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My Top Ten Books about Leadership

posted by Scot McKnight

Aristotle.jpg

What makes a leader? Ideas. Courage. Contact with great thinkers. What makes a Christian leader? Great ideas, courage, and contact with great thinkers re-shaped and shaped by the gospel. 

So, I offer to you a list of my top ten books for leaders, and none of the titles of these books have the word “leader,” or its buddy “leadership,” in it. Some of these are overtly Christian classics; others are not. These books have the ability to swell the chest, flood the mind, and reshape how we see the world around us – and a gospel-reshaping of these great works can inspire a leader to new levels.

From the classical world, though one could choose all sorts of great works, I recommend a soaking in Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, to see how the great philosopher constructed a set of ethics that shaped the Western world. Homer told the story of Odysseus and Virgil, in The Aeneid, developed what Homer began for the Roman world and handed on to all of us the power of a journey into ideas and ideals, sanctifying place and history. Dante took Homer and Virgil to the next level in his Divine Comedy, and if you follow him all the way down into the inferno, up through purgatory and then climb into the swirling glorious presence of God you will find new dimensions to life’s journey.


I’ve heard the case made that St.
Augustine’s Confessions reshaped the
entire Western world, not least in his probing of his own soul and conscience,
but I’m confident that the great North Afrian can lead each of us to the potent
truth of original sin and the need to read our lives before God. Not long ago I
began to re-read John Milton, Paradise
Lost
, and was mesmerized not only by his language and meter, but by the
brilliance of his vision for the cosmic battle of human life. 

No one on this side of the Atlantic
can fail to be captured, humbled and even humiliated before God by Harriet
Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as
it brings into living reality the evil of slavery and the heart of darkness, a
heart that was eschewed by the arch-individiual, Henry David Thoreau in On Walden Pond. Americans need to dip
into this classic work of human independence and freedom if only to capture
again what makes so many Americans still tick. Hemingway said Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was
the great American novel. I’m not expert enough on American novels to pose such
a conclusion, but I can say that very few have probed more deeply the foibles
of the human heart, whether Twain does so with withering wit or raw
finger-pointing.

For some reason few today have read
C.S. Lewis, Dymer, his first work, a
saga, a journey, and a portrait of human hybris at its apex – and the work
provides for us a revelation of what Lewis was like, what his yearning was
like, before it became Surprised by Joy.
I confess to being one of the few who have not read all of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – I have read The Hobbit – but I return regularly to
his short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” and often wonder if there is a better way of
describing our vocation and its relation to eternity. Every summer, somehow, I
find my way to Ernest Hemingway, The Old
Man and the Sea
, and whether it is the combination of the hunt with
baseball in the old man’s musings or not, the struggle to catch and never show
what one found … Hemingway reminds me of the intangibles of the human struggle.
Probably the deepest and penetrating book I read during my seminary days was
Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a
philosophical, theological essay into the relational nature of what matters
most.

Not your usual list of books on
leadership, but I wonder sometimes if leadership might best be described by
those who are intellectual and cultural leaders instead of by those who talk about it.



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Ted M. Gossard

posted November 6, 2009 at 4:16 am


Thanks, Scot. A good list of books for me to make sure I read (though I doubt I’ll get through Tolkien’s great “Lord of the Rings”). Except for Hemmingway’s, which is a great read, I’ve read through none of them. I wonder why I didn’t read much in my younger years.



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RJS

posted November 6, 2009 at 6:54 am


Lord of the Rings – good stuff and no more rambling or fanciful than Aenid, Iliad, Odyssey… The Hobbit only sets up the “leadership training” running through the trilogy.



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Debbie

posted November 6, 2009 at 7:16 am


Thanks for the list… I love learning what others are reading or like to read. I’ve read most of those books, but not recently. In fact, of those that I’ve read, I read in high school during a series of advanced literature courses. It may be worth renewing my old high school reading days soon!



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Tyler

posted November 6, 2009 at 7:22 am


Only one female author?



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Scot McKnight

posted November 6, 2009 at 8:18 am


Tyler, got any suggestions? … I’m a huge fan of Sayers and thought of adding her book on culture and theology. This series of writers was a bit of a chronological survey and that, almost by definition, will reduce female authors dramatically.



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Tim Hallman

posted November 6, 2009 at 8:34 am


Love the inclusion of Huck Finn’s story in your post about books on leadership! Ha! Brilliant! And I’ve never heard of Dymer. Will need to seek it out.



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Paul D.

posted November 6, 2009 at 9:25 am


Scot — For all the times you write about how little fiction you read, I am struck by the fact that 7 of your 10 books fall into that category, broadly defined. Great list!



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Tim Seiger

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:04 am


Good list! Another by Sayers that I read recently that has impacted my leadership is The Mind of the Maker. She writes about how producing great lit requires the writer to let the story and the characters develop themselves and how if we force the issue and make our characters serve a completely predetermined end the characters then lack depth and are uninteresting. There are of course other implications of this that she draws out. Might be worth a read.



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John W Frye

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:39 am


I think Anne Tyler’s novels bring leadership in life in slant.
Scot, this is what makes you one of a kind– a list of books on leadership that I have NEVER heard mentioned at a Christian leadership conference or summit. You liberate leadership from the hackneyed corporate model so prevalent in the West.



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Randy

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:45 am


This is wonderful stuff. I am working on leadership material as I prepare for another round of job applications, just yesterday I noted how a lot of leadership and skills material bothers me because it does not seem like it is based in any particular job, situation, etc.
Advice related to one skill I am reported to have emphasized encouraging employees’ imagination “so they can do more….” My response was “Do more what?!!!
It is like reading pure social theory divorced from any application. The LORD OF THE RINGS and much other discussed here is grounded very much in real life and practice. Maybe that is why I sought training as a historian.
Peace,
Randy Gabrielse



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John Losey

posted November 6, 2009 at 11:40 am


Scot,
Connecting diverse insights and applying them to moving groups of people is a key aspect of leadership. For me if Twains best stuff on leadership, learning and mentoring is “Life on the Mississippi.” Good stuff. Thanks for making us think.



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Jeff Cook

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:33 pm


I love this list!
The Nicomachean Ethics is especially underrated, but that book is good for your soul.
Well played!
Jeff



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Keith Clark

posted November 9, 2009 at 3:10 pm


Scot,
With regard to the various works you mentioned originally written in languages other than English, do you have any recommendations as to specific translations of these works that would be preferable over others? Just thought I’d ask before buying.



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brian Rice

posted November 9, 2009 at 5:17 pm


Hi Scott:
Thanks for a great list of books, but I think I look at this issue from a different point of view than most of comments. I’ll admit that my bias is that I am a leadership development specialist, working both in the local church and globally to train leaders.
I have read everything on the list except for the Aeneid and the one by C.S. Lewis. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its Hobbit prequel, I have read once a year since 1970.
I think these are wonderful books, but their subject matter is not leadership (per se) as much as it is life, worldview, story and philosophy? Reading (and living) these books will make one a better human being but not necessarily a better leader.
A nurse, engineer, lawyer, accountant, stay at home parent, etc. could read these books and not become a leader.
Someone could read these books and remain a weak or even poor leader, uneducated concerning the intricacies of leadership and untrained in the core skills of leadership.
I know many pastors who are truly insightful people, well versed in counseling, public speaking and even biblical theology? but who are very inadequate as a leader. They have read many books similar to the ones you mentioned, but those books did not shape them as leaders. It shaped them as human beings.
As a corollary, I had many teachers in my grad schools who were wise and insightful people, but not necessarily gifted in teaching. Reading books like the ones mentioned is not going to make them better teachers. They would be better served by reading books on teaching. Just like someone who is a weak leader needs to read leadership specific texts.
Here is a short leadership list. I won’t annotate it due to this post becoming tedious.
Most of these books are longer, pretty substantial, and not written by Christians.
The Congruent Life: Following the Inward Path to Fulfilling Work and Inspired Leadership by C. Michael Thompson (okay, a short annotation. This is the one book you should read above all the others.)
Two by Ronald Heifetz of Harvard
Leadership Without Easy Answers
Leadership on the LIne
Two by Peter Koestenbaum
Leadership: the Inner Side of Greatness — a Philosophy for Leaders
The Philosophic consultant: Revolutionizing Organizations With Ideas
Unnatural Leadership by Dotlich and Cairo
Leadership D ivied: What Emerging Leaders Need and What You Might be Missing by Ron Carucci
Leading MInds: An Anatomy of Leadership by Howard Gardner
Leadership by James MacGregor Burns (magisterial and historic in scope)
Intuitive Leadership by Tim Keel (one of the best from a postmodern point of view)
Reviewing Leadership by Robert Banks (a short, nice introduction to the field of leadership)
If anyone is interested in any of the books, I would suggest you do a Google search to read reviews before you buy any of them. In most cases they are not easy reads.
Brian



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brian Rice

posted November 9, 2009 at 5:19 pm


Sorry for the typo about Ron Carucci’s book. It is Leadership Divided.



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Peggy

posted November 10, 2009 at 2:35 pm


Thanks, RJS, for hitting LOTR right off the bat. More “leadership” (both good and bad) in Tolkien’s characters than could be discussed in a lifetime….
What about Taylor Caldwell? She has written some amazing books — check out this listing:
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_1_10?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=taylor+caldwell+books&sprefix=Taylor+Cal
Of course, one of my favorites is “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” by Wes Roberts … especially is you like ancient Roman history ;^)
http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Secrets-Attila-Wess-Roberts/dp/0446391069
And Lewis B. Smedes has some amazing books which speak all over the issues of leadership — especially what it takes to be a good one.
Cheers, all!



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RJS

posted November 10, 2009 at 2:58 pm


Hi Peggy,
Nice to hear from you – its been quite awhile.



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Peggy

posted November 12, 2009 at 12:24 am


Thanks, RJS…it’s nice to be remembered! Been way too crazy around my neck of the woods to even read…I check blogs in my Google Reader about once a month, if I’m lucky!
Has anyone read the book on Attila the Hun? It is really quite interesting….
Back to my closet ;^)



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