Looking out at the landscape of leadership, business, and psychology books can be overwhelming at times. There are heaps and heaps of best-selling books on all of these topics, and sifting through them is an incredibly time-consuming feat. Here’s a list of 17 essential business leadership books to get you started.
1. “The Ultimate Sales Machine” by Chet Holmes.
Holme’s book is all about making every move as impactful as possible. There are two key takeaways worth mentioning from this book. The first key point is how he learned time management from dealing with his billionaire boss, and It’s a fascinating story. He talks about how every time he met with that boss, he had to have every talking point written down on one piece of paper. It had to make sense, be concise, and he would only ever have 20 minutes to review it. That was it. Holmes took a page out of his old boss’ book once he was in a position to do so, and the results have been huge for him. The second key takeaway is a great primer on how to hire effective salespeople. He stresses the importance of combining other application elements with the standard interview to weed out potential problem employees and save yourself money down the line.
2. “The Culture Code” by Clotaire Rapaille.
Rapaille has a fascinating story. He writes about his experience as a doctor helping kids with autism, and how those experiences taught him a lot about the subconscious mind. He was able to break down the system of social norms that we all inherit through growing up in contemporary society, and apply that idea to the business world. He ended up getting hired by different brands to figure out what motivates people. For example, Chrysler came to him and said, “Hey, we want you to help us design a car. We know what our clients want. They want safety, reliability, and gas mileage.” He ended up applying his research on subconscious emotional connections to consumer products to help the company design the PT Cruiser, which became a huge success for the company.
3. “The Game” by Neil Strauss.
It’s likely you’ve heard about this book before, as it was pretty controversial around the time of its release. Strauss, who writes clearly and fluidly, explains his method for picking up women in the dating world. Much of his dating advice is slightly outdated, but the methods he describes are much more applicable to the sales world than anything else. If you approach it from that angle, there’s an argument that The Game is actually the best sales book ever written. He explains that his process for learning how to attract the opposite sex was developed through extensive trial and error, practicing, and paying attention to the details in how he looked, how he talked, what he said. Everything single detail in the process mattered, and he found that by paying attention to those details, he dramatically increased his dating success. One of the big takeaways is about getting over the fear of approaching. Sometimes in sales, there’s a fear of cold calling and initiating conversations. Great sales is about how you fine-tune those conversations.
4. “The Great Pain Deception” by Steven Ray Ozanich
It may seem like a bit of a stretch to include a book about medical pain in this list, but it’s one of the best books on business leadership I’ve ever read. The central thesis of Ozanich’s argument is that much of the physical pain we feel is actually the result of mental factors, like stress and anxiety. When we’re living in these heightened states, our brains start to send pain sensors to weak areas as a way of alerting the physical body to its corresponding mental state. It’s all about the power of the mind, and how often our mindset can dictate physical health in a much more significant way than we think. And that concept, of how your mindset influences your health, can and should be applied to business. Many struggling businesses operate from a place of fear, defeating themselves with their own defeatist mindsets. True progress is about breaking out of that frame of mind and inviting success.
5. “Thursday Speeches” by Coach Don James
Whether you’re a sports fan or not, Don’s book is a great case study in turning an organization around. Pretty inarguably the best coach that The University of Washington ever had, James explains how he came into a culture of losing and worked little-by-little to turn it around. As he explains, he changed the way that the players behaved and how they acted. He led the team to 15 bowl games (10-5), and is one of only four coaches to win four Rose Bowl games. His crowning achievement, of course, was taking the national championship in 1991 after completing a 12–0 season. These speeches and other short essays focus on visualizing victory and adopting the kind of mindset necessary for success. He incorporates lessons from great leaders throughout history like George Washington Carver, Benjamin Franklin, Julius Caesar, Vince Lombardi, and Helen Keller, and others.
6. “Eleven Rings” by Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson has a few books, but this is the most informative by far. Again, his experience is definitely centered more around sports success, but his focus on creating a tradition of winning is universal. Jackson gets into the nitty-gritty of how he managed Michael Jordan during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls, and then how he did the same with Kobe and Shaq during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers. High-performing athletes are just like high-performing salesmen in terms of ego, and there are tons of great lessons that carry over. Jackson was famous for his varied interests in different philosophies of thought, and the book delves into how he developed his approach by integrating psychology, Native American philosophy, and Zen meditation.
7. “The Little Stuff Matters Most” by Bernie Brillstein
Another great example of how the best leadership advice is cross-disciplinary, Brillstein’s book is another favorite. Starting out as a talent manager for many of the original Saturday Night Live cast members, Brillstein went on to become a highly successful producer and form The Brillstein Company. They produced everything from Ghostbusters to The Sopranos and are still in operation today. Every section of the book features a unique “Bernie-ism,” or famous quote he lived his life by. Each saying is expanded upon in detail with colorful stories and insightful details from a storied career. One famous Bernie-ism was “You can’t trust people who haven’t walked through kitchens.” That saying applies to comedians in showbiz, meaning that you can’t work with someone unless they’ve proven themselves by working hard in comedy clubs. In the old days, comics would have to walk through the kitchen to get to the stage, so the saying evokes that persistence and grit. And that’s a great lesson for hiring anyone: past performance is the best indicator of future success.
8. “Principles” by Ray Dalio
Ray is the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, one of the biggest private investment companies in the United States. As he built his business from nothing to a massively successful enterprise, he developed a set of principles to help create a winning culture. He describes the principles as establishing “an idea meritocracy that strives to achieve meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical transparency.” There were no politics whatsoever in his company, everything was out in the open. He had this way of measuring people’s success against their opinion and their value. Everybody’s opinion was tracked and measured, but it gave the biggest weight to the people that had a track record of results. His whole approach is an aspirational example of the benefits of radical transparency in the workplace.
9. “Winning Through Intimidation” by Robert Ringer
Robert’s an exceptional entrepreneur and author with a lot of experience in the business world. As he describes in the book, he tried a bunch of different business ventures early on and just kept getting his butt kicked over and over. Often in making deals, people would tell him one thing and then do something else completely. He felt like he was getting bossed around and missing opportunities left and right. He finally figured out how to set the tone so that he wasn’t ever caught off guard, and learned to be hyper-aware of every dynamic so that he could always have the upper hand in every situation. I think some of this line of thinking might be slightly outdated in some spots, but there are really great stories about successful deals and ones that went wrong, and they’re incredibly instructive for leaders in any field.
10. “Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization” by John Wooden
If you’re not looking to sports books for leadership guidance you’re really missing out, and Wooden’s book is another great example of that. If you don’t know Wooden, he was the coach of the UCLA Bruins when they won 10 championships back in the 60’s and 70’s. He was big on properly onboarding everybody when they joined the team, and paid a lot of attention to detail. He made sure that every player’s shoes fit them exactly right before they could actually get things going. Of course, he’s also full of great stories of working with some of the most famous players of all time. One time Bill Russell came back after a break and showed up with a beard and long hair. Wooden said: “Bill, I love you, but we’re going to miss you, because you can’t play on the team with the beard and long hair.” Bill went and cut his hair right away.
11. “The New Psycho-Cybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz and Dan Kennedy
There are a couple versions of Psycho-Cybernetics, but the superior edition was re-done by Dan Kennedy when he bought the rights to the book and revamped it. The core message of the book remains intact though, and it centers on Dr. Maltz’s experience as a plastic surgeon. Often times, patients would come to him thinking: “Hey, if I fix this scar on my face, or I fix my nose, my life will get better, I’ll have more confidence.” And most of the time, his patients would feel the same way about themselves after the procedure. He shows how this message proves that your internal dialogue dictates everything. What you learn is how you approach your self-image radiates out to your entire life. And that external factors which we may perceive to be silver bullets, like plastic surgery, are actually not the solution to the deeper problem.
12. “Shut Up, Stop Whining, & Get A Life” by Larry Winget
Unlike many other self-help books, Larry’s iconic approach is pretty no-nonsense and blunt. He doesn’t pull any punches. He helps explains that everything in your life gets better when you get better. You have to take full responsibility for everything in your life and stop blaming others.
Through a series of simple examples, Larry provides actionable strategies and ideas that you can apply in your everyday life and in the business world. The three core principles of the book are all contained in the title. “Shut Up” is the first takeaway, challenging aspiring leaders to listen more than they talk in all facets of life. “Stop Whining” is the second, encouraging readers to take full accountability and stop feeling sorry for themselves. And “Get A Life” is the third, explaining how business failures almost always stem from personal failures. But this insightful book doesn’t stop there, those three points are just the starting chapters of a nearly 300-page opus.
13. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.
A modern classic in business circles, Cialdini’s book outlines his six principles of influence to use in the act of persuasion. These concepts include reciprocation, commitment to consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. Many of these ideas are relatively well-known and accepted, but that’s because of Cialdini’s revolutionary work. He builds on his 35 years of scientific research, including a three-year field study that shed a substantial amount of light on what moves people to change behavior over time. The idea that we’re more likely to agree or work a business that first offers value to us, for example, was massively influential on the business world, and shaped the landscape in a variety of ways. Cialdini also helpfully outlines methods to defend yourself against dishonest influence attempts from other parties, which is arguably just as important.
14. “When Violence Is The Answer” by Tim Larkin
As the title suggest, this next book is all about preparing for the dire circumstances in which physical retaliation is necessary. Larkin used to be a military intelligence officer, where he specialized in self-protection. Larkin is a specialist in how to prepare for and react in life-or-death situations, and his aim is to pass that knowledge onto his readers. One of perhaps the most important takeaways from the book is that the person who acts first, and does so effectively, is the most likely to survive. Applying Larkin’s philosophy and tactical strategies to the business world isn’t difficult. Many of the major decisions that we make in these contexts are life-or-death for our businesses, and therefore just as crucial to our livelihoods. In part because he uses a few fascinating real stories, Larkin’s book is an absolute page-turner pretty much from the very beginning. Just like with sports books, there’s so much strategy to learn from military experts.
15. “Win Forever” by Pete Carroll
A lot like John Wooden’s book, there’s tons of crucial lessons from the professional sports world to study and apply to business. If you’re not familiar with Pete’s legacy, he was the head coach for the USC football team, leading them to seven straight Pac-10 titles. After his stint with USC, Pete went on to coach the Seattle Seahawks, leading the team to win the Super Bowl in 2013. Some of the best, most applicable tips in this book center around Pete’s processes as a manager. His major breakthrough came when realized: “What if my job as a coach isn’t so much to force or coerce performance as it is to create situations where players develop the confidence to set their talents free and pursue their potential to its full extent?” It’s an idea that can and should be applied to business management as well. There’s only so much that can be coerced as the end of the day. The real results come when you create a culture and a process in which failure is simply not an option anymore.
16. “Maps Of Meaning” by Jordan Peterson.
If you’re not familiar with Jordan’s work, he’s an author, media commentator, and former psychology professor whose academic work mostly focuses on belief systems and social dynamics. In recent years, he’s converted his academic research into popular self-help books and YouTube videos. This first book, however, is a fairly dense text on the never-ending struggle between chaos and order both in our brains and in our society. In examining how humans have participated in social conflicts in the past, he explores how the human brain works, forming maps of reasoning and belief systems to justify their lifestyles and behaviors. More than anything, Jordan’s original text offers a clear window into how people think and make decisions, and for that reason alone it’s an essential text for aspiring business leaders and professionals. And understanding what motivates the individual is an invaluable resource for just about anyone.
17. Teaching Excellence: The Defining Guide to NLP For Teaching and Learning by Dr. Richard Bandler and Kate Benson.
NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming, is a communication method developed in the 20th century that can help improve relationships in both the personal and professional realm. The story behind this book is that Kate Benson took a NLP class from Bandler, who is one of the founders of NLP, and during a break she said, “Hey, you’re using NLP to teach us NLP.” Bandler replied, “Yeah, of course. That’s the quickest way for you to learn it.” To which Kate responded: “Well, why doesn’t anybody teach teachers how to use NLP?” And he said, “That’s a great idea.” So they co-wrote this book together. The two biggest takeaways from the book are pretty substantial. First, you’ll learn how people learn. It sounds simplistic, but understanding the fundamentals to how humans learn, and how to appeal to those base instincts, will revolutionize how you train your employees. The second major takeaway is that you’ll actually learn NLP yourself. It’s a great primer in how you phrase your words and approach situations in specific ways to make people understand you and retain information at a higher level.
All things considered, these 17 books provide a pretty comprehensive primer for any entrepreneur or business professional looking to get to the next level. While there’s a lot to be learned from some of the more standard business leadership books, some of the best tips come from applying other disciplines. There are tons of great strategic takeaways from the worlds of sports, entertainment, and academic study. Above all, it’s crucial to be continually reading and taking in a wide variety of books. Continuous self-education and improvement should be a lifelong goal for business leaders, regardless of experience. Smart people know what they don’t know. Geniuses and exceptional leaders seeks that information out and add it to their arsenal.