13 Books That Will Inspire You to Be an Extraordinary Leader

Leading others to be the best they can be requires skill, dedication and an ongoing willingness to learn.  Great leaders seek out new ideas and fresh perspectives. They embrace change and encourage others to reach their true potential. Learning and growing go hand in hand – especially in the world of business. There are many books on how to be a great leader. The list is endless.  So where do you start?

Many times it’s helpful to glean advice and inspiration from others.  We asked a group of leaders within Insperity to share their favorite books on leadership and how they inspired them to become better leaders.

Here are their top suggestions:

1. “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John Maxwell

Recommended by: Jennise Chaffold – Performance Consultant

How did it inspire you?
I learned the difference between leadership and management.  It inspired me to learn to leverage my soft skills, with my technical skills to motivate and inspire people to strive for excellence — not just in performance, but in relationships with clients and co-workers.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
It helped me understand that performance can always be tied back to the impact and influence of the leader who is directly responsible for that department, unit and organization.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?

  • Master communication skills
  • Life-long learning and development
  • Integrity is the cornerstone of influence
  • Servant leadership is sacrificial—when your team sees that you will serve and sacrifice, it will inspire them to do the same.
  • Be the change you wish to see in the organization

2. “First, Break All the Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

Recommended by: Michael Timmes – Senior Human Resource Specialist

How did it inspire you?
This book inspired me to shift my leadership style toward focusing more on the strengths of an individual. Finding opportunities for a person to effectively use their strengths is impactful in creating a highly engaged employee.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
This approach had me reflect on times during my career when I experienced fulfillment. Being able to apply my strengths in those instances had much to do with the quality of work I was able to produce.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
Buckingham and Coffman note that employees stay longer with companies when there is a strong relationship with a manager. Identifying the strengths of an employee is a foundational piece in developing a solid relationship built on respect and trust.

I used this approach with others and saw how their persona changed for the better. I saw it firsthand with one of my employees who had an enormous amount of creativity. I assigned that person to plan our holiday parties, team meetings and other team building events. She always received numerous compliments regarding her eye for detail. That feedback kept her pumped for weeks.

3. “Energy Leadership” by Bruce D. Schneider

Recommended by: Michael Timmes – Senior Human Resource Specialist

How did it inspire you?
This book continues to have a profound impact on my life. We often interpret leadership as a function that involves directing other people. Bruce Schneider reiterates that we can’t lead others until we are able to lead our own lives. Based on work Schneider did with one of his clients, “Energy Leadership” focuses on the four energy blocks that leave many people at the cause, rather than the effect of their lives.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
The book points out the difference between anabolic leaders and catabolic leaders. Anabolic leaders create and automatically attract success. Catabolic leaders negatively impact the energy and momentum of those around them, as well as their organization.

Through the seven levels of energy, this book has helped me to become a better leader personally and professionally by expanding my consciousness. Enhancing my level of consciousness enables me to experience more balance in my life. It taps into the emotional intelligence space, which in my opinion, is the most critical challenge that keeps people and organizations from stepping into their greatness. People who exhibit this higher consciousness show up as leaders who can help their team members experience increased levels of consciousness as well.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
I incorporate the practices that are reflective of an anabolic leader.

Some of these include:

  • Encouraging others to take their own steps
  • Using whole brain thinking
  • Seeing opportunities while appreciating the true worth of an individual beyond just an employee

For years, I carried around in my mind what I wanted to achieve in life. This book helped me to make that energetic shift and finally write my personal mission statement. Through a better understanding of one’s mission statement I feel this book can help others, personally and professionally, to live a life of purpose and on purpose.

4. “Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink

Recommended by: Lisa Jasper – Manager of Performance Improvement

How did it inspire you?
I love the premise that high performance and satisfaction at work is based on the human need to direct our own lives, learn and create new things, and do better by ourselves. Pink states that people would prefer activities where they can pursue three things:

  • Autonomy:  People want to have control over their work
  • Mastery:  People want to get better at what they do
  • Purpose:  People want to be part of something bigger than they are and should buy into why we are doing things.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
It’s a no-brainer, but sometimes it’s easy to forget this in your day-to-day work.  At some time we all face the challenge of trying to motivate others and for the most part we have relied on the reward/punishment approach, but this does not always work.  There are other ideas and approaches to motivation that can help you do a better job as a boss no matter who you are working with.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
I take this to heart every day as I interact and work with my team. I want my team to feel that they make an impact, their work is purposeful and meaningful and their contributions—either directly in front of a customer or behind the scenes—are making a difference personally and professionally in the organization. I am a better leader and manager by implementing this in my day-to-day practices.

5. “It’s Your Ship” by D. Michael Abrashoff

Recommended by: Lisa Jasper – Manager of Performance Improvement

How did it inspire you?
I like this book because it shows realistic techniques to be a better leader.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
So many leaders forget self-assessment and evaluation – it’s easy to point out others who are not doing well, make excuses for your own behaviors, or make assumptions based on their current role in the organization.  This book focused on recognizing that improving performance of the ship [his team] rested with Abrashoff, and he had to improve his leadership skills before he could improve his ship.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
I keep his anecdotes close to mind in the work I do:

  • Take command
  • Lead by example
  • Listen aggressively
  • Communicate purpose and meaning
  • Create a climate of trust
  • Look for results (not salutes)
  • Take calculated risks
  • Go beyond standard operating procedure
  • Build up your people
  • Generate unity
  • Improve your people’s quality of life

6. “Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time” by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Recommended by: Rick Gibbs – Performance Specialist

How did it inspire you?
The author, a distinguished professor at Stanford University in the area of power and leadership, uses evidence to question some of our notions about leadership. He proposes that for all of the many leadership development books, tools, practices, coaches and consultants, why does employee engagement remain so dismal? Why aren’t these methods improving the situation? He suggests that much of leadership development is built more for entertainment than effectiveness.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
He challenges me to ask myself, does the action that I propose with our client actually have some chance of working or is it something that’s just copied or based on conventional wisdom without data to support its value?

7. “The One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

Recommended by: Chris Brennan – Performance Specialist

How did it inspire you?
It inspired me to view the art of management in a different light.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
No longer did I think of management as some mysterious skill that takes years and years to hone. Instead, this book cuts right to the essence of what being an effective manager is and provides simple steps to get there.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
I incorporate much of this book into managerial coaching sessions, as well as in helping me design learning for those new to leadership roles.

8. “The Happiness Advantage” by Sean Achor

Recommended by: Chris Brennan – Performance Specialist

How did it inspire you?
This book inspired me to see how positive psychology in the workplace can help the bottom line for a business.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
I used to think happiness was what happened when you finally achieved success. This book made me realize that it is actually the other way around. When you develop a habit of happiness, you will achieve success.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
I now incorporate the lessons of this book into managerial coaching, and in instructional design for my clients.

9. “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others” by Daniel H. Pink

Recommended by: Kelly Yeates – Managing Director of Service Operations

How did it inspire you?
The tenets in this book helped me to understand that every act we make as leaders is an act of selling and negotiation, intended to move another party.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
Prior to reading the book, I never made the connection that sales was a competency required for a leader who is not directly in a sales role.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
It transformed the way that I approached communication with my employees, colleagues and clients.

10. “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life” by Benjamin and Rosamund Stone Zander

Recommended by: Kelly Yeates – Managing Director of Service Operations

How did it inspire you?
This is a short book by the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He draws parallels between creating music and the reality we create for those we serve as leaders. Zander’s tenet is that life is all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
One recommendation that I have tried is Zander’s approach of giving each individual you an encounter an “A” grade from the start. An “A” is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into. Using this approach, I have experienced better results and success from my team members.

11. “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership” by General Colin Powell

Recommended by: Kelly Yeates – Managing Director of Service Operations

How did it inspire you?
I recommend the audio version of this book, as it is read by General Colin Powell himself. Powell shares key leadership takeaways that he learned from his parents, military career, political leaders and mentors.

How did it change your perception of being a leader?
Powell says that it’s important to be mindful to check small details because success ultimately rests on small things, and your followers, the troops, live in a world that hinges on the small things.

Probably the most helpful wisdom – leaders should avoid having their ego so close to their position because if/when their position falls, their ego goes with it.

A leader must accept that their stance will be faulty sometimes. Loyalty is strongly disagreeing. Loyalty is executing faithfully.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
A word of guidance that I have applied is to share the credit, take the blame, and quietly find out and fix anything that went wrong.

12. “Lead Right for Your Company’s Type: How to Connect Your Culture with Your Customer Promise” by William E. Schneider

Recommended by: Michelle Mikesell – Managing Director of HR Operations (Traditional Employment)

How did it inspire you?
This book is the roadmap for leading your business in a way that fits with what you promise your customers. And no – one leadership style does not fit all. When your leadership practices align with your customer promise, the business thrives. Conversely, the wrong practices can cause levels of discord that pull the company apart. Your management ideas must fit the business you’re in, not just what’s trending today.

How did it change your perception as a leader?
It helps me understand what it looks like when a business is in focus, and when a business is out of focus. If a new idea cannot be clearly linked to your customer promise, it might be tied more to the person presenting the idea and their personal values and beliefs. This structure provides excellent checks and balances to the “true north” of your customer promise, ensuring customers, employees and leaders are properly connected for what you’re trying to achieve with your business.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
It drives my team to ask questions around how we make decisions. It holds us accountable for our decisions, and how those decisions add clarity or distract from what it is we promise our customers each and every day.

13. “The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader” by James C. Hunter

Recommended by: Michelle Mikesell – Managing Director of HR Operations (Traditional Employment)

How did it inspire you?
The decision to be engaged is in the heart, not in the mind, and this book helps us understand that leadership is an awesome responsibility. There is a clear difference between authority and influence, and real leadership is built on service and sacrifice. Authority may work, but at what cost to the relationship over time?

How did it change your perception as a leader?
It helped me understand that, as a servant leader, the path forward is not about fixing others, but rather changing and improving ourselves. How we behave in a position of leadership impacts the lives of others, and that impact can be positive or negative. What an incredible responsibility.

What business practices have you implemented as a result?
People want to be part of something greater than themselves. As a leader committed to the team’s success, your thoughts and actions become a motivator. As I tell anyone in the recruiting process with us, when you work on a team, you’re in a relationship. We don’t hesitate to honor, challenge, share and discuss everything. Some may find that intrusive, so we warn them early on. But our core belief is, if we serve one another, we’ll all be better for it.

How do you motivate, inspire and positively influence your team? For more tips on how to be a better leader, get your free magazine, The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management, Issue 2.

The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management, Issue 2
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