stack of books

What makes a “good” or “principled” leader? This question has occupied philosophers, scholars, and practitioners for centuries, and it is not likely that even five books will scratch the surface of the complexity of this question. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere!

I take a strategic approach to this question, one that synthesizes these centuries of wisdom and brings them into today, rather than responding to fads. My recommendations reflect this. To understand where I am coming from with these recommendations, it helps to think about three core problems that arise whenever we talk about leadership in our organizations.

First, there are two primary ways we tend to use the word “leader,” but we do not often differentiate between them, which causes confusion. We use the word when we want to indicate people in certain roles, and we use the word when we want to capture who takes initiative and has the ability to influence and motivate others to enact their vision. The process of initiative and influence is what interests me.

Those in leadership roles may not even be “leaders” in this sense; in fact, they may have no vision at all, and only pass along the orders of others in the “chain of command.” In my recommendations, I am focusing on developing your ability to influence others through taking initiative toward a vision of what could be. In well run organizations, this is what gets you leadership roles. I avoid books on how to “look like a leader” in order to achieve a shallow form of success.

Second, what makes a “good” leader is debatable, but leaders themselves and leadership scholars all tend to highlight the importance of both effectiveness and ethics. That is, a good leader is a skillful and moral person. It is just that simple. And that complex!

Third, leadership is like the elephant in the classic story of the blinded people and the elephant. In this story, several people without sight are sitting in a room talking about who is in the room with them. One reaches out and says, “This creature is much like a tree.” Another reaches out and says, “No, this creature is nothing like a tree! It is like the sail of a ship!” A third reaches out and says, “You are both crazy! This creature is like neither a tree nor a sail. It is like a snake!” Of course, the first has found a leg, the second an ear, and the third the tail of the elephant.

We often think leadership is what we see right in front of us, but there is usually much more to it. Until we know the whole, we run the risk of developing on only one of the parts. Roughly speaking, the “parts” of the leadership elephant are the leader herself, what she wants to get done, those she needs to support her in getting it done, and the context in which she is leading.

The approach you take to leadership should be responsive to who you are, what you are trying to accomplish, who you want to influence, and the setting in which you are influencing. My recommendations, then, touch on all these major parts of the elephant to give you a well-rounded understanding as a basis for principled leadership.

You as a Leader

What do you want your legacy to be at the end of your life? Do you want to be remembered as the one who faithfully plugged away at whatever they were told to do, or the one who helped change the world for the better in their own small (or huge!) way? One of the major ways you affect the world is through your influence on others—think Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. In order to break out of your own limitations, and help others do so, read:

Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by two specialists in how adults can develop to the highest levels of their capacity, Harvard Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, published in 2009 (Harvard Business Press: Boston).

What You Are Trying to Accomplish

Different kinds of visions require different kinds of approaches. A modern classic that helps us think more deeply about what types of challenges we are trying to meet is:

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Ronald Heifetz and his coauthors, published in 2009 (Harvard Business Press: Boston).

Connecting with Followers

Each follower is unique, and yet we all share the human condition. To learn more about developing connection with others, a modern classic is:

Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, which was first published in 2001 and updated in 2016 with a new preface.

Setting or Environment

There are not likely many books on your particular setting, but you can do your own homework on that. The big issues of our time that affect every setting, however, are environmental and social justice. Principled leaders fold the greater good into what they want to accomplish; they do not ignore the big issues of their day. Wherever you are leading, you can be contributing to healing larger problems as well. Get started (or continue) thinking about social and environmental justice in our organizations by reading:

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, published in 2018 (Beacon Press: Boston).

Making Sustainability Work: Best Practices in Managing and Measuring Corporate Social, Environmental, and Economic Impacts by Rice University business professor Mark Epstein and University of Ljubljana economics professor Adriana Rejc Buhovac, now in its 2nd edition, published in 2014 (Berrit Koehler, San Francisco).

The world needs your principled leadership! These five books will get you started on developing your abilities to influence others through taking initiative toward a vision of what could be, bringing your skills and your character to bear, while taking into account who you are, what you want to accomplish, who you need to influence to accomplish it, and how to build your principled leadership legacy.

By: Teresa J. Rothausen, Ph.D. Professor and Susan E. Heckler Endowed Chair in Principled Leadership Management Department, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas