My Most Gifted Books to Existing and Emerging Leaders

For the last two years, I have read two books a week. I only ever slow down when I’m lying in bed with a book, so I decided I’d set a reading rule to make sure I rested enough. Since I started this ritual, I’ve been asked to share my reading lists.

I have in the past happily, but with the feeling that sharing the list isn’t that helpful. I’m an experimental reader, and I read across genres and topic areas. Sifting through my list of 104 books from last year with no context around any of them isn’t exactly easy, especially if you’re looking for very specific titles on something like leadership.

This led me to consider writing a blog on my ultimate list of recommended books.

But, there’s sometimes a difference between the books you recommend and the books you gift.

For example I would argue that Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation by Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback has been equally influential in informing my thinking around culture and team development as The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle.

Yet, it’s a book I’ve never gifted. I always choose Coyle’s The Culture Code instead because it’s easier to understand, more grippingly written, and while research-driven, not so research-heavy that people lose sight of how to apply the practices outlined.

For me, the books you gift represent the ones you think are so worthwhile, accessible, and useful that you’re willing to spend money on making sure they land in the hands of the right people.

That’s why I’ve gone through my Amazon order history from the last year and identified the books I gift most.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

I consider The Culture Code the most influential book in my professional career. It’s not because it’s ideas are so earth-shatteringly groundbreaking (excepting the sections on innovative call centers and military training exercises), but the way it weaves together narratives around how different groups form finally paints a picture that hasn’t been painted before.

This is a book that takes real research, real companies, and real lessons learned and synthesizes them in a such a way that culture finally comes into full view as a complete, unified idea. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts here, and in my opinion, no other books comes close to moving beyond parts at all.

Key Idea

“Culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott

So many communication-focused frameworks focus solely on conflict resolution and managing difficult conversations. But in practice, we need feedback for more than just our major mistakes. Here, Scott focuses on developing a model for feedback that fosters growth and change, whether it’s through praise, constructive corrections, or even neutral commentary.

Plus, she lays out how to communicate more effectively during collaborations, which is an essential skill for virtually everyone working in companies today.

It’s an easy read that flies by, but is loaded with anecdotes, examples, and visual models that make translating what’s written into real life relatively seamless.

Key Idea

“The essence of leadership is not getting overwhelmed by circumstances.”

This means even in the most tense settings leaders have to remain calm and centered enough to deliver radically candid feedback that both shows they care personally but are willing to challenge directly.

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a major focus area for most companies in our current sociopolitical landscape, but much of the literature today is polarizing. Given the discussions of white fragility, toxic masculinity, and whether stereotypes are in fact real, it’s no wonder whenever I bring up my work in this space, I’m met with extreme reactions, both good and bad.

What I love about Whistling Vivaldi is that it eschews finger-pointing, accusations, and “your wrong” statements, and instead lays out thirty years of evidence on identity contingencies, stereotype threat, and critical mass in a way that’s equitable.

Everyone feels excluded at some point, but some of us are much more subject to exclusion. Steele lays out how and why, but most importantly what we can do about it. That’s what makes his work powerful; most of us have good intentions, but we don’t know how to translate them into actions. His work helps us do exactly that.

Key Idea

You can dramatically increase trust, belonging, and performance in underrepresented groups by changing the way you give critical feedback, improving critical mass, fostering intergroup conversations, and helping underrepresented individuals develop a narrative about their experience that projects positive engagement and success in the future.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker

After reading this, I set out to write a blog on how to create meetings with meaning immediately afterwards because Parker so deftly landed on the biggest problem I faced with clients: injecting interactions with purpose.

More than half of my clients have asked me how to give more “oomph” to their meetings and off-sites. This book lays out strategies for giving any gathering — whether social, professional, or somewhere in between — the life necessary to reach desired outcomes and facilitate change.

While there’s certainly plenty of research and case studies to support what Parker argues, it’s also a book full of tools and questions that make meetings soar.

Key Idea

“Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.”

The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live — and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson

Of all the books I’ve read on emotional intelligence, this is the first to truly lay out the neuroscience and psychology behind our emotions, while also providing practical techniques for changing how we manage and manifest them.

Richard J. Davidson is a well-known pioneer in studying emotion academically and clinically, which means this is often equal parts groundbreaking and dry. It’s very heavy with case studies, which depending on your personal reading preferences could be either a boon or a detractor.

Still, regardless of whether this ends up being so compelling you can’t put it down or so technical you can’t finish it, the emotional styles assessment is uniformly useful for understanding your own emotional styles and those of others.

Key Idea

Different people have different emotional styles that break down into spectrums of resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention. While we all fall into different combinations on each of these six spectrums, we can make internal and external adjustments to refine our styles to meet our needs.

What Now?: Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond by Yael Shy

It’s no secret that I dedicate a significant portion of my time to meditation. However, it was What Now? that started me on a more disciplined path.

While I’ve come to read many other meditation-focused books, this was the first that made it seem like a practice that could help me cultivate attention, awareness, and compassion according to a relatively straightforward process.

Many of the leaders — both existing and emerging — who I work with need tools for stress management and a pathway to better focus, but delivered in a gentle, non-judgmental, and secular way. Plus, they tend to be in their twenties and thirties, which means the scenarios Shy lays out are more relatable than the ones other authors highlight.

Key Idea

“Meditation is the process of becoming familiar with life. When we are completely focused on what is happening in real time, even for a few seconds at a time, we are not caught in a tangle of thoughts that swing between the present and the past.”

Parting Words

Yesterday, I gifted a client seven copies of The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, which sparked an impulse to check how many copies of the book I’ve ordered this year. The answer was 22.

Since my business exists to bring company culture that promotes safety, vulnerability, and purpose to organizations of all stripes, it makes sense that I’d avidly endorse the book that established those three cultural pillars in the first place.

But it’s not just its relevance that motivated me. Roy Baumeister’s work on belonging is just as valuable, and in fact, likely more so since it’s the guiding theory for much of Coyle’s book. However, The Culture Code represents the qualities of a perfectly gift-able book: universally interesting, digestible, and applicable.

What books do you gift most?

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