The Five Business Books That Changed My Leadership Style

Last Updated May 11, 2010 11:15 AM EDT

I read a lot of business books, not just because I want to know what the competition is up to but because I'm always hungry for new insights and understanding. Sadly, many are so packed with frameworks, matrices and checklists that the moment I put them down, I've forgotten them. They may be great advertisements for the author's consulting practice, but often they're badly written and packed with errors --instead of memorable sources of inspiration or action. So when a good one comes along, it makes a deep impression. A few can even change your game. Here are my top five, each of which changed how I work in some way:
  1. Hidden Value by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Charles O'Reilly. I think this is my all-time favorite because it's well written, well researched and contains a message that never ages. Pfeffer's argument is that the people you hire contain more value than most companies ever tap. And he backs it up with great stories and data. Why does SAS Institute needs half the number of quality assurance people that Microsoft requires? Because they treat their people better. In a recession, this argument matters more than ever. This book gave me the evidence I needed to run things the way I wanted to.
  2. Mavericks at Work by the fabulous Polly Labarre and Bill Taylor. Weird and wonderful companies that succeed by challenging (though rarely really breaking) the rules. Great examples from Cirque du Soleil, IBM, Pixar and more. For me, this book proved terrific at convincing investors that looking after people isn't a waste of money. It's not an argument you should need to have, but when you do, the examples are clinchers.
  3. The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. An intellectual tour de force that illustrates why consensus is often so important and effective. This argument isn't just powerful when it comes to diversity; it really made me think about how we get and use the information that is sitting inside our companies.
  4. Why Smart Executives Fail by Sidney Finkelstein. A great examination of the mistakes that just keep happening over and over again. It isn't because the executives were stupid or venal -- they were often smarter than the rest of us, which means they have a lot to teach us. I've found this invaluable when it comes to advising the companies whose boards I sit on. They often can't see the patterns they're repeating -- but this spells it out beautifully.
  5. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman F. Dixon. Probably out of print and not strictly speaking a business book, but this is my riposte to those slavish admirers of Sun Tzu. War is full of horrible mistakes, and we can learn a lot from them. It's helpful for any leaders to remember that military-style leadership is as famous for disasters as for victories. And it puts us all in our place when it comes to ego.
There are other books that affected my career -- I'll write about those another time -- but I can honestly say that these books changed the way I work. Has any business book ever done that for you?
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.