3 Books to Transform your Leadership

Over the past few years, I've developed a habit of reading books on management and leadership. These books have transformed who I am and where my career goals lie.

As I reflect on the words written, three books stick out to me as especially insightful. While there are many great books out there, I place a special value on these three:

Creativity, Inc.

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.1

One of the most popular management books of 2014, Creativity, Inc offers an inside look at the culture of Pixar. Starting from their humble beginnings trying to sell a 3D rendering hardware platform, Ed Catmull brings you on a journey through the evolution of this company.

The most impactful morale of the Pixar story is that great culture doesn't just happen. You can't assume that simply having great people will create a great culture. Ed describes how he came to realize this, and what changes Pixar made to produce such amazing stories that we all love to watch.

Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture— one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became— wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.2

Joy at Work

Joy at work gives people the freedom to use their talents and skills for the benefit of society, without being crushed or controlled by autocratic supervisors or staff offices. 3

You wouldn't think the culture at a power company would be book-worthy. And in most cases, it's not. But for AES, the culture is quite revolutionary.

Not content to follow the traditional company hierarchy of most workplaces, AES set out to transform the lives of their workforce. It wasn't about improving an "employee happiness" metric to win a "Best Place to Work" award.

It was about helping their employees lead fulfilling, meaningful lives. They focused on ensuring employees had the information and authority to make important decisions. This attitude resulted in employees who took pride in their work, and allowed them to find real value in the 40+ hours of their lives that they invested every week at their job.

In Western democracies, people are free almost everywhere except at work. 4

Shortly after reading the book, I listened to a pair of episodes from the Future of Work podcast that drove home the ideas in this book. I highly recommend giving them a listen.

“Keep living the principles and values even if no one else goes along with them or acknowledges your good work. We are trying to live this way, not because it will make us popular or successful or get others to go along with us. We are trying to live this way because it is the way we think life in our Hungarian business ought to be lived.” 5

Why Motivating People Doesn't Work

[T]he focus on monetary rewards has obscured what really satisfies people in their jobs.6

I was part of a team building exercise once that finished with a simple exercise. Sort through a stack of cards, each describing a form of recognition, and pick out the three rewards you'd most like. The choices ranged from the typical "a large cash bonus" and "being presented an award in front of the VP" to non-physical incentives like "more autonomy in my work".

The typical assumption is that most employees would desire the more physical rewards like the cash bonus, yet for my teammates and me, we all valued the autonomy related choices the highest.

I wrote about Proper Recognition a while back and still believe what I said. Managers chose the physical rewards like bonuses not because they're the most effective, but they're the easiest to implement. They require the least amount of thought and seem like they work, because in the short-term they can.

In the long run though, Why Motivating People Doesn't Work tells us that to get the best from each individual, we must allow them autonomy, help people experience relatedness at work, and grow their competence over time.

We simply can't expect a carrot-and-stick mentality to remain effective over a multi-year journey. Employees deserve better than petty cash bonuses and meaningless awards.

[A] true growth step for leaders is to become more mindful of promoting dreams, ideals, and experiences that cannot be easily measured.7


So there you have it: three books I highly recommend for any person to read, regardless of their job title. This is by no means a definitive list, but it's a great set of books to help discover ways you can be a better leader.

  1. Catmull, Ed; Wallace, Amy (2014-04-08). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Kindle Locations 56-58). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  2. Catmull, Ed; Wallace, Amy (2014-04-08). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Kindle Locations 1077-1080). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  3. Bakke, Dennis W. (2010-08-03). Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach To Fun on the Job (Kindle Locations 300-301). PVG. Kindle Edition.

  4. Bakke, Dennis W. (2010-08-03). Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach To Fun on the Job (Kindle Locations 2411-2414). PVG. Kindle Edition.

  5. Bakke, Dennis W. (2010-08-03). Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach To Fun on the Job (Kindle Location 3629). PVG. Kindle Edition.

  6. Fowler, Susan (2014-09-30). Why Motivating People Doesn't Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging (p. 10). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

  7. Fowler, Susan (2014-09-30). Why Motivating People Doesn't Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging (p. 148). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Enjoy this content? Check out my upcoming book, The Non-Conformist Leader.