I was lucky enough to start out in my new role as Software Team Lead at Waterstons towards the end of last year. As a software consultant I led the delivery and technical direction of a number of projects, but fully-fledged people management is definitely a new challenge for me!
One thing I want to do is to start sharing the journey I’m on as a new leader, and I thought World Book Day 2023 presented a good opportunity to briefly highlight five excellent books that I’ve read recently on the subject of leadership, people management and the traits that make high-performing teams so successful. (I know World Book Day is kind of geared towards kids, but I’m nothing if not a big kid so… 🤷♂️)
The books below are in no particular order. I’ll also be putting out more of these blogs as I add other books to the read list!
1. The Promises of Giants
John Amaechi OBE
Just an excellent book on the realities of what it means to be a leader and to have people look up to you. The book focuses primarily on what you as a leader owe to your team, particularly as far as being your best self and committing to helping them find and realise their best selves as diverse individuals. It outlines a set of key promises that a kind and conscious leader can make to those they lead, and presents such a compelling vision of a strong, caring and compassionate leadership that it’s hard not to come away from reading it feeling massively inspired.
This one left a real impression on me since it challenged the sense of ‘little old me-ism’ that I’ve held for most of my life. As John says in the book, ‘everyone is a giant to someone’, and as a leader you suddenly find yourself thrust into a world where people now explicitly look to you for direction; the energy and subtle cues (conscious or otherwise) that you bring to your interactions suddenly matter in a way they didn’t before.
Scary! But also empowering. (And massively humbling.)
2. The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership
Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman & Kaley Warner Klemp
One of my favourites that I’ve read recently. Pretty similar to the above in terms of its format, but I would say probably digs a little deeper into the self-reflection and is all about self-actualisation and ‘good living’ in a holistic sense. This kind of ongoing self-development and meditation is often what’s behind a truly conscious leader who’s committed to leading with courage and kindness and in a sustainable way, and is now something I consider a core part of my job and my commitment to my team (not that I always manage to prioritise it, but I’m trying!).
The great thing about this book is that it can be taken on a number of different levels, ranging from just taking the ‘15 Commitments’ at face value and trying to implement them practically, to really taking to heart the life principles and even sometimes spiritual tenets that seem to lie behind them. I feel like I’ve taken on board a lot of wisdom from this book, with one of the standout takeaways being the approach of trying to live life from a perspective of complete sufficiency - i.e., ‘whatever my current situation, I inherently lack nothing and every circumstance is an opportunity to be curious, explore and learn’ (my summary - not the exact words of the book). This attitude doesn’t come naturally but I’ve found it to be something of a gamechanger as a mantra to aspire to 🚀
Truly inspirational in the sense that, were you to actually live out everything laid out in this book consistently, you’d be totally unstoppable as a leader and as a general human being!
3. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Presented as a ‘business fable’ which follows a fictional CEO as she deals with a dysfunctional senior leadership team after starting at a new company, this one looks at team dynamics with more of a focus on the causes and symptoms of team failure and dysfunction. Sort of a ‘what not to do if you want to be a high-performing team’.
According to the book, the five dysfunctions are:
- Absence of trust — unwilling to be vulnerable within the team
- Fear of conflict — seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
- Lack of commitment — feigning buy-in for team decisions, which creates ambiguity throughout the organization
- Avoidance of accountability — ducking the responsibility to call out peers and superiors on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
- Inattention to team results — focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success
The book is short and sweet and outlines its main points clearly. I’ve found the above list to be helpful as an easy-to-remember list of things to keep an eye out for in how your team interacts with each other, and in fact have gone as far as sharing them with my team explicitly so we can all be on the lookout!
It’s also been really useful for me to reflect on the fact that conflict is necessary and can be a really good thing, as opposed to seeing it as something that should be avoided at all costs and is necessarily bad. Disagreements will always exist within a team of any real size, and everyone should have space to say their piece in a psychologically safe environment that embraces good and healthy conflict. If not expressed, these disagreements can become resentments, and if not everyone has had their say it will be difficult to get genuine buy-in for any team decision.
4. Engineering Management for the Rest of Us
I found this one particularly helpful as it’s written specifically for engineers who have recently become engineering managers. Full of practical, actionable advice and presented in a very clear and straightforward way; it’s clear that it’s written by an engineer! Despite this, it’s got a strong focus on the rapport you build with your team and the ways in which you can coach, mentor and guide them individually on their career journeys.
I really like how much of it is couched with a ‘your mileage may vary’ - it’s anecdotal in the best sense, with Sarah’s extensive real-world experience as an engineering manager shining through. It’s refreshing and encouraging to read someone’s account of making that transition and really loving it, despite the fact that she sometimes has to mindfully butt out of technical discussions she would otherwise be desperate to weigh in on!
5. Living Better
While not strictly a book about leadership, I think it earns its place on this list by being written by someone who operated successfully at the highest level of leadership over many years, serving as Tony Blair’s communications director in the New Labour government of the late 90s and early 00s.
Like myself Alastair Campbell suffers from clinical depression, and his book is full of great insights and strategies for not only dealing with it, but also putting the framework of self-care and self-protection in place to enable yourself to actually go beyond that and still thrive in a fast-moving, high-performing environment where people are relying on you.
It’s a brutally honest book which I think is the best way of approaching and destigmatising mental illness. Campbell is renowned for being no-nonsense and straight-talking, and this absolutely shines through in his approach to his illness, which serves to make it less of a scary and all-encompassing thing despite how scary and all-encompassing it can most definitely feel at times.
I think this is a highly important book for anyone to read who either has depression or manages someone who has depression.
So that’s my list! I’ve got a ‘to read’ list a mile long at this point (absolutely not a complaint…), but if you have any suggestions as to what I should add to it, please feel free to leave a comment below or drop me an email ❤️