This Book List Will Almost Earn You A Ph.D. In Leadership

James D. Ludema & Amber A. Johnson Article, Leadership

This article was originally published at

Some books stick with you, long after you’ve closed the cover. The best books linger for decades, changing the way you look at the world. Those were the sorts of books we requested when we asked 20 world-class scholars to recommend titles for our 2018 list of the best leadership books available.

You can’t actually earn a Ph.D. in leadership from reading these books. (If you really do want to earn your doctorate, we hope you’ll check out this Ph.D. program in leadership, for senior executives.) What the books will do for you, however, is provide mind-stretching insights that help you think deeper and lead stronger.

We assembled this list of readings from some of the smartest people we know: top scholars with extensive practitioner experience. We asked them to tell us about the books that changed the way they think and lead.

The remarkable list ranges in year of publication from 1958 to 2018, and the topics are almost as diverse. Below we share the insights of the experts who recommended each title. We also suggest who on your holiday list might enjoy reading each book.

For people ready to stop talking and start acting on their future plans

Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra

Do you have a bias toward action? Then Dr. Inger Stensaker of the NHH Norwegian School of Economics says this book might be right for you. “Ibarra talks about how our mindset changes by doing things differently,” says Stensaker.

“I found that we often put too much emphasis on knowing and planning ahead of doing, so people who write about insights gained through action really resonate with me,” says Stensaker.

For change-makers

Adaptive Space by Michael Arena

Dr. Bill Pasmore, one of the world’s leading experts on leading change and a Columbia University professor, says Arena’s book is one of the best recent publications on change.

“It’s about how paying attention to organizational networks can facilitate change, with GM as the backdrop,” says Pasmore. (As an author’s note, we’d add that Pasmore’s book, Leading Continuous Change: Navigating Churn in the Real World is one of the best book’s we’ve ever read on the topic.)

For anyone who is wondering how the world works

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, by Michele Gelfand

You don’t have to be a globe trotter to know that what works in Wisconsin might not work in Warsaw. Local, national, and regional cultures change the way we operate. “[The book] explains how within countries like the US and around the globe, people respond in very different ways to the same issue, says Dr. Bruce Avolio one of the world’s top leadership scholars and a University of Washington faculty member.

“This book will help you understand how culture, a very complex concept, can be simplified to represent those cultures that are ‘tight’ or very rule bound and structured vs. those that are lose, and open to many different ways of operating,”

For business mavens and marketing pros

Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible through Design by Wally Olins

Dr. Mary Jo Hatch of the University of Virginia is an expert in organizational theory: the study of why organizations and their people behave the way they do. Hatch says this book redirected her research to connect organizational culture with organizational identity and corporate branding.

Hatch writes, “Olins’ book is filled with great examples grounded in a deep dive into the history and traditions of branding practices around the world. The book’s incredibly beautiful design showcases what a strong design sensibility has to offer organizations and their leaders, and moreover is inspiring in its beauty. Thus, this book not only tells you what you need to know about creating an effective corporate identity and branding program to support it, it simultaneously shows you why you would want to do that.”

For decision makers, and people who want to make better decisions.

Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions by Gary Klein

Experts think differently than less experienced leaders. For Dr. Joyce Osland, San Jose State University professor and one of the world’s leading experts on global leadership, this book offered graphic examples of how experts think.

“It led me to revolutionize my teaching and training to focus more on developing expert thinking, in addition to knowledge and skills. It also triggered our research on expert cognition in global leaders,” says Osland.

For leaders looking for a boost of values-driven confidence

Dr. Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values research helps leaders in every industry to build their ethical muscle by identifying ways to voice your values in the workplace. We heartily recommend her book, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right. Gentile, of the University of Virginia, also recommends new publications by Carolyn Plum, on giving voice to values for legal professionals, and Ira Bedzow, on medical ethics for healthcare professionals.

For truth-seekers

Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton

A quick glance at any airport bookshop can tell you there are literally thousands of leadership and management approaches being sold. But what really works? This book, recommended by Dr. Joyce Osland, “reminds us not to fall victim to the latest management fads without first looking at the evidence.”

Need more recommendations?

Here are more titles, recommended by our esteemed colleagues, to inspire your leadership education.

  • Leadership without Easy Answers by Ron Heifetz
  • Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation by Linda Hill and Greg Brandeau
  • Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma by Charles O’Reilly III and Michael Tushman
  • Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee
  • FIRO: A Three-Dimensional Theory of Interpersonal Behavior by William Schutz
  • The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor

And of course, you can check out our previous book lists at these links:

Share you favorite book with us on Twitter, @ValuesDriven. Happy reading this holiday season!


We work at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, at Benedictine University, where we study and consult with performance-focused, values-driven companies to understand their pain points and help them thrive. We know creating a strong, values-driven culture is complex work….


We focus on high-performing, values-driven companies & leaders. For fresh content on culture, values & leadership, see @ValuesDriven or our blog.

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