What Leaders Read; or, Management as a Liberal Art

It's always interesting when a recurring theme pops up in coaching sessions with different clients. In separate meetings over the past week, three senior vice presidents raised the topic of books and what books, or kinds of books, leaders should read. One also asked, "In your experience, are most senior leaders voracious readers? I get different answers when I talk to people."

I thought about it for a moment, and responded that not every senior leader I knew was a voracious reader, but the most successful among them were voraciously curious and they sought to expand their understanding of the world whenever possible. A broad base of knowledge about the world simply equips you to be better armed to address the challenges that come your way. 

Peter Drucker famously wrote that management
... deals with action and application; and its test is its results. This makes it a technology. But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development—and this makes it a humanity…. Management is thus what tradition used to call a 'liberal art': 'liberal' because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; 'art' because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledge and insights of the humanities and the social sciences—on psychology and philosophy, on economics and on history, on the physical sciences and on ethics. ("The New Realities")

So whether they know it or not, most leaders are students of the world, though the way they prepare for the pop quizes--the countless tests and tribulations that arise to face a senior leader--may vary. For some, this preparation includes a lot of reading, for others it is traveling or talking to people. Still others prefer watching documentaries, or listening to audio courses or podcasts. People learn in different ways, so how you learn is not the point; that you learn is what matters. 

Putting Together Your Curriculum

Everyone's interests and needs are different and a good liberal arts education is broad while allowing one to go deeper in areas of particular interest. In the rest of this post I will recommend some classics as well as some general overviews of a particular topic. The reader is encouraged to dive in deeper when curiosity strikes.

Leadership and Management

One of my clients was explaining how he used to read all the latest leadership books, but now he didn't find them very interesting. This was hardly surprising, I replied; as an SVP and functional head in a multibillion dollar business sector, you should find most of what appears in popular leadership self-help books to be a bit beneath you. The truth is, while many leadership books contain useful tips, most of them are not going to be of much value to senior leaders. One exception I would point out, is Drucker himself. Alfred North Whitehead is alleged to have said that all western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. In the same way, just about any good idea found in most management books was already written by Drucker. Save yourself time and energy and go back and read Drucker when the desire to read a leadership book arises. The Essential Drucker and The Effective Executive are a great start. I also recommend the US Army Leadership Handbook, the best nuts-and-bolts leadership book you'll find.

Biography and History

Many leaders want to learn by example from great leaders, so they turn to biography when they become bored with leadership self-help books. Biographies of great leaders can be very informative, and authors such as Robert Caro, Jon Meacham, Ron Chernow, Edmund Morris, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough can weave riveting tales. The thing to remember about biographies of great leaders, however, is that what worked for them may not necessarily work for you. Sometimes leaders succeed despite themselves, and sometimes their success was situational. A case in point is Churchill, whose leadership style was masterful during wartime but less so during peace. That said, reading biographies can be very informative, and one quickly finds that there are very few novel situations; if you are facing a leadership challenge, there is a good chance that someone has faced it before and learning how they met the challenge can save you a lot of headache and heartache.

Even more useful than reading biographies of great leaders, perhaps, is reading history. History provides context, and any piece of data is more useful when we understand the context. Companies often worry about losing tribal knowledge and try to manage their workforce so that all the senior workers, who carry that knowledge, don't leave at the same time. Someone has to educate the newer people. Part of being a leader is understanding the external forces that shape, hinder, or help the business. Not understanding history is the same as losing tribal knowledge in a workforce--understanding the context enables one to address circumstances more effectively. My favorite brief history overview is E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World. I frequently encourage clients to pick an era and region that is of particular interest to them and dig in, and to find an author who holds their attention and read a few of his or her books. It is hard to go wrong with Barbara Tuchman, Theodore White, William Dalrymple, Peter Ackroyd, and Simon Schama.

The Hard Sciences

Most leaders seem more comfortable with the hard sciences than with the soft sciences. That said, rounding out one's scientific literacy is as useful as it is intellectually stimulating. Natalie Angier's The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science and Hazen and Trefil's Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy are my favorite primers. I recently began reading William Bynum's A Little History of Science and am enjoying it as well. I tend to be drawn to the biological sciences, and always recommend that any thinking person develop a better understanding of Darwin's theory of natural selection, widely considered by scientists to be the most important idea, ever. One of my favorite introductions is David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

When it comes to physics, it is hard to beat Richard Feynman. Try The Character of Physical Law as a starting point. I also enjoyed Feynman's essays on the nature of science, The Meaning of It All. And, while I've never been able to wrap my head around relativity, I've found Albert Einstein's Ideas and Opinions to be riveting. Einstein demonstrates that, despite the stereotype, brilliant people need not be socially inept or narrow in scope.


Though Feynman, in particular, would never admit it, these last two works are better thought of as philosophy than hard science, and I think philosophy is the discipline most neglected by leaders. It is philosophy that teaches us how to think about the facts we learn, how to test ideas, how to order knowledge. It is philosophy that teaches us how to think critically, and every great leader I have known is a rigorous critical-thinker. Nigel Wharburton's A Little History of Philosophy (see what Gombrich started...) is a great introduction, as is his podcast Philosophy Bites. Since our view of the world influences how we lead others in it, being conscious of one's philosophical assumptions is a critical rite of passage for leaders. Every leader should wrestle with the implications of Plato's Republic, for example, or Machiavelli's The Prince. (I recommend reading about The Republic before trying to tackle the original; and Simon Blackburn is a good start.) I also think a book like Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story forces us to think about questions and challenge our assumptions. 

Finally, the philosopher who I think every thoughtful person should be acquainted with is David Hume. Few minds had the clarity of Hume or the impact on the modern sensibility that he did. Again, Blackburn provides a good introduction.


"Amateur psychologist" is one of the hats that every leader must wear. While familiarity with theorists such as Freud, Jung, Adler, et al is useful, I think that more recent developments in the cognitive sciences are more valuable for leaders. I recommend Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow and Tavris and Aronson's Mistakes Were Made (but not by me).

Mythology, Religion, and the Classics

Once, over dinner in a small town outside of Frankfurt, a client recommended that on my next visit I stay at a place called Hotel Bacchus. I replied that I would; "After all, any hotel named after the god of wine and fertility must be a great place," I joked. My host was taken aback and laughed. "Sorry," he said, "I'm just shocked to meet an American who knows who Bacchus was." To be a truly educated person, one should have at least a passing familiarity with mythology, religion, and the classics. Most of our culture is based on mythological stories of the gods, sacred texts, and the writings of Shakespeare, Homer, Ovid, etc. Ignorance of these underpinnings of culture is akin to being color blind; we see, but we lose the subtleties and the richness. Start with Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By. I also recommend Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy. (I'll note, by the way, that while Hotel Bacchus was a very pleasant hotel, there was nothing particularly bacchanalian about it.)

Being Global

Today's global economy requires that all senior leaders must be global in their outlook. There are many useful books available on understanding different cultures, but among my favorites are Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner's Riding the Waves of Culture, Hooker's Working Across Cultures, and Cabrera and Unruh's Being Global. I also recommend international news publications such as The Financial Times, The Economist, and Foreign Policy, all of which have excellent apps and online editions.

Being global also means that many senior leaders travel extensively. Most of these trips are short and there is little spare time. However, I think it is critically important to occasionally allow for time to visit the places we are flying in and out of. A liberal arts education is incomplete without the inclusion of culture and travel allows for exposure to experiences one cannot get in any other way. Learn a few words of the local language, eat the local foods, visit museums and places of worship. It is one thing to see the Mona Lisa in a book; it is wholly another to stand in front of her. One cannot be unchanged standing in Paris's Pantheon, wandering through Istanbul's Blue Mosque or Cairo's Sultan Hassan Mosque, basking in the radiant colors of the El Grecos in Madrid's Prado, or walking into Florence's Santa Croce Cathedral and seeing the sarcophaguses of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and Galileo.

Beyond Books

Of course, there are other ways to learn. Most senior leaders don't have the time to take classes, but downloadable lectures and audiobooks are easily available. I like The Great Courses and Audible.com, and the free podcasts available on iTunes are a treasure trove. 

The joy of a liberal arts education is that it presents life as an endless buffet. This list of recommendations is short and as notable for what it doesn't include as for what it does (I can't help but notice that it is English language- and US-centric; c'est la vie). Half the fun is designing your own curriculum and I hope this helps you get started. 

Going to an art museum
Spend a lot of time in the car or flying? Download some of the excellent courses from "The Great Courses" (www.thegreatcourses.com), the countless free podcasts available on iTunes, or an audiobook from www.audible.com

Joseph Campbell

The Teaching Company