5 Books That Will Level Up Your Leadership

Reading can often feel like a guilty pleasure. I like to balance my love of a great escape via a good work of fiction with my love of learning by ensuring I am also reading carefully selected professional books that will quench my thirst for knowledge. I want my professional reading to be rich with content that will improve my practice as a leader and coach. There are several books that I have discovered along my journey that are not necessarily on mainstream lists of recommended reading for school leaders, but will certainly enhance any leaders skill set.  
Each of these books impacted my thinking, professional practice, and personal interactions in a positive way. In addition, each currently holds a review rating of 4.5 stars or higher by readers.

In no particular order, here are 5 books that I promise will make you a more effective leader and a better person.


SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time
Author: Jeff Sutherland
Length: 256 Pages
Published: September 30, 2014

As a school leader I was always perplexed by the often cumbersome and bureaucratic processes that would tie up decision making and forward movement for schools. I could never understand how some companies could remain incredibly innovative while government institutions often lag behind. My assumption, like many educators, was it had to be funding. If we had more money we could be more innovative. What I realized while reading this book is that procedural, not financial constraints, most often cause schools to get stuck. SCRUM drives most of the top technology companies around the world. Now SCRUM is being used in just about every domain where leaders wrestle with complex projects. 
I got my hands on this book in the summer of 2015 and it revolutionized my thinking and leadership. Schools don’t have the luxury of slow, inefficient work. Quite frankly, any organization seeking to stay healthy in their market must stay lean and agile. Success requires enormous productivity, unwavering commitment to achieving results, and smart action. Reading SCRUM and applying these agile concepts to school operations changed everything. Our school leadership team was able to increase our productivity and improve our response to meeting the needs of our students and teachers. We were able to more effectively get through the mundane and required bureaucratic tasks and reports and put our energy into focusing on the real work of applying creative and innovative solutions for success. 


QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life
Author: John G. Miller
Length: 160 pages
Publlished: September 9, 2004

In all settings, government and corporate alike, there are often policies, regulations, and bureaucratic layers that make it easy to lay blame elsewhere when our team is less than successful. Schools, in particular, face many challenges due to burdensome top down policy and a wide variety of factors outside the control of the school leader. In this book, John Miller helps us to realize that rather than asking who is to blame for a situation (state policy, the parent, the student, the teacher, Board, etc.) we should ask, “What can I do to improve the situation?” Only by being able to ask the "question behind the question" can we take ownership of the problem and start working toward a solution. Miller’s succinct and to the point style makes this book a quick and easy read full of inspiration and practical wisdom. He uses examples from real world situations to reinforce his message that personal accountability and ownership no only lead to a resolution, but also aid in finding the leaders within your organization who are willing to take ownership and action. 

Once I read this book, I immediately knew it should be our staff summer read for the following school year. This book was effective in helping our school staff to have a common framework of thinking when times were tough and challenges seemed insurmountable. Rather than lay blame, we quickly moved to the question behind the question and would help one another remain accountable to problem solving rather than playing the blame game. Using QBQ really helped us to create a school culture where the majority of our staff were ready to tackle the big challenges and the blame game was quickly a thing of the past.


The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever
Author: Michael Bungay Stanier
Length: 242 pages
Published: February 29, 2016

If you are a leader and you don’t have good coaching skills then you will find yourself leading a staff who deposit problems and issues at your door and wait for you to reassign the work or fix the problem for them. Turnover due to burnout is a critical issue for school districts across our nation. While there are a host of reasons for this, I contend that lack of coaching ability is one of the top reasons we lose school leaders. Coaching is an art and when you are the leader it is difficult to ask questions rather than jump in and solve the problem. The buck stops with the leader and we often feel the need to be the fixer and solver of issues within our school or organization. However, the talk among school leaders is how important it is to build leadership capacity in our schools. Build leaders by asking the right questions rather than offering up advice, providing the answer, or laying out a solution. Giving another person the opportunity to find their own way, make their own mistakes, and create their own wisdom is the key to coaching and building leadership capacity. This behavior empowers our teachers and staff to uncover and further develop the leader within.

In this book the author unpacks the seven essential questions that will help you develop coaching methods to get great results for your organization and build the next line of leaders. In addition to the easy to navigate layout and content that is steeped in behavioral and neuroscience, the reader will be provided with links at the end of each section to watch online examples of that essential question being used in an active coaching conversation. 


Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
Author: Adam Grant
Length: 320 pages
Published: March 25, 2014

This book will not only change you as a leader it will change your perspective on life. Adam Grant explores an entirely new concept by explaining why our interactions with others hold the key to success. Passion, hard work, and talent will only get you so far in your career. In today’s world much of our success comes from how we interact with others. You will learn why we underestimate the success of givers and explore what separates giver champs from chumps, and what is unique about giver success. This book is enlightening while also entertaining with great real life stories of some of the most successful people who are also classified as givers. While it has been my nature to be a giver, reading this book pushed me to a new paradigm and leveled up my leadership by making me aware of these three types (givers, takes, and matchers) and how being a giver opens one up to opportunities often missed by takers and matchers. As one review notes; “Give and Take opens up an approach to work, interactions, and productivity that is nothing short of revolutionary.”  I couldn’t agree more. 


The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work
Author: Shawn Achor
Length: 256 pages
Published: September 10, 2011

This book has had a lasting effect on me. I was immediately eager to discuss it with everyone from family members to colleagues. For me, it was incredibly powerful when I thought about the implications of sharing the content with our eighty staff members as well as our students and parents. The possibilities of a school community book club came to light each time I turned a page. This is powerful information to put in the hands of our teachers, parents, community partners, and even our middle grades students
Don’t be put off by the title or the cover of this book, it is steeped in research and the author provides plenty of data and information on the studies. This is not fluff, this is science presented in a way that motivates, intrigues, and inspires. There are dozens of places you can search online for Editorial reviews of The Happiness Advantage, so I’ll round out my review by getting to the heart of the book. We are mostly exposed to a mindset in our society that if we succeed, we will find happiness. Achieve high grades, drop weight, get a promotion, make more money, get married, have a child; if only this happened then I could be happy. What Shawn Achor reveals is that happiness actually fuels success and performance, not the other way around. Why? Because when we are happier and more positive, we are more engaged, creative, resilient to stress, and productive.
Imagine taking the concept of happiness being the fuel to success to your school level and having your students, teachers, and parents all exposed to this thinking. This is why I chose this book as a summer read for teachers and introduced it to our parents. Infusing an understanding of intrinsic happiness into a school community is akin to immunizing the staff and students against many of the ailments laying wait to them in social media and the politics of test scores. Read this book. You will not regret it and I even hope you will contact me to let me know your thoughts. I also have a free PD module based on Shawn’s TedTalk that you can find in this earlier blog post

While these are my favorites and I count them as part of a well-balanced leadership diet, I would love to hear from you about the books that have supported you on your journey. Feel free to comment and share!