Progressive Leadership Books
I'm doing a training course at work and promised fellow colleagues on the course I would list some of the books on progressive leadership I have found useful. I thought the list might be useful to others, too, so I'm putting them on my site. Here they are in alphabetical order.
Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull
I love Pixar movies. They have so very rarely fallen below the benchmark of excellent. Not only are they classic stories in their own right, they are also technical marvels. How does an organisation like Pixar maintain such a successful track record? How does it manage to be hugely commercially successful and critically acclaimed, too? Few studios can lay claim to staying so true to their art, especially when the stakes are so high, with the contemporary movies typically having a budget in excess of $200 million. In this book, Ed Catmull explains how.
One of my favourite chapters, The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby, tells of how Pixar has to carefully balance the tension of feeding the "hungry beast" (that is, keeping the business going) with the need to generate and try new ideas that enter the world as fragile "ugly babies", prone to getting eaten by the beast. This tension is present in all organisations, not just movie studios. Getting the balance between operational stability and innovation is not easy, but Ed shows the way in very human style.
Perhaps the most reaffirming aspect of this book is how Pixar was eventually acquired by Disney, which had been through a period spanning over a decade without a hit movie. They were failing badly. But in acquiring Pixar, they agreed to the brilliant move of keeping the smaller studio a separate entity. Instead of merging the two companies, Ed and his co-founder, John Lassiter, brought what they had learned at Pixar to Disney, but enabled them to keep their distinct culture. The result was a string of hit movies including the most commercially successful animated movie of all time, Frozen.
I recommend this short animated summary of the book to whet your appetite. If you're hungry for more, there are plenty of other talks and interviews with Ed Catmull on YouTube.
Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
So many of the problems of our world are caused by our egos, especially those of our leaders. In this book, Ryan uncovers the treacherous nature of our selfish inner drives. If we don't keep our egos in check, we lose our ability to think rationally, objectively, and with a clear head; as leaders, we develop a toxic belief in our own importance. We only have to look at Donald Trump to know just how much of a problem the ego really is. The answer, instead, is to cultivate an attitude of humility, self-awareness, purpose and realism.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
This is the rough (and tough) guide to how the US Navy SEALS (the equivalent of the British SAS) get things done. Drawing on their experiences in the Battle of Ramadi and in training a new generation of SEALS back in the US, Jocko and Leif provide a surprisingly progressive, enlightened view of leadership. Being a great leader, it turns out, isn't about shouting orders, but about building trust, taking responsibility, finding the right balance between opposing drives and, even, the practice of mindfulness and stoic philosophy. The authors' Dichotomy of Leadership sums it up beautifully:
A good leader must be: confident but not cocky; courageous but not foolhardy; competitive but a gracious loser; attentive to details but not obsessed by them; strong but have endurance; a leader and follower; humble not passive; aggressive not overbearing; quiet not silent; calm but not robotic, logical but not devoid of emotions; close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team; not so close that they forget who is in charge; able to execute Extreme Ownership, while exercising Decentralized Command. A good leader has nothing to prove, but everything to prove
The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart
In this short call-to-arms, Henry explains how optimising for the happiness of our colleagues is the path to a successful business. He makes a convincing argument, breaking down his manifesto into 10 core principles. He doesn't just talk the talk, either: his own training company, Happy, has won an eye-watering number of awards and accolades for being... happy. You can download the ebook for free from the Happy Manifesto website and browse a number of talks and presentations there, too. I also recommend Henry's blog and Twitter account for more happy workplace advice.
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Leaders Eat Last is a fascinating biology lesson in leadership. Simon looks at the chemical cocktail in our brains and bodies that contribute to effective leadership, covering how endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin can help and hinder us. Sounds dry? Not at all. Simon is a great storyteller who builds his argument in compelling style. In short, great leaders make us feel safe, trusted, positively challenged and happy. The second half of the book delves into how to apply this knowledge and become a more empathetic, caring leader. The sort of leader, as it turns out, who gets things done. I also recommend Simon's 45-minute talk Why Leaders Eat Last which covers some of the same ground. It's captivating - he's one of the best speakers I've ever seen.
Perhaps the most interesting insight in this book is the fact that great leaders don't need to be in a position of power in order to lead. They come from any level of the corporate and social hierarchy. They don't need to be typically "alpha" personalities, either. Great leaders simply need to step up and genuinely care for those around them, while putting their own egos aside. Leaders emerge not from promotion, but from behavior. It's simple to say, but much harder to do, and even somewhat counter-intuitive, which is perhaps why truly great leaders are so few and far between.
Quiet by Susan Cain
It is estimated that somewhere between one third to one half of the population is introverted. It's a personality trait that is deeply misunderstood be the majority of people, despite it being one of the most stable and well understood by scientists.
Stigmatised as something negative we should somehow improve upon or suppress, introversion is not a favoured trait in a world biased towards extraversion. In this book, Susan Cain dispels the myths surrounding introversion and shows how being quiet is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed it is highly beneficial and essential to a well balanced, functional workforce - something to be proud about.
Without addressing our biases, we restrict innovation and productivity in our schools and workplaces. Given so many of us fall within the introverted part of the introvert-extravert continuum, it pays well to understand the nature of the quiet ones. Without doing so, you can't truly get the best out of your colleagues.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott
Kim Scott was a senior manager at both Google and Apple, two companies with very different cultures, yet equal measures of success. She examines here the importance of a concept she calls "Radical Candor" with the bold claim of "how to be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity". Given that Ed Catmull (see Creativity Inc.) cites candor as one of the most important aspects of success at Pixar, it gives us good reason to dive deep into this topic.
Kim makes a well rounded argument and offers practical advice that you can start implementing from day one. Make no mistake, this isn't a book about being an ugly, brash, overly-aggressive, "tell 'em how it is" leader. No, this is about how to truly care for your team, and how to build strength, confidence and trust; ultimately, it's a book about how to have an honest, open and constructive relationship with your colleagues. It also examines the dangers of being ruinously empathetic, manipulatively insincere, and obnoxiously aggressive. Spoiler alert: what does Kim claim to be the worst of those three? Ruinous empathy, surprisingly enough.
It's definitely a challenging set of ideas if you are something of an introvert, like me, but it makes a whole lot of sense. And it helps you work towards where you need to be, taking baby steps at first. It is probably the most practically applicable of all the books I've covered here, and ends with a step by step guide to practical action to you can take. I also recommend the Radical Candor website where you'll find videos and a podcast that covers much of the same ground.
Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
One of the few books that takes a good look at the benefits of embracing a remote working culture. It dispels the myths surrounding home working and shows how enabling colleagues to work from wherever they are, if they are able, comes with many benefits and doesn't have to be a compromise.
The Spirit of Kaizen
Many people dislike change. But it doesn't have to be traumatic. In this short book (it can be read cover to cover in a sitting), psychologist Robert Maurer shows us how we can affect lasting, meaningful change with minimal disruption and pain. The technique is called Kaizen. It's a proven way of making major progress by taking continuous, small steps towards big goals. Sounds simple? It is. Too simple? Not at all. It is subtly sophisticated. Read the book to find out the how and why. I liked it so much I read it twice.
Start With Why by Simon Sinek
On the vital importance of having a meaningful vision, truly getting behind it, and how to inspire the action you need to get there. Simon's talk on the subject, titled How great leaders inspire action, is the second most popular TED talk of all time. If you don't have time to read the book, the talk alone does a great job of covering the idea.
Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal
Stanley McChrystal is an ex-head of the Joint Special Operations Command. During his time in Iraq and Afghanistan he found that, despite being better equipped, better trained, and better armed than the insurgent enemy, the US military were losing. Badly. To turn things around, he and his team discovered they needed to ditch years of traditional, hierarchical organisational thinking and instead become decentralised and agile, like the enemy. This meant changing focus from efficiency to adaptability in order to be able to tackle the pace and complexity of a digitally connected world. The steps they took might perhaps surprise you, given the military context. Who'd have thought progressive management thinking would prevail in such a setting?
What is fascinating is how he draws parallels between the organisational needs of fighting the war in Iraq with the business landscape of today. Everywhere we look, swarms of nimble startup companies are disrupting huge, powerful organisations with vastly superior resources. How do these lumbering giants adapt? How do companies with years of experience and a relatively "safe" customer base become resilient to rapid and unexpected change? Read the book to find out.
There is also a follow-up book called One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams. If Team of Teams is the "why", One Mission is the "how".
Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet
How do you take one of the most technically advanced vessels in the world - a nuclear powered attack submarine of the US Navy - and transform it from being the worst performing boat in the fleet to the best? In this entertaining read, ex-submarine commander David Marquet, tells of how he used surprisingly progressive management techniques to turn the ship around. The fundamental mechanism he used to do this was to turn the traditional command and control methods of the US Navy on their head: instead of giving orders, he asked his sailors to state their intent. This had a remarkable effect, empowering those under his command to bring their whole intellect and capability to the job.
This is a very practical book, despite being drawn from experience aboard the seemingly unusual environment of a nuclear submarine. Each chapter clearly explains the concepts and how to apply them. It's easier said than done, of course, but the tools are all here for building a highly capable, adaptable, creative, motivated and engaged team.
To whet your appetite, I highly recommend this funny, sharp animated video adapted from a David Marquet talk. There is also a workbook to help readers apply the methods found in this book - appropriatly enough, it's called Turn Your Ship Around.
The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun
A compelling view into how one of the most successful companies of our internet age - Wordpress.com - manages it's remote workforce. This book is a tour de force in team and trust building with the added twist that the team is distributed, literally, across the globe. The book tells a fascinating story: Scott, who was previously a successful manager at Microsoft and currently a respected author of several critically acclaimed books, was offered a job as a team manager at Wordpress. He agreed, but only on the condition he could write a book about the experience. This is the result.