What it takes to be a great leader: A recommended reading list

Feb 4, 2015 /

Our image of a great leader is outdated, says Roselinde Torres of management consultancy BCG (TED Talk: What it takes to be a great leader). That all-knowing superhero who both lords over and protects his followers is neither realistic nor effective in today’s business, she says. To prepare for a global, digital, fast-paced future, she offers three questions we should ask of tomorrow’s leaders: How diverse is your network? Are you courageous enough to abandon the past? Where are you looking to anticipate change? Below, read works that explore these crucial questions, with commentary by Torres.

How diverse is your network?

Jazz vs. Symphony
John Clarkeson
BCG Perspectives, 1990

“John Clarkeson, a former CEO of BCG, wrote this piece nearly 25 years ago. ‘Prescient’ best describes his take on how future leaders wouldn’t be able to rely on exclusive decision-making authority, the overwhelming force of personality, or a monopoly of information.”

Is Your Team Stuck?
Michael Shanahan and Roselinde Torres
BCG Perspectives, April 5, 2012

“Bold leadership makes a big difference in turbulent times. Companies can exploit their competitors’ paralysis and make important, even game-changing, moves that position them for enduring success. It happened during the Great Depression, and it’s happening now.”

Creating Minds
Howard Gardner
Basic Books, 2011

“Gardner’s book was first published more than 20 years ago, but its insights into the creative process — told through the stories of seven remarkable individuals from different fields — remain just as relevant today. While they shared some traits, they all followed different paths to success.”

Thinking in New Boxes
Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny
Random House, 2013

“Thinking outside the box is easier said than done. Luc and Alan describe a different approach to stretching people’s perspectives. When people think in new boxes, they learn how to ask the kinds of questions that will unlock creativity, innovation and opportunity.”

The Idea of Justice
Amartya Sen
Belknap Press, 2011

“It’s important to look at complex issues — in this case, the theory of justice — from multiple perspectives, rather than through a lens shaped exclusively by one’s own context and understanding. You end up seeing more alternatives, more shades of grey.”

The Social Animal
David Brooks
Random House, 2012

“The two characters in this book come together despite having grown up on opposite ends of the social spectrum. It’s a compelling reminder that diversity can make for strong bonds and great collaborations.”

Are you courageous enough to abandon the past?

What Matters Now
Gary Hamel
Jossey-Bass, 2012

“In today’s world, you have to be comfortable with change and willing to adapt. This book features case studies of companies that had the courage to abandon tried and true management models in favor of new ways of working.”

Lighting the Way
Karenna Gore Schiff
Miramax Books, 2007

“The title says it all. Karenna Gore Schiff profiles women who were true trailblazers. They were ahead of their time on socially controversial issues, and they faced huge odds in trying to instill meaningful change.”

Anthony Sampson
Vintage Books, 2000

“There’s no shortage of insightful books about Nelson Mandela, including this authorized biography. I like this one because it provides an objective and comprehensive perspective on how he was shaped by the world he lived in, and how he in turn reshaped it.”

My Beloved World
Sonia Sotomayor
Vintage Books, 2014

“Sonia Sotomayor provides intimate, candid details about her upbringing and her determination to pursue her dream. It’s a deeply personal story, but it would resonate with anyone who seeks to fulfill their highest potential.”

You Learn by Living
Eleanor Roosevelt
Harper Perennial, 2011

“A great source of practical lessons, this book defines fulfillment as a combination of professional and personal satisfaction. It’s a nice, rounded view and it highlights the value of making a difference in the lives of individuals and in society.”

Personal History
Katharine Graham
Vintage Books, 1998

“Katharine Graham assumed control of The Post Co. in 1963, after her husband’s suicide. Her transition from shy homemaker to one of the most respected leaders in the male-dominated world of publishing was remarkable. A true pioneer, she was the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company.”

Where are you looking to anticipate change?

Adaptive Leadership
Roselinde Torres et al.
BCG Perspectives, December 13, 2010

“Adaptive leaders have a distinct style that’s invaluable during times of uncertainty and change. They learn through experimentation, canvas a wide range of views to scope out their options and reward accomplishment with autonomy.”

The Five Traits of Highly Adaptive Leadership Teams
Roselinde Torres and Nneka Rimmer
BCG Perspectives, December 21, 2011

“Adaptive leadership teams have a handle on the basics of effective teamwork, but they also have five added traits that less successful teams lack. It’s these traits — the ‘special sauce,’ so to speak — that fuel high performance.”

Fighting Corporate Hubris
Hans-Paul Bürkner
BCG Perspectives, June 6, 2013

“The best managers follow what we call the Perpetuity Principle. They serve as stewards of their companies and, by doing so, develop profitable, sustainable and trusted businesses. They focus on results, ensure that substance triumphs over style and champion a true humility.”

Own the Future
Michael Deimler et al. (Editors)
Wiley, 2013

“Drawing on BCG’s experience advising organizations on how to achieve and sustain competitive advantage, this book offers 50 powerful ideas to help you chart your organization’s path to future leadership in an era of accelerating change.”

Transforming Leadership
James MacGregor Burns
Grove Press, 2003

“This book provides stories about leadership in settings as diverse as monarchies, tribes and academia. It profiles individuals who had the foresight to see where their worlds were going and to mobilize and empower others so they could help shape that future.”