The 9 Best Leadership Books of 2021
Become a better leader with these picks
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Alexander the Great once said that he wasn’t afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. He was afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion. So how do you achieve lion status?
Even those born with great, innate leadership skills might gain something from refining them. Some people who have mastered the art of good leadership have shared their thoughts in these books. Whether you want to hone your skills or you’re facing your first leadership role, there’s something here for everyone, from novice to CEO.
Best Overall: Extreme Ownership
You might not be planning to lead your team into a warzone, but you could probably do so successfully after reading this leadership book. Former SEALS Willink and Babin propose some dynamic, grace-under-fire principles that you can apply to any team. The authors discuss the structure of successful teams and how to achieve success in virtually any scenario, even when lives are not on the line.
Readers give "Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win" an impressive five out of five stars. It was a bestseller when it was first released in 2015 and an updated version became available in November 2017.
Best on Teamwork: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Patrick Lencioni proposes that it’s the success of a team as a whole, not just of the leader, that effectuates results. But every team needs a good leader, and this starts with getting the most out of every team member. Lencioni says this begins with productive conflict and, above all, trust. "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable" is a fable about situations that a leader has encountered and how those situations were dealt with, complete with morals to each story segment.
Lencioni has some impressive experience to draw from. He’s a successful businessman whose work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal. One neat thing about this book is the quiz section that follows each chapter, allowing you to grade yourself and your team to help chart paths toward improvement. "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" is the third book in a trilogy.
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Best on Coaching: The Coaching Habit
A well-known keynote speaker and coaching expert, Michael Bungay Stanier has made a career of teaching leadership skills to more than 10,000 managers worldwide. "The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever" focuses on these skills as Stanier applies them to seven questions, each aimed at eliciting a certain response from your team or addressing stumbling blocks.
The questions range from “The Kickstart Question” to “The Focus Question” and “The Strategic Question.” Daniel H. Pink, the author of "Drive," calls them “core questions” and says that they’ll not only guide you to effective support of your team but also help you to become your own best coach. This leadership book is no dry recital. It’s laced with the author’s unique sense of humor to make it a really enjoyable read.
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Best Self-Help: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
A classic leadership book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change" was first published in 1990 and continues to be one of the bestselling business books — 10 million copies sold later. The book is so influential, it has inspired presidents, CEOs, and people of all occupations from around the world. Using anecdotes, author Stephen R. Covey introduces a principle-centered approach for solving both personal and professional challenges. This step-by-step guide includes habits like "Begin with The End in Mind," "Put First Things First," and "Seek First to Understand Then be Understood." This special, 25th-anniversary edition came out in 2013, proving how timeless Covey's lessons are.
Best for Millennials: Leaders Eat Last
This is a new offering from Simon Senek, who has described himself as a bright-eyed optimist. His mission in life is to inspire others and to teach them how to do the same. These “others” have included foreign ambassadors and U.S. politicians.
Yes, this is the same Senek who penned the bestseller "Start With Why." In "Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't," he puts forth his belief that a great leader will and should sacrifice his/her own creature comforts when necessary for the benefit of those who follow them. The paperback edition of this leadership book was released in 2017 and it includes an expanded chapter that specifically focuses on the art of leading millennials. So, if you find that you’re a little mystified as you endeavor to lead a workforce that’s years younger than you, this might be the perfect book.
Most Innovative: Drive
Daniel H. Pink took the financial world by storm with his No. 1 New York Times bestseller, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us." He dared to suggest that becoming a good leader begins with throwing incentives out the window. Don’t dangle carrots in front of your team to inspire them to feats of greatness. Provide them with skills and a sense of purpose, then turn them loose to sink or swim on their own.
Pink tends to be on the cutting edge of new ways of thinking — he also wrote the New York Times bestseller "A Whole New Mind." Readers give this leadership book a high rating and the Financial Times said that Pink is “rapidly acquiring international guru status.” That’s some high praise.
Best for Women: Lean In
This offering from Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has become a motivational bible for women entrepreneurs. "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" focuses on what women can do rather than what they’re not supposed to be able to do well, including leading others. Her position is that leadership might not be something you’re inherently good at, but you can become great at it if you dig in and persevere — and if you care more about succeeding than being well-liked.
"Lean In" was Amazon’s Best Book of the Month in March 2013 and it hasn’t lost any of its punch. Sandberg is funny in places and will make you grit your teeth in others. Her advice is definitely something you’ll think about the next time you walk into your workplace or the boardroom.
Best Case Study: Good to Great
The findings in "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't" are a result of Jim Collins' five year-project, which included a 21-person research team and more than 2,000 pages of interview transcripts. In it, Collins looks at how good companies become great companies and how most companies fail to make that transition. The study attempts to understand key characteristics that make a company go from "good to great," identifying elite companies that made that successful leap and comparing them with companies that didn't succeed. Analyzing a total of 28 companies, this leadership book explores the "keys to greatness," with findings like "The Hedgehog Concept" to "The Flywheel and the Doom Loop."
Best for Inspiration: Dare to Lead
Brené Brown, a research professor known for her studies on vulnerability and shame, explores brave leadership and what makes a courageous leader in "Dare to Lead." In this New York Times bestseller, Brown demonstrates how one can step up and lead through stories, examples, and research conducted with leaders. She found that daring leadership is a collection of four skill sets, and aims to help readers apply those skills in this book. And, if you're a fan of "Daring Greatly," "Rising Strong," or Brown's other work, you'll know that she speaks in an authentic, honest way.
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