12 Books That Impacted Me as a Leader

I finally tackled the task of unpacking several boxes of books that have been neglected for a few years now. As I sorted through the boxes, I reminisced back to when I first read some of them, where I got them from and how they have impacted me over the years. While several themes emerged from my reflections, I pulled out a few books that helped shape my leadership principles.

There are a lot of leaders that I want to emulate because of their values, priorities and results. Here are some of the books that have impacted me most as a leader. I tried to list them in chronological order of when I first read the book.

1. HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE – DALE CARNEGIE

I inherited this title and a large part of my book collection from my Father. Thanks to my parents, my four siblings and I grew up reading and spent our after school hours and summers in the library. Mr. Carnegie had an early impact on my natural desire to see the good in people and have a generally positive attitude. “Positive Mental Attitude” as my father preached to us.

The first thing that jumped out to me in this book was his suggestions to “get the most out of the book.” Of the 9 suggestions, I fondly remember “read each chapter twice before going on to the next one.” I had never heard this sort of instruction before. It made perfect sense and I find myself to this day re-reading stuff for clarity before making decisions or taking action.

A few of the principles that I feel have really stuck with me are:

  • Don’t Criticize, condemn or complain.
  • Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  • Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.

Each of those principles takes a softer, kinder, gentler approach. More so than ever, I think we need that in our leaders. This is on my list of re-reads. I look forward to revisiting with legendary mind of Dale Carnegie.

2. THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE – STEPHEN R. COVEY

I could give an entire book review on the impacts of this book on me as a person, as a leader, as a communicator and as a soldier. There is so much in this book to learn and most of it is timeless and will transcend generations.

I’ll just point out that in part one, Covey talks about a new level of thinking. He references Albert Einstein’s observation, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” He goes on to talk about start with yourself, start with the most inside of yourself. He’s talking about our character and our motives. This includes attitude and responsibility and integrity.

I really love this part: “private victories precede public victories, that making and keeping promises to ourselves precede making and keeping promises to others.” Covey helped me to understand early on that you really have to know and understand yourself before you can know and understand others. Help yourself before others.

3. EVERYTHING I KNOW AT THE TOP I LEARNED AT THE BOTTOM – DEXTER YAGER AND RON BALL

Dexter Yager was known for being a multi-millionaire and growing up I dreamed my parent’s dreams of owning their own businesses and being financially free. Yager was a role-model so to speak of my father’s, thus mine as well.

The first lesson outlined is “Don’t let anybody steal your dream.” (Which is also the name of his first book, another great read.) My parent’s were dreamers. My family has always been dreamers. From a practical sense, growing up in poverty, we had to dream. For the sake of survival, we had to imagine a better place and had to hope we would get there.

Other lessons Yager and Ball shared are:

  • Learn to communicate accurate information.
  • Don’t win battles, solve problems.
  • Refrain from saying things about others privately you wouldn’t tell them face to face.

4. FREE THE CHILDREN – CRAIG KIELBURGER

While working with one of my favorite people, my friend and mentor, Lenette Freeman, we learned about this amazing young leader’s story. Craig, a 12 year old kid, read a headline that changed the trajectory of his life and countless others since. “Battled Child Labor, Boy, 12, Murdered.” This book details the story of both Craig and the boy, Iqbal Masih and how he went on to start a human-rights organization. From a small group meeting at a lunch table to a world-wide organization mobilizing hundreds of thousands of kids and adults across the world, Free the Children is an amazing story.

I had an opportunity to meet Craig and others from the Free the Children organization and follow their work over the years. I continue to be motivated by their work, resolve and never-ending mission in fighting for human rights.

5. SERVANT LEADERSHIP – ROBERT GREENLEAF

I was admittedly embarrassed when I first learned about this book as a non-traditional college student in a communication class at Ball State University. I could not believe I had never heard of Greenelaf or his extensive work in this space, really as a pioneer.

Servant Leadership theory, at its core, focuses on serving first in leadership. It draws a sharp contrast between leader-first and servant-first mentalities. I was really attracted to the idea that while those served grow and succeed, so does the servant leader. When placing others first, you aren’t neglecting yourself. When people grow, organizations grow and leaders grow.

6. LINCOLN ON LEADERSHIP – DONALD T. PHILLIPS

I’ve always been a Lincoln fan! I love that he overcame so many challenges in his personal and professional life. I love that he was a great thinker and orator. I love the permanent impact of his leadership on history.

This book is loaded with good nuggets of truth in leadership:

  • Seek casual contact with your subordinates. It is as meaningful as a formal gathering, if not more so.
  • When you extinguish hope, you create desperation.
  • Remember that it is not best to swap horses when crossing streams
  • If employees gripe about one of your chief supervisors, and the complaints are true, do not be afraid to remove him.

And one that recently I have come to treasure more and more:

  • Remember that there will be times when you should simply not speak. Say to your listeners: “Kindly let me be silent.”

7. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. ON LEADERSHIP – DONALD T. PHILLIPS

When I first read this book, I didn’t make the connection that Mr. Phillips wrote both this and my previous listing. He has a few other books I plan to read soon. Like most people, I have a lot of respect and admiration for Dr. King as a leader and visionary. I always read about him when I need motivation, encouragement and even direction. I appreciated how this book analyzed him as a leader and gave us a leadership toolkit in his honor.

Some of my favorite leadership lessons from this book:

  • When people nominate you for the lead, accept it. When you are asked to serve, you can’t say no. (Side note: my sense of urgency as a leader comes directly from Dr. King.)
  • Self-criticism is a sure sign of maturity – and the first step toward eliminating any personal weakness.
  • Analyze your adversaries’ point of view, so that you may see the basic weakness of your condition – so that you may learn and grow from the wisdom of your opposition.
  • In your public addresses, speak in simple common language – as if you were engaged in a conversation.

8. THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE – RICK WARREN

I can’t say I have ever been without purpose in life, but this book played a significant role in helping me to re-focus. As a Christian this book walked me back through my faith and helped re-connect my purpose in life and my role as a leader.

9. THE PRAYER OF JABEZ – BRUCE WILKINSON

Of all of my books, this is the smallest and shortest, inspired by a very small scripture hidden in the middle of the Bible. However, this book and its study, empowered me so much as a leader. My confidence and passion and drive grew exponentially after I read this book. I recommend this book for two main reasons. The study of Jabez will really inspire you. Also, the writer’s ability to draw so much from one little scripture is truly astounding.

10. AMERICAN SNIPER – CHRIS KYLE

This was the first military-related book I read after joining the Army. I didn’t want to read it. I heard to much surrounding Chris’ death, both good and bad, I just didn’t want to deal with the emotions. But, I read it…and the emotions were intense.

I read the book from cover to cover probably faster than I have read any other book. I could not put it down. This is an amazing story about an outstanding soldier who struggled in life, in family, and in post-war reality. There are a lot of lessons for any struggling, aspiring or successful leader. I really think this is an essential read that will challenge you to consider your own decisions and relationships and priorities.

11. THE TOTAL MONEY MAKEOVER – DAVE RAMSEY

I first “read” this book as I was driving to Kenosha, Wisconsin in a Uhaul truck. I had all of my personal belongings loaded in the back and my car in tow. I was to start a new job – a new career after leaving my family and friends, a 20 year career and so many memories. I listened to the audiobook and found myself shouting “amen,” crying, arguing with myself, plotting out my future and yelling at Siri to take notes for me…all while driving my Uhaul.

I could not believe I had never heard of this guy Dave Ramsey! This book literally changed my life. I learned so much about myself, about life and certainly about money. This should be a priority read for every leader, especially those leading organizations. There are many principles that apply directly to running an organization or business.

12. THE MENTOR LEADER – TONY DUNGY

As a life-long Colts and huge Tony Dungy fan, this easily tops my list of books. Slightly out of order, I wanted to save this one for last. Quiet Strength tells a great story, all of which Coach Dungy experienced, about struggles and successes as a coach and player. His leadership style is well-defined, practiced and effective.

This book has a special place in my heart because reading it demonstrated to me how authentic, transparent and down-to-earth Dungy is. In Fall of 2006 I was struggling to get through yet another semester in a desperate attempt to earn my college degree. I was enrolled in a leadership theory class and our professor assigned us to write a paper about an effective leader. However, she challenged us to fight the urge to write about someone we worked with or regurgitate an autobiography. She further challenged us to go out and interview a leader, someone that we might not ever get to interview otherwise.

As you can probably guess, I went for it. I somehow found a number for the Colts organization was routed to Coach Dungy’s executive assistant, Jackie. To my surprise she happily set up an interview for me. I’ll write a post later about the interview, but to sum it up…it was awesome. Did you make the connection that my interview was just months before Coach led the Colts to the SuperBowl championship? He was genuine and patient as I asked my questions. When finished, I asked if I could send him my paper to read to which he kindly obliged.

Sometime the following year I purchased Quiet Strength and excitedly raced through it. I was shocked when I started reading it because some of the stories he told me during our interview were mentioned in his book! I had so much fun reading the book and finding stories to which I had a “sneak preview.”

I hope you get a chance to read some of these books and enjoy them as much as I have.

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