If being a successful manager was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Let’s not kid ourselves – management is hard work, can be hugely stressful and takes great responsibility. However, these challenges are all too often misinterpreted.
Management shouldn’t be about working 24/7 and taking on the burden of your whole company’s workload. Instead, your focus should be on improving yourself as a person, being open to new methods, and taking innovative routes to success.
Great management skills are vital for inspiring a happier workplace culture and more productive employees. You should be rousing your teams to work towards common goals, and implementing the right process improvement strategies for growth. In turn, these factors will lead to greater financial rewards.
Simple, right? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that such achievements don’t happen overnight!
So, how to get there? In this article we’ll look at some basic traits that better leaders share, before diving into the 20 best management books that have inspired my own journey to success.
How to become a better manager?
Any manager worth their salt should know that there’s always room for improvement, and not just for themselves. Great managers don’t just dish out tasks, offer advice or send their staff on a variety of personal development courses. Those at the very top are able to get their teams to improve all by themselves.
A good manager will want to take responsibility for their company as a whole, but shouldn’t want to take responsibility for every task. Building a team that can be trusted to make the right decisions and share their concerns openly is key to this – as is empowering them with the right process management software to help them thrive.
Having an open-mind and a willingness to change makes the most effective managers of all. Networking, taking courses, and gaining practical experience are all excellent learning platforms. However, they’re not the only option available. To really develop, every leader should be reading and absorbing different perspectives on how to improve both themselves and their organization.
20 best management books every leader should read
Ask a hundred managers what the secret to great management is, and you’ll likely get a hundred different answers! But you’ll find common traits among the most successful people that we can all learn from in these business books.
Learning what the role of a leader should really entail has transformed my style and inspired my own successes over the years. Often, a true leader couldn’t be more different than the classic view of a ‘person in charge’.
It’s in these 20 books that I’ve found the most answers, and they’ll cover management, leadership, start-ups and personal development. Take as much from these as I have and you’ll be well on your way. I’ve also added an Amazon link to each book to save you time.
1. The E-myth Manager – Michael E. Gerber
This is a short, but full of value book. In The E-Myth Manager, Gerber makes it clear that you need a recipe in your business to make it work, and that recipe is process. Or to be more specific, a collection of processes. You need to define everything from onboarding, service delivery, marketing, sales and more.
Once you’ve decided how something should be done, you’ve put a process in place. You can then train others to perform this particular process, freeing up your time as a manager to work on new opportunities.
A companion piece to the notion of having better time-management can be found in The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker – a definitive guide to getting the right things done. Also see Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson’s The One Minute Manager, a great book that emphasizes the importance of using your time wisely in order to increase productivity.
All three books offer a simple analysis of the best ways to allow your business to grow. However good you may be, you simply can’t run a company all by yourself.
2. Traction – Gino Wickman
A manual on how to run your business, Traction is a must-read for anyone wishing to improve both their management and leadership skills. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to the E-Myth, which promotes the idea that processes are the key to great management. Traction builds on this, by explaining how you can achieve this. It’s probably my overall favorite from this list.
Wickman’s book focuses on organization, analyzing how clearly-defined roles for both managers and employees are essential to any future business success. There’s some invaluable advice on creating business plans and streamlining process creation, as well as finding the right people and ensuring they’re in the right roles. Read this and you’ll see why Traction remains a bestseller, some 14 years after its original publication.
3. Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande focuses on a pretty old-school method of organization management – the checklist – but backs it up with so many case studies that its role in helping a business to succeed is clear. He looks at examples from the health industry, and the difference a humble checklist has made when people are extremely busy and working in high-pressure situations. For example, a step-by-step hand-washing checklist can be directly linked to a reduction in hospital-caused infections.
In the business world, where we place so much emphasis on people’s abilities to innovate, The Checklist Manifesto is a sobering reminder that even someone at the top of their field can overlook the simplest of things. Process mapping ensures everything stays on task and no shortcuts are taken, thus stopping small issues growing into big ones.
4. Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed
Black Box Thinking builds on the checklist approach to business management. It focuses on the need to learn from failures and constantly improve your processes.
Syed takes the aviation industry as an example. As we know, the data found on black box recorders is analyzed following airline disasters. Information gathered then goes towards preventing future failures, and the number of plane crashes has been dramatically reduced as a result.
Now, a business might not have a physical black box recorder, but the same principle can be found through gathering feedback. And it’s here where the importance of processes and delegation come to the fore. Those working with your processes are the ones with the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Let them be the ones to refine your systems and avoid repeat failures in the future.
5. The Dirty Word – Alister Esam
Okay, so here’s my book. In writing The Dirty Word, I took on a lot of what I’d learned from the previous four books on this list. We’ve seen the importance of processes, checklists, and feedback. But I wanted to show that these are leadership issues. It’s in taking ownership of how these things are defined that makes all the difference to your success as an organization.
Nobody likes processes in the black-and-white sense. They can take away creativity and obstruct innovation. But change their definition and reasoning and you’ve an entirely different beast at work.
My key to business freedom was to make it clear that process is not about control – it’s about reassurance. And those actually following the process are the ones in charge of it, with the freedom to offer improvements and refinements through feedback. After all, being on the ‘front line’ means that they’re the real experts – not you.
By empowering your staff to refine their processes, you’re improving the effectiveness of your whole organization. And your team members don’t feel trapped by a series of mundane checklists or processes they know aren’t working.
It’s letting go, not micromanagement, that paves the way for real success.
We’ve created The Dirty Word Assessment, a free online tool that measures the health of your own business health according to the principles that are discussed in this book. You can click here to take the assessment and receive your own free personalised report.
6. The Advantage – Patrick Lencioni
The Advantage is the first leadership book that made me stand back and ask myself: what am I doing as a CEO?
At the time, I was working an unsustainable number of hours, and had a poor work-life balance. This book helped me redefine my role as a business leader. Prior to creating business processes and checklists, Lencioni makes clear the need to define your values in the form of a playbook, which all employees can refer to.
Making it clear why the business exists, your goals and how they can be achieved is essential. A clearly-written, detailed playbook provides all future employees with a road map to success. Should a staff member be unsure about how to proceed on a particular issue, a playbook ensures there’s no ambiguity.
This was a really powerful insight, making me realize that an effective leader’s role was to define direction, and not to get involved in the daily operations that distract from the overall goals of the business.
7. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni
Lencioni’s next book focuses on the importance of leadership in making teams excel. The foundations to this lie in trust – fail to establish this as a core ingredient in your leadership style, and everything else falls down.
With trust, everyone has a voice and important debates regarding processes and direction can take place. Everyone can be honest, recommend improvements without fear of reprisal, and feel valued within their workspace.
If an employee has personally identified a problem within the business and isn’t sure how leaders or colleagues will react, they’ll think twice about speaking up. The problem remains unsolved and employees will merely go through the motions of what’s expected of them. Teamwork and task management suffer as everyone is pushing in different directions.
Employee engagement is hugely important to business success. In turn, it will help productivity and increase profits. Without it, a team becomes dysfunctional.
The Five Dysfunctions…is a great manual for building a high-functioning team, where everyone is accountable and empowered to enjoy their work.
8. Good to Great – Jim Collins
Jim Collins’ scientific approach to business leadership makes for the best leadership books out there. Good to Great looks at the common characteristics of fast-growing businesses, compared to the shared traits of those that fail.
One of his major findings is the need for a business to discover what they’re great at, then to stick with it. This principle can even be applied to the likes of Apple. We might think they have a diversified portfolio. But in truth, their niche is innovation.
Within the analysis, there’s some excellent insight on quality leadership, how it’s essential to have determination and a clear vision of what you attend to achieve in future. Too many business leaders get bogged down by the day-to-day.
The businesses identified here aren’t scared of confronting the challenges in front of them, nor of making changes or adopting new workflow software. I also love the emphasis here on never giving up, even in the face of huge adversity – if you don’t keep going, you can never be successful.
9. Turn the Ship Around! – L. David Marquet
To give a little background, David Marquet was a captain in the US Navy. He transformed a fleet’s worst-performing submarine to be its best, in less than 12 months. Rather than taking a traditional leader-follower approach, he adopted a leader-leader model. His book demonstrates the value of applying this philosophy to your leadership style when running any business.
The leader-follower approach is actually limiting for employees and so limiting for business success. If one person makes all the rules, there’s no room for creativity and employees have to simply get on with the task they’ve been set.
The leader-leader approach empowers all employees to innovate and be the best they can be. No one is limited by their defined roles and everyone can contribute to the company’s growth.
Marquet’s account gave me the freedom to step back and focus on my leadership role, instead of getting involved in the nitty-gritty. Interestingly, Bill Gates is another who has taken on a leader-leader mentality over the years, shifting from an autocrat to encouraging participation.
Another leadership book that’s worth reading alongside Turn the Ship Around! is Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules. Both books emphasize the need for managers to find unique ways of doing things.
10. The Sales Acceleration Formula – Mark Roberge
Mark Roberge’s book isn’t about how to improve your sales team’s individual figures, but on how great sales leadership can make all the difference to your team’s performance. Too often, we appoint our best salesperson to become head of the department. But the two roles have completely different skill-sets. Great selling is usually instinctive, and hard for successful salespeople to translate into plain English.
It’s the same for all areas of a sales team. Great data analysts may not have a clue about how to sell, but they can make all the difference to your team’s overall performance by supplying the right data insights.
The Sales Acceleration Formula focuses on building a great sales team from the ground up, and how you can find the right people for the right positions, depending on the specific personality traits that each position demands. Having tested these theories and found that they work, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
11. The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Ben Horowitz
Ben Horowitz’s book is a standout when it comes to the subject of leadership. It focuses on many of the less-foreseen challenges that business founders and co-founders will face, such as how to systemize your business. It’s particularly of use to start-ups, but even those with years of experience will find much to learn here.
The Hard Thing… looks at the importance of managing relationships – what to do when your most talented workers don’t make great employees, or how to reprimand those you’re close to.
These are just some of the moral-testing difficulties every CEO will face at some point. It’s useful to discover you’re not alone in having to deal with them – as well as being presented with a solution or two.
There’s also some fabulous insight regarding selling on your business – when to consider it, and when the right time comes to let it go.
12. Start with Why – Simon Sinek
Start with Why is another book that encourages ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, making you look at leadership in a totally different way. It’s clear that one of the means to business success is to get others to follow your vision. But as we’ve seen with Turn the Ship Around!, this doesn’t have to be a simple case of setting tasks and getting others to complete them.
Sinek looks at two methods of leadership – manipulation and inspiration. Using both the business and real world for examples, he concludes that inspiration is by far the greater method.
Starting with the question ‘why?’ can show people the purpose behind their roles and the reasons for buying into any culture. If a leader can inspire a common sense of purpose, then a business can go on to achieve great things.
Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last has some further insights on the importance of inspiring others around you. Carrying on this theme, it’s worth checking out Greg McKeown and Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers as well. And for a wonderful take on how to motivate those around you, take a leaf through Daniel H. Pink’s Drive.
13. The Art of Action – Stephen Bungay
Stephen Bungay is a military historian as well as a successful management consultant. The Art of Action uses the 19th century Prussian army as a leadership study. The top echelons of the army made clear its objectives, then employed an open policy amongst its lower generals on how to achieve them.
A distinct parallel can be made with my own take on processes, and how they should be empowering, not controlling. This approach allows for a more agile workforce; one that can make changes as soon as they need to be made, as opposed to waiting for permission to be sent from above.
14. Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? – Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge
Written by an Olympic rowing champion and a professional executive coach, Will it Make The Boat Go Faster? was the mantra that inspired the team to pursue continuous improvement.
The duo detail how every single facet of their lives was influenced by the phrase, from technical tweaks to what they had for breakfast in the morning. This way, tiny percentage gains were made possible, giving them the edge over their competitors.
I’ve included it here as it’s been of real benefit to my own leadership style. Having that central mantra keeps the end goal hanging over all of my decision-making. It’s a great means of keeping focused and reminding my team why we were doing something.
Before we move on to Personal Development books, John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership deserves special mention in my Leadership list. This summarizes a lot of the themes we’ve covered above into a series of commandments to lead by – and adds a few more of its own.
15. The Chimp Paradox – Prof. Steve Peters
Steve Peters is famous for having worked successfully with numerous UK sporting champions. His inner chimp theory relates to a part of our limbic system, the first part of our brains that developed as Homo sapiens.
It’s the fight-or-flight button, originally engineered to help us survive the likes of wild animals. If we stood there and weighed up the situation, we’d get eaten. But our panic buttons allowed us to either run or fight without even thinking about it.
The problem is, there’s less need for our inner chimps these days, yet we still experience the fight-or-flight sensation. As we no longer burn this energy off by running or fighting, it stays inside us as anxiety. Or we end up snapping at someone over a trivial remark that our limbic system has found threatening.
The Chimp Paradox is about taming your inner chimp and the value of doing this. My own chimp used to cause endless problems in business meetings, damaging team relationships. Learning to calm it has allowed me to become a different leader with an empowered workforce. I’d recommend this book to any CEO as it’ll help you identify your own chimp-triggers and see where they came from.
For further reading in this vein, take a look at New York Times’ writer Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence. Both books teach you things beyond what you can learn at business school.
16. Oversubscribed – Daniel Priestly
Oversubscribed is a great lesson in not stretching yourself or your business too thinly. When starting out, we’re all desperate for work and can end up promising clients the world in order to keep them onside.
This approach is only viable for a finite amount of time. In essence, you’re giving control away to clients; they’re the ones who have the power. This is unsustainable for any business.
Using the lessons learned from Priestly’s book can actually have the opposite effect. I recall having an honest discussion with a very high-profile client, after we’d decided that we simply couldn’t meet their demands.
Instead of simply walking away, they ended up chasing us to work for them on our terms. And that’s a far greater model for doing business. The best relationships are the ones that you shape yourself.
Of further interest in the personal development realm is 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey. It’s another great example of how looking at yourself first can then improve your management style.
17. Obviously Awesome – April Dunsford
Product market fit is a major step to launching a start-up. As we know, the failure rate is huge – nearly a quarter don’t last a year, and 50% fail within five. Getting your product right is pretty much the landing pad that allows your business to take off.
Obviously Awesome details this superbly. Dunsford acknowledges that a lot of people have great ideas or have a problem they want to solve. But most new managers never quite find the right product or present it in a way that meets the customer’s needs.
I love the way the book details a 10-step process to finding the right product fit. Utilize this process and you’ll have a firm foundation for your ideas.
18. Don’t Make Me Think – Steve Krug
Krug’s book is primarily focused on the SaaS industry, but the methods are of use to all business leaders. Its essence concerns the creation of a fabulous, problem-solving product, compared with one that’s actually usable.
Too many great products have been designed without the user in mind. There’s an expectation that it’s up to them to catch up and work it out for themselves. Don’t Make Me Think makes it clear that it’s never the user’s fault. Making life harder than it needs to be is of no benefit to customers, nor your business.
After all, unhappy customers will simply go elsewhere. It’s not their job to get in the mind of your developers and see things their way – they’ve simply bought a product to make their own lives easier.
Happy customers are far more likely to recommend your business to their friends and family, as well as make further purchases in future. Given it costs around five times more to acquire new customers than retain existing ones, this is a worthwhile investment. Making a usable product is an essential part of providing a first-rate customer experience.
As mentioned earlier, the focus here may be on SaaS products, but the thinking can be applied to all start-ups. We all need to win and retain customers, as well as find ways of taking products and making them mainstream.
19. The Chasm Companion – Paul Wiefels
Wiefel’s book is a companion to two other classic management texts by Geoffrey Moore. In short, it helps put the ideas raised there into modern business practice. The Chasm Companion focuses on business growth in the form of a market development strategy. It’s invaluable for those looking to launch high-tech products, finding an audience and then expanding into new customer bases.
Just as we touched on with Steve Krug’s book, finding niche customers is only the first step when it comes to designing some new problem-solving product or software. But it’s in crossing the great divide to the mainstream that will bring the real financial rewards. This book is a fascinating guide to the whole process, from initial product creation to how you can reach the ‘big time’.
20. Getting to Yes – Roger Fisher and William Ury
I particularly love Getting to Yes as it focuses on how you can adopt a new negotiating philosophy, as opposed to teaching you a few tricks to replicate. The world of business has thankfully evolved over the past few decades, and the old macho methods of negotiation have little value in today’s more enlightened workplaces.
Fisher and Ury’s book isn’t simply a key to winning arguments, although it may help you do that. Instead, the focus is on finding a middle-ground that’s of benefit to both parties – a negotiation in which no side loses. Although it offers a step-by-step process, it’s clear that this isn’t something to be followed verbatim. Instead, the techniques here offer fresh insights on negotiating skills that will come in useful for leaders in all manner of business situations.
This book also makes a fine companion to Dale Carnegie’s world famous How to Win Friends and Influence People. Whilst quite different, both are valuable tools when it comes to nurturing relationships.
The Five I Keep Coming Back To
So those are my top 20, but where should readers begin?
Well, although I’ve taken much from every book on this list, there are five I’ve returned to again and again, always taking away fresh insights. As a result, I’ll recommend the following as a perfect starting-cluster for any leader with a desire to become great.
1. The Sales Acceleration Formula – Mark Roberge
Building a successful sales team is far more difficult than it appears on paper, and having a blueprint to follow can truly make a difference.
When onboarding we’ll often take a mixture of gut instinct, LinkedIn profile, resume qualities and interview skills to guide us. But The Sales Acceleration Formula goes beyond that, with a focus on seeking out specific personality traits matched to specific roles, and how to achieve this in practice.
I’ve found it to be an invaluable go-to source on more occasions than I can remember!
2. Traction – Gino Wickman
I view Traction as my go-to manual for all things management and leadership-related. From organizing all levels of your business to putting processes into practice and even avoiding poor employee onboarding, it’s got everything a CEO needs.
3. The Advantage – Patrick Lencioni
The book that made me look at my role as a CEO and completely reassess what I was doing. The Advantage truly changed my life, my career, my working style and helped lead to greater business success than ever before.
4. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni
Building a great team is one thing, making it work is another – that’s where The Five Dysfunctions… inspires me. The answers can be found within your own leadership style. Nurture the right culture and you’ll see your teams exceed all expectations.
5. Turn the Ship Around! – L. David Marquet
Finally, David Marquet’s promotion of a leader-leader management approach is impossible to forget. Given the writer’s own life-experiences, it’s also difficult to refute. Having put this method into practice myself, it’s hard to see why any modern business leader would try anything different.
As you’ll see from these books, there are no quick solutions to becoming a great manager. Adopting a few new traits and expecting your employees to comply with your trendy methods simply won’t have any effect in the long run.
Taking on great processes will only work if the right philosophy is there in the first place. The real route to business success lies in creating the right environment, and by empowering everyone to be the very best version of themselves.
As you’ll discover in all of these books, there’s only one place to find the key to successful management…and that’s in the mirror.
About the author
Alister Esam, Author of The Dirty Word & CEO of beSlick
Alister Esam is a successful entrepreneur and investor, having bootstrapped his fintech software business eShare to international status operating in over 40 countries and servicing 20,000 board directors, before successfully exiting in 2018.
He now invests in a variety of startups and on a global mission to make work, work.