9 Books That Helped Me Become the Leader I Am Today

My bookshelf tells the story of where I have been and where I am going as a leader. The first business book I recall reading was The 360 Degree Leader by John Maxwell. I remember feeling like it gave me a roadmap for how to be successful at work.

I search for books to help me think about new approaches to leadership, and to deepen my understanding of concepts that are important to me. I like to say that I have an article or book to suggest for whatever ails you. (I even received old school library checkout cards as a holiday gift this year!)

Whether you have recently moved into a new role or are looking for something to read on your next work trip, keep these options in mind. Each of them has been particularly meaningful to me in developing my leadership philosophy.

Radical Candor

I initially encountered the concept of “radical candor” in First Round Review. The idea that you’re offering someone feedback because you care, deeply resonated with me. I believe in being generous with both praise and constructive criticism. This book provides reasons to embrace giving and receiving feedback, as well as the language you need to deliver it effectively, and the confidence to ask for it from others on your way to becoming your best self.

To Sell is Human

I’m the first to take exception when people compare fundraising to sales, so I reticently picked up this book at the suggestion of a friend. As you can tell, I’m glad I did. Daniel Pink shares insights on why everything we do is selling: from sharing our ideas, to listening to others. With this premise in mind, we should make sure we understand how and why to do it well, how to be resilient, and how to do more for others than expected or originally intended.

Pink challenges the reader to consider the following:  When the interaction with someone is over, will the world be a better place than when you began?

The Culture Map

Leadership isn’t standardized across cultures. People respond to different forms of leadership (and also possess different expectations of colleagues) based upon what they’ve been taught is appropriate. Consider, for example, how some people establish trust from building deep, personal relationships and others build trust from working together on shared projects. I learned this firsthand when I spent several years working in London with people from around the world. At the time, a mentor recommended this book to me, and I found it to be quite valuable. Erin Meyer shares practical, research-based insight into building trust, communicating effectively, and negotiating with people from all backgrounds. Her advice has even improved my work in the United States.


Have you ever shared a new idea with a group—only to see it immediately dismissed? Originals delves into why that occurs and how to overcome it. Adam Grant, a renowned professor at Wharton (whom I have the privilege of knowing), uses research to support others in living more generous, creative lives. Reading this book changed how I think about innovation, communicating ideas, and procrastination. Briefly: When you have a good idea, keep going; the best ideas emerge later. There’s also a bonus section for working parents about how speaking to your child changes how they think of themselves.


Leaders have many decisions to make each day and executing can be overwhelming to new and experienced managers, alike. This book by Chip Heath and Dan Heath shows how you can make decisions more thoughtfully and deliberately.

My favorite tip is that even when you think the decision can only be A or B, there is almost always a third option. Considering option C provides you with innovative approaches to your decisions. Remember, we tend to be harder on our own decisions than we are on others: What would you tell your best friend to do?


Many leaders consider themselves to be extroverts and therefore run meetings, talk with colleagues, and approach life from that perspective. Susan Cain discusses introverts at work and home, sharing lessons that introverts will likely find liberating and extroverts will find enlightening. To be the best leaders we can be, we should understand who our team members are and how to support them.

Broadcasting Happiness

Everything we do as leaders is being watched. So, why don’t we lead with happiness? Michelle Gielan shares ideas and resources to bring happiness to your workplace. I started focusing on gratitude by writing down three things each night that I was grateful for–and I have asked my teams to do this exercise, too. My team meetings and retreats start with a brief personal reflection or everyone sharing good news with the group (Gielen calls it the “power lead”), because this experience frames the rest of the dialogue. (If you start a gratitude wall in your office, please tweet me a picture!)

Leadership and the One Minute Manager

Early in my career, I mistakenly thought I should manage everyone based on how I wanted to be treated. My goal was to be the manager I had wished for. However, in reality, it’s my job to manage people how they want and need to be managed. Ken Blanchard is the expert in situational leadership, which teaches leaders to adjust their style to the individual, project, and goal. The book explains situational leadership through a parable with tips for managers to assess which style to use and when.

Start With Why

As leaders we know we need to identify what inspires others and helps them feel fulfilled by the work they do. But, what drives us in our own work? Simon Sinek challenges us to answer the questions: What is your why? How are you helping others find their why? By understanding your why and clearly communicating it to others, you can attract and retain a loyal, fulfilled team united around a common cause.


People often tell me they don’t have time to read. And as a working mom, I understand the constant juggling and demands on our time.

With that said, prioritizing reading is a choice—and in my opinion, one of the best investments leaders can make. I read articles daily during my commute, on a work break, and in the evening. Admittedly, I read books more frequently while traveling. Give yourself a goal to enrich your own learning and support yourself in achieving it. Don’t beat yourself up if you get off track: just get back on. Find a reading buddy to hold each other accountable. You can set times to take a walk to discuss each chapter; I have even done this with a long distance friend over the phone.

The best part of reading these books is learning together. Drop me a line (shannaATshannaahocking.com) with which book you liked the most and what books you would add.