Most of us know a story or two of a businessperson who looked great on paper – both well-educated and experienced — but who lacked the skills to motivate his or her staff. And you also can probably think of someone else who didn’t seem to fit the leadership mold – someone who seemed a bit lackluster, in fact — but who was able to inspire others to do their best.

What makes a great leader? We know enough that there is no one formula for success. Great leaders have a combination of intelligence and technical skills along with a powerful supply of something extra. Whether you call that something extra “charisma,” “chutzpah” or “emotional intelligence,” that indefinable leadership quality often is the main factor in the success and failure of a company.

Five Books On Leadership

Great thinkers have pondered leadership for centuries, and there certainly is no shortage of books on the subject. If you are looking for ideas on how to expand your own leadership abilities or want to better understand what being a leader is all about, here are five of our favorite books on the subject. You’ll notice several are not geared toward business specifically, but we feel the concepts and lessons can be adapted to any endeavor.

Books On Leadership – Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. (2006)

As a way to explore leadership, Harvard Business School Professor Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. takes a look at eight fictional characters and eight different moral challenges. By examining the main characters in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Sophocles’ Antigone, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer and other works, Badaracco explains that the most difficult tests a leader faces are those that challenge his moral fiber.

The author examines the following universal questions:

  • Do I have a good dream?
  • How flexible is my moral code?
  • Do I have unsettling role models?
  • Do I really care?
  • Am I ready to take responsibility?
  • Can I resist the flow of success?
  • How well do I combine principles and pragmatism?
  • What is sound reflection?

The result is a thought-provoking look at the tests leaders face and how moral decisions can form the backbone of great leaders. By looking at these characters and the choices they make, Badaracco gives us the tools to face our own challenges.

Books On Leadership – Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)

Faced with the biggest crisis of any American President, Abraham Lincoln had the unique leadership ability to unite men with widely divergent personalities and ideologies on his cabinet. Instead of shying away from his adversaries, Lincoln instead surrounded himself with them.

How did he do it? He did it with humility, humor and patience and, as Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in this fascinating and readable book, with an uncanny understanding of human behavior and his overriding desire to hold the Union together – no matter what.

Books On Leadership – On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis (1989)

It’s an age-old question: Do the times make the man or does the man make the times? Warren Bennis comes down solidly on the side that leaders are made not born. With this book, he provides a well-researched guide on leadership, including steps on how you can develop the qualities from within.

Bennis interviewed some of the world’s top executives and shares how they honed their skills to get to their positions. Although some of the stories may seem a bit dated, due to the immense changes in communications since this book was written, the strategies are not.

Books On Leadership – Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (2014)

Weaving her own personal story with her extensive research, Sandberg gives women practical advice on many aspects of leadership, including negotiating, mentoring, building a career and balancing professional goals with personal fulfillment. Based on the Facebook CEO’s 2010 popular TEDTalk, this book challenges women to examine the ways they may be holding themselves back, and she also challenges men to do a better job of supporting women both at home and in the workplace.

In addition to using wit and humor to share her own personal and professional experiences, Sandberg gives us a peek into the lives of other business women. She makes a strong case that confidence, or the lack thereof, is what holds many women back. The book asks more questions than it gives answers, but with gender bias very much alive and well in America, the questions are well worth the asking.

Books On Leadership – Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization by John Wooden (2005)

Sports analogies and leadership go hand in hand, and who better to advise us on sports leadership than the most successful college basketball coach of all time? A 10-time NCAA champion coach, John Wooden, wrote a total of seven leadership books, but this one offers his 12 Lessons in Leadership tips for business leaders, including mental, emotional and physical qualities.

“I believe there is no more powerful leadership tool than your own personal example,” the stalwart basketball legend, who passed away in 2005, writes. “In almost every way the team ultimately becomes a reflection of their leader.”

What Makes A Great Leader: Five Books On Leadership