30 Books Every Young Leader Needs to Read

30 Books Every Young Leader Needs to Read

September 24, 2021

Russ Ewell

When a young leader asked me to suggest books he could read on leadership, my initial thought was this is an easy question to answer, until I realized the importance of what was being asked.

We are living at a time when the baby boomer generation is retiring. Many in that generation continue to work and lead, but there is some question about their ability to understand and navigate our ever changing world.

Young leaders in search of mentoring are exactly what is needed, and if older generations like my own give deeper thought and consideration to how we can partner with and help them develop their potential, we can together improve and even change the world.

Two weeks have passed since that conversation. Only now do I feel capable of offering an imperfect but substantial answer to the question, “What books should a young leader read?”

There were five requirements for a book to be listed among the 30 I chose from approximately 1000 candidates.

  1. Reading the book inspired me.
  2. Reading the book changed my mind.
  3. Reading the book increased my self-awareness.
  4. Reading the book challenged me to grow.
  5. Reading the book taught me to become a better leader and person.

What follows are 30 books, not the best nor the only, but a starting point for anyone who desires to have the input and influence of history and greatness on their life and leadership, anyone who wants to be the best they can be for those they love and serve.  

Whether you read them in print or listen to the audiobooks, these books will inspire you, change your mind, increase your self-awareness, challenge you to grow, and help you become the best person and leader you can be.

Books that inspired me

1. Leadership In Turbulent Times by Doris Kerns Goodwin 

Leading is easy and enjoyable when circumstances facilitate our success. But when difficulty arrives as it inevitably does, it is difficulty and difficulty alone that determines our true capacity for leadership. This book inspires and guides anyone learning to lead on how to navigate turbulence in their personal or leadership lives.

2. Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham 

History all too often reflects the singular greatness of an individual even though there are typically hundreds if not thousands of people who are responsible when great things happen. The compelling lesson of this volume is how powerfully one friendship — filled with ups and downs, navigated imperfectly yet persistently — can change the world.

3. Bearing The Cross by David J. Garrow 

Few men have struggled, suffered, endured, and inspired the way Martin Luther King, Jr. did as he led arguably the greatest social movement in the history of the world in his fight for the civil rights of Black Americans. While most people only know about his great speeches, the true brilliance of Martin Luther King’s leadership leaps off the pages of this book. We learn how he combined the intricate and powerful qualities of an intellectual, strategist, politician, writer, and mentor of future leaders so effectively as to make his oratory pale by comparison.

4. Destiny and Power by Jon Meacham 

Regardless of where you might stand politically, George H.W. Bush is worthy of being studied for three inspiring reasons. The first is his vulnerability with Jon Meacham, which places us inside the mind of one of the most significant leaders of the 20th century. What we learn most is how human every leader is, no matter how powerful. The second is that his marriage to Barbara as an essential partnership spiritually, emotionally, and politically shines through as central to his success. Third and finally is his family, not because of the success of his children which is considerable, but because of the intimacy of their relationships.

5. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye 

Few leaders have inspired me as much as Bobby Kennedy. He was willing to sacrifice his ambitions to further the family ambition for his brother John F. Kennedy to become president. After his brother John was assassinated, he completely reinvented himself as few leaders in public life ever have. In doing so he provided an inspiring roadmap for any one of us to rebuild and restart our lives at any time with a second act.

6. Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree 

Few read books about religious leaders, but this tome about Martin Luther reads as a handbook of innovation. While there are plenty of religious debates and arguments explained in this book, the real story is how one man, along with his friends and supporters, changed the world by harnessing the innovation of the printing press to upend the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions.

7. The Last Lion, Alone by William Manchester 

Anyone dealing with failure as a leader must read “Alone,” which is volume two of this book series. Winston Churchill experienced extraordinary success as a young man only to subsequently endure painful failure, rejection, criticism, and isolation. Yet in these wilderness years he grew into the leader England would need to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany. 

8. Traitor To His Class by H.W. Brands 

There are many qualities of leadership to be discovered in any study of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the most interesting being how deceitful he was. But an easily overlooked yet vitally important quality was his capacity to stand against the American wealthy class, of which he was a member. Let me explain this concept in the words of Albus Dumbledore spoken in acknowledgment of Neville Longbottom, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Books that changed my mind

9. Brothers, Rivals, Victors by Jonathan W. Jordan 

For years I saw warrior generals like George Patton as the reason for the Allied victory over the Axis in World War II. However, this book reveals the steadiness of Dwight Eisenhower as a collaborative yet strong leader, the humility of Omar Bradley as a great warrior yet willing subordinate, and both leaders in contrast to the extraordinary yet temperamental Patton. This book changed my mind about the type and number of leaders necessary for success.

10. Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy 

This book changed my mind by convincing me the most neglected quality of leadership today is courage.

Why is it neglected? In my experience very few leaders are willing to examine, discuss, or admit the extraordinary role fear plays in their lives. This fear of being vulnerable about fear is something I have wrestled with personally. This book revealed the deepest source of my fear which is loss.

Leadership makes us vulnerable to loss.  Loss of status or stature if we fail, loss of confidence when we face criticism, loss of privacy when all eyes are on us, and loss of freedom to choose when we are called upon to make sacrifices for the greater good.

This book puts all those possible losses in perspective as it tells the stories of people who overcame their fear of loss in service to changing the world.

11. Built To Last by Jim Collins 

This book changed my mind about how to build an organization, so much so that it caused me to shed incorrect and obsolete views of what it means to lead, change my personal approach to leadership, and redefine what it meant to build an enduring organization. 

12. John Adams by David McCullough 

This book changed my mind about marriage as a partnership. Naturally it is a partnership in life and family, but reading about John and Abigail Adams one becomes inspired and convinced that for life and family to succeed a spouse must be a partner in everything, including and especially leadership.

13. Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood 

This book changed my mind about the depth and difficulty of friendship in leadership. Friendship in leadership is rare because selfish ambition, envy, jealousy, and competition wage war against our more virtuous instincts. This book illuminates all of this yet gives us hope that with endurance, any one of us can form the type of lifelong friendships necessary to do great things.

14. Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro 

Early on my education, experience, and training taught me leadership is in front where all the attention is focused. Master of the Senate changed my mind. This historically rich and deep account of the United States Senate is made instructive and compelling by its description of the behind-the-scenes leadership of Lyndon Johnson, who commanded the Senate as Majority Leader.

Behind the scenes Lyndon Johson loved, charmed, and unfortunately bullied. But the real lesson of this book is that while presidents are more visible, Johnson, as Majority Leader, was more influential.

Note: yes, some of Johnson’s distasteful tactics included bullying and intimidating. I want to communicate my recognition of and disagreement with this style.

Books that increased my self-awareness

15. The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck M.D. 

This is the first book to break open my resistance to becoming emotionally aware.  The willingness to address emotional, spiritual, and character questions opened my eyes to the level of superficiality I was tolerating in my life.

16. A Promised Land by Barack Obama 

The self-awareness of the author is the education. Regardless of where you stand politically, the descriptions of personal reflection, introspection, and how they guide decision-making is profound.

17. Inside Out by Dr. Larry Crabb 

Reading this spiritual book made me nervous as each page revealed more and more about me of which I was unaware. The writer leads the reader on a journey to look below the surface and once completed, we become deeper, more secure, and more honest.

18. Good To Great by Jim Collins 

“Level 5 leadership” is a key concept developed in this book. It is considered the highest level of leadership, and humility is central to it. Despite not being a book about emotional intelligence or spirituality, the insights and lessons define humility in a practical way for the reader whether at home, at work, or in the community. 

19. Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, Phd. 

Few books have ever revealed to me why I embrace or resist opportunities to grow and change like this one. The simple yet powerful descriptions of fixed and growth mindsets have helped me change and inspire others to do the same.

Books that challenged me to grow

20. Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye by Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers 

The writers of this book are two of John F. Kennedy’s best friends, so don’t read this one if you are looking for the negative. This book taught me about the power of friendship and how important it is for the growth and development of a leader.

21. Frederick Douglass by David W. Blight 

Reading about Frederick Douglass, a slave who became free, humbled me about how much I complain about obstacles and difficulties in my journey toward my destiny. This book burns with passion on every page as it tells the story of how Douglass literally changed the world and  challenges us to do the same by the way he lived.

22. T.R. by H.W. Brands 

Historians typically talk about the genius of writer, scientist, American Founder, and President Thomas Jefferson, but someone with even greater career dexterity was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a sickly child who rebuilt his health by living a strenuous life. He was a writer, historian, conservationist, naturalist, Rough Rider (fighter), state legislator, police commissioner, governor, assistant secretary of the Navy, Vice President, and President of the United States. Roosevelt opened my eyes to the many possibilities for our lives if we will only pursue them.

23. Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis 

The story of America’s founding generation has never been better told than in this book, reflecting the value of each individual being enhanced by their union with others. After reading the numerous insights about leadership relationships and how the Founders came together to create a nation, it became apparent to me that the key to doing anything of great value is finding a group of leaders who want to grow together rather than pursue their own individual goals.

Books that taught me to become a better leader and person

24. Grant by Ron Chernow 

Ulysses S. Grant taught me about the necessity of developing and relying on endurance to build our lives, marriages, and families. The endurance he developed in his personal life became the core quality that allowed him to secure Union victory over the Confederacy.

25. The Road to Character by David Brooks 

Most of us have heard some version of the statement that character is destiny.  This book should be read cover to cover for the young leader so the importance of character is permanently etched into our consciousness.  

26. President Reagan by Lou Cannon 

Like Obama, Reagan is not for everyone, but there are lessons to be learned if we put aside politics. While many believed Reagan lacked the intelligence to be Commander-in-Chief, others point to his incredible capacity for communication, focus, simplicity, and delegation as reasons for his success. 

27. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey 

This book taught me to make it my priority to live and build a quality life. It is so easy to have a life that is busy, high-achieving, exciting, and important, yet be lacking in quality. 

28. Belichick by Ian O’Connor 

There has never been a coach quite like Bill Belichick, whose approach to building his team has taught me about the discipline, attention to detail, focus, foresight, and mental toughness necessary to turn dreams into reality.

29. Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli 

Living in Silicon Valley has taught me the importance of innovation. From my first day in Silicon Valley till now, the person whose life embodies the innovative mindset best is Steve Jobs. Reading this more personal perspective on Mr. Jobs provides a deeper sense of what made him tick, how his family and friends brought the best out of him and enabled him to inject innovation into the decaying company Apple Computer with such effectiveness it would become among the world’s most valuable upon his death. It reads as a playbook for injecting innovation into any aspect of our lives, acknowledging the ups and downs and yet in the end leading to success.

30. Team of Rivals by Doris Kerns Goodwin 

This book almost needs no introduction. If there is one book on the list that combines the insight and guidance of each of its predecessors this would be the one. Watching Lincoln build a leadership team by accessing all of his past experience in life is an emotional education by itself, but then his ability to work with that team to win the Civil War taught me that leadership is a marathon best done with others.

Wrapping up

Reading allows us as leaders to expand our influences beyond the people we know and places we go. This is especially important for young leaders who find their experience reservoir shallow, leaving them in many cases ill-equipped for the situations they face. With reading, this reservoir can grow deeper, making us effective beyond our years.  

Go ahead and get started by picking one and finishing it, taking notes, sharing your thoughts with others, then letting what you learn help you grow. After that, pick your next few volumes until you have read between 6-12 of these in the next 365 days. Letting our reservoir grow deeper takes time. Though reading from this list may feel daunting, it is worth finding the time to do it, even if that means eliminating less important things from your schedule.