My 10 Favorite Classic Management and Leadership Books

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Published 8/8/2015

Prior to the 1980s, there were few books on management and leadership. There were classic works from Peter Drucker, Douglas McGregor, Alfred Sloan, Frederick Taylor, Dale Carnegie, and a handful of others, but I’ll bet they only filled a small section of the local library or bookstore.

Sure, you can find books written throughout history that teach valuable lessons on management and leadership that are still relevant today, including The Art of War, written in the sixth century B.C., and the Bible.

The first MBA programs were only started in the early 1900s as companies looked for scientific approaches to management to bring order to an increasingly industrialized economy. So unlike philosophy or medicine, it’s still a relativity immature discipline of study.

In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. wrote the bestselling book In Search of Excellence. For some reason – perhaps the way the authors simplified their lessons and created an engaging format – the book triggered an explosion of new books on management and leadership. Today, if you were to search Amazon for “leadership” books, you’ll get more than 145,000 results and more than 800,000 books on “management.”

There is no shortage of “best management and/or leadership books of all time” out there. Many of these are based on sales, which is perhaps the most objective and accurate methodology to choose a top ten list.

This list is purely based on the hundreds of management and leadership books that I’ve read – only a small subset of the more than a million books available.

As I wrote this, I referenced my own bookshelf and selected books that I’ve kept over the years, and still refer to now and then. Some are classics, some best sellers, and there may be a few you haven’t heard. As you progress throughout your own career as a manager/leader, I encourage you to development your own top ten list, and share your recommendations with others.

Here are my top ten favorites, in no particular order:

1. In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. This is one of the first management books I ever read, back when I was getting started as a corporate trainer teaching management courses. The book certainty has its share of critics.  Many of the “excellent” companies didn’t perform well after the book was written, and the authors even admitted to fudging some of the data. The core themes that Tom Peters wrote about – the importance of leadership, customer focus, and innovation are still as important as ever. I like reading Tom Peter’s blog and follow him on Twitter.

2. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith. Again, as much as a tribute to the author as it is to a specific book, as he has written many great ones. As a writer, executive coach, and leader myself, Marshall has always been a role model. I like his behavioral approach to leadership development and use this book as my go-to resource for helping leaders figure out what to stop doing.

3. The Lessons of Experience, by Morgan W. McCall and Michael M. Lombardo. This groundbreaking 1988 classic remains the best-practice framework used for leadership development.

It’s all about how successful executives develop and the lessons learned from those experiences.

4. The Leadership Challenge, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. If I had to recommend one single book to teach “What is leadership?” this 2002 classic would be the one. Take the 360-degree assessment to receive feedback on the leadership practices described in the book.

5. The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins – my welcome gift for newly promoted or hired leaders. This book is a great roadmap for how to get up to speed quickly and effectively.

6. Managing Transitions, Making the Most of Change, by William Bridges. This is my favorite book on the topic of leading change; packed with practical insights and tools on how to lead yourself and others through turbulent times.

7. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

This is my favorite guide to how to build a team. It’s all about overcoming the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. As with many of these, there is an accompanying assessment to see how your own team stacks up.

8. Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny. This book includes a readable and effective set of tools for effectively addressing conflict head-on.

9. The Leadership Pipeline, by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel. I admit that my list is heavily biased towards how to develop leaders, as that’s what I’ve spent my career learning how to do. I like this one because it does a nice job defining the various stages of leadership (from frontline to executive), and how to develop leaders at each stage.

10. The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker. Drucker is considered by many to be the most influential management thinker ever. I had to include this classic because I have an original autographed copy on my bookshelf.

Honorable mention: There are many more books that I could include, including Level Three Leadership by James Clawson, On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, The Oz Principle, by Roger Connors and Tom Smith, and so many other new books that are published every year. I have to admit, I’ve not kept up with the management and leadership books as much as I used to, as I tend to rely on the internet to keep me up to speed. However, these are ten books on my bookshelf that don’t sit still long enough to gather dust.