you have a trifecta of books that every senior and executive pastor need to read. I am especially impacted by the similarity of companies to rapidly successful churches as outlined by both Kotter and Collins. These are great resources, shame on us if we don’t apply them just because they are business focused. Carey, your leading change book is next on my list. I think in this era of church in America, we need to humbly read these books if we want to be the most effective workers in the Kingdom of God we can be.

    Both the books by Sinek mentioned, Start with the Why and Leaders Eat Last, are worthy of a focused read, as well.

  3. Jess Evans on May 26, 2019 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks for this list. As a young leader, it is great to be able to see what books others are recommending that have been helpful in shaping them as leaders. 🙂

  4. Peter Ungar on May 26, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    I’d throw a Joe Amaral book in the mix. “Understanding Jesus. Cultural insights into the Words and Deeds of Christ””. Most impactful book I’ve read.

  5. Jeff Pinkleton on May 26, 2019 at 6:44 am

    Carey,
    I’d love to see you do more of this & think it’d be highly impactful for your readers.
    Next 2 could be biographies, spiritual formation (Christian Living).
    Home run I say!

  6. Jim on April 13, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    Nancy Ortberg wrote a very good book on leadership called Unleashing the Power of Ruber Bands: lessons in non-linear leadership.

  7. sandy sisson on February 2, 2019 at 1:21 pm

    As to women writers – – – – You may want to check out Barbara Brown Taylor books. Intriguing and thought sharing books. The book – An Altar in the World – is one I would recommend for embracing soulful filled hints for leaders. An encouraging book. And thanks for sharing your personal list with all of us.

  8. Samantha Millar on January 30, 2019 at 1:10 am

    Hey, thanks for sharing. Have popped some of these on my to read list 🙂 Out of interest, have you read any books on leadership written by female authors that have inspired? I’d be keen to hear of some leadership books written by women.

  9. Keith Spurgin on January 25, 2019 at 5:51 am

    Several of my faves are on your list. I just finished Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. It is quickly working it’s way up the list for me.
    Thanks for all your investment in leaders Carey. You’ve hit your stride!

  10. Timothy Gibson on January 17, 2019 at 9:47 am

    I like some of the others recommended on this site – I would include:
    A Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards
    Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson
    The Pastor as Minor Poet, M. Craig Barnes
    The Preacher’s Portrait: Some New Testament Word Studies, John Stott

  11. Ben Stuckey on January 12, 2019 at 7:44 pm

    I’ve never actually thought about your favoybooks, but when I saw the post I couldn’t wIt to open it. I just started listening to your podcast over the last year, and other Leadership podcasts… and listening to books on Audible. I’m late to the game for being a young pastor. Anyway, when I saw the post I couldn’t wait to read it as I have really learned a lot from you over the past year. Thanks so much for your ministry!

    I was schocked you didn’t mention The Speed of Trust. For me, it out to words and helped me better identify things I internally knew. But once I read it, it really inspired me to work harder on my character and compotency.

    There are so many Maxwell books, and but I always felt Failing Forward was great because -I fail a lot! Ha!

    The E-myth helped me understand the need for SIP.

    Not sure if, “A work of the Heart,” would be considered a leadership book… but I found it to be influential in my leadership.

    Chasing the Lion is by far the best of Batterson’s books.

    And while it may not be appropriate there are some undeniable nuggets of wisdom in Machiavelli’ “The Prince,” even if it’s “how not to lead.

    Visioneering is my favorite by Andy Stanley

    And finally…. I really enjoyed “Didn’t see it coming.” Great job Carey!

    Thanks for influencing so many leaders, “you’re doing a great work and you can’t come down”- modifying Visioneering as an encouragement to you brother!

  12. Joshua on January 12, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    Great list, Carey. I especially appreciate the older books listed that stand the test of time. Gold.

  13. Brian on January 12, 2019 at 8:41 am

    Any books you would recommend on soul care (looking for some good reads for my sabbatical time…). Great list!

    • David on January 12, 2019 at 10:48 am

      Emotionally Healthy Leadership. Scazzero
      Be My Everything. Ken S.

    • George on January 13, 2019 at 10:54 pm

      Soul Keeping (Caring for The Most Important Part of You) by John Ortberg.

    • Don on June 21, 2019 at 6:30 am

      “Emotions” by: Charels Stanely

  14. Sharon Noble on January 11, 2019 at 2:22 pm

    “Divine Mentor” by Wayne Cordeiro is one that I take all our leaders through as their first book. It is first all about who we are as followers of Jesus and who we lean on each day. Only then can our leadership truly learn from the other leadership resources. One of the most influential books in my life is “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey (previously mentioned) and “Courageous Leadership” by Bill Hybels. Although there is sadness that surrounds Bill right now – his concepts and ideas are true and foundational. For example, I still use the three “Cs” when choosing leaders – Character, Competency and Chemistry. Simple but profoundly accurate.

  15. Glenn Garvin on January 11, 2019 at 1:59 pm

    Great List! Always good to swap old & new works.
    Heroic Leadership – Chris Lowney
    Linchpin – Seth Godin
    Start with Why – Simon Sinek
    Deep Change – Robert E. Quinn
    Necessary Endings – Henry Cloud
    Bigger Faster Leadership – Samuel R. Chand
    Failure of Nerve – Edwin H. Friedman

  16. Don on January 11, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    Collin’s follow up to Good to Great, “Great By Choice” is excellent too. Then there’s always my second bible, “Deep & Wide” by A. Stanley. Always relevant! 🙂

  17. John Wilson on January 11, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    Leading On Empty by Wayne Cordeiro came along at a crucial time for me. Good soul care for leaders.

  18. Dana Williams on January 11, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    Looks like a good list, Carey! I’d love to see some female authors added in the future.

  19. Steve LaRocque on January 11, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    Great list, agree with you, those are books all leaders should read. A few more that I like, The Way of the Shepherd, Leman and Pentak. Simple book, but sometimes we forget the basics of leadership. Wooden on Leadership is good because it comes from a different perspective. I love the impact he continued to have on his players lives long after they left UCLA. I would add another Maxwell book, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. I use 5 levels in almost every leadership training I do, but 21 Laws is foundational. I am working through Leaders Eat Last by Sinek. That might make the list when I am done.

  20. David Blackburn on January 11, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    I would suggest that every church leader read- Dangerous Calling:Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry Paul David Tripp is the author.

  21. J. Lander on January 11, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    7 Practices of Effective Ministries by Andy Stanley; Messy Spirituality by Mile Yaconelli; The Secret of the Secret Place by Bob Sorge.

  22. Gaye B. Marston on January 11, 2019 at 11:47 am

    Definitely great books! But have you noticed they’re all by male authors?

    • Char on January 27, 2019 at 3:11 pm

      Good books are good books, they shouldn’t be chosen because of who did or didn’t write them.

  23. Ken on January 11, 2019 at 11:01 am

    When Work and Family Collide/Choosing to Cheat by Andy Stanley. This book was so insightful. It taught me that success at work isn’t so great if you’re family feels neglected (and that it doesn’t have to be that way). As a workaholic by nature, this book helped me to reframe my priorities. I have bought, read, lended, bought again, and read at least 3 times now.

    Kotter’s change management principles and Goleman’s emotional intelligence are great as well. I’m glad they made your list!

  24. Caleb Kaltenbach on January 11, 2019 at 10:15 am

    Louder Than Words by Andy Stanley

  25. Nate Hogan on January 11, 2019 at 9:57 am

    The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. A leadership book for business leaders – but adaptable to non-profits and churches.

  26. Lori Harris on January 11, 2019 at 9:28 am

    The Bait of Satan, John Bevere

  27. Phil Morgan on January 11, 2019 at 9:25 am

    Thanks for the list, Carey. “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney and Sean Covey has been really helping me and our staff recently.

  28. Ron MacLean on January 11, 2019 at 9:13 am

    I found the Blackabys’ book Spiritual Leadership extremely insightful and equipping.

  29. Rev. Jeff Lorig on January 11, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for the list Carey. So tremendously helpful.

  30. Terry Ruegg on January 11, 2019 at 8:55 am

    So many times i have read Leadership is an Art by Max de Pree to be re-centered on character and influenece, to remind myself that Art takes life of it’s own.

    • Max Blake on January 11, 2019 at 6:15 pm

      I was anxious to see if anyone else would mention this book. This book… has impacted my life like no other, both professionally and personally. The idea of the leader as servant is, to me, the most powerful part of leadership. I’ve also read Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf.

  31. Daniel Indradjaja on January 11, 2019 at 8:46 am

    Ken Watanabe “Problem Solving 101.” Originally written for Japanese schoolchildren. His goal was to help shift the focus in Japanese education from memorization to critical thinking, by adapting some of the techniques he had learned as an elite McKinsey consultant.

    He was amazed to discover that adults were hungry for his fun and easy guide to problem solving and decision making. The book became a surprise Japanese bestseller, with more than 370,000 in print after six months. Now American businesspeople can also use it to master some powerful skills.

    https://www.amazon.com/Problem-Solving-101-Simple-People/dp/1591842425

  32. Tristan Ertel on January 11, 2019 at 8:41 am

    I love the “Speed of Trust” by Stephen MR Covey and also “Launching a Leadership Revolution” by Chris Brady and Orrin Woodward – they take familiar concept like the Covey’s habits, Maxwell’s Levels, and Collin’s Level 5 Leadership and flesh them out in greater and greater details.

    Also, didn’t see it coming is fantastic – if you haven’t read it yet make sure to buy a few extra copies when you get yours because you will immediately want to share it!

  33. Jacob Stansberry on January 11, 2019 at 8:40 am

    In the title of your book. “Everyone” and “no one” are mixed up. Just thought you should know. Thanks for putting this list together!

  34. David on January 11, 2019 at 8:39 am

    Thanks Carey. Great list. Appreciate how you let us into why they were helpful for you.

  35. Rev. Dr. Alex G Wright on January 11, 2019 at 8:37 am

    How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is a classic, and it has been updated in a newer release called ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age.’ I personally think this is a must read!

  36. Doug Oines on January 11, 2019 at 8:36 am

    My all-time favorite is In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. It changed my entire approach to leading as a young manager and I carried those lessons through out my career.

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