Monday / April 22

5 Unexpected Books to Stretch Your Leadership

I was surfing the web recently, and I happened upon a blog by leadership guru Simon Sinek in which he listed his favorite leadership books, and I wondered, “If someone asked me for the five books that have influenced me the most as a leader, which books would I name?”

So I strolled through my leadership past, listing the five books that influenced me the most, the ones I still use today. When I finished, I noticed something odd: there’s only one traditional leadership book on my list, Jim Collins’ Good to Great. My others are a little more unusual:

  • one is over 2500 years old
  • one was banned in some places when it was first published
  • one is usually not considered a leadership book
  • one is a leadership book that says your heart is more important than your brain

They range from the practical to the ageless, from the classical to the whimsical. Here are my favorites, in no particular order, with tips on how I’ve used them.


Good to Great by Jim Collins

Yes, Good to Great is a book read by many school leaders— because it’s an amazing book. Five of its points still speak to me:

  1. Get the right people in my school.
  2. As I seek improvement, I need to know what my school does well ― and keep doing it.
  3. In tough times, I need to admit the reality of any negative situation, regardless of how grim it might seem for me, my students, my staff, or my community. It’s the only way we’re going to improve.
  4. Strong leaders don’t have to be loud leaders; some of the most determined school leaders have had soft voices.
  5. Great schools build leadership capacity from within the organization. I need to hire the right people, develop them, and then let them lead.

Tip for Leaders: When you finish reading a great leadership book ask, “What are five ideas I liked most in this book? How can I use them in my school?” Jot them down and keep referring to them.


The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte

In this quiet 1994 classic, Whyte stresses the need for leaders to keep the poetic side of their heart intact as they lead organizations. Its primary lesson easily transfers to education: in our busy, complex leadership roles, we often become consumed with the day-to-day operations of schools and lose track of the part of our heart that wants to chase our dreams and live a life of purpose. If we don’t dream and smile, we can’t be complete, can we? And if we’re not complete, how can we be our most effective as school leaders?

My favorite anecdote of the book is one in which Whyte tells of following his heart as a young man, of becoming a rock climber and scuba diver and traveling through Europe picking up languages. The whole time he feared he should have been studying — and then he was chosen for his dream job from a highly competitive field of applicants because of the skills he had acquired on his adventurous journey. The book showed me the necessity of chasing my dreams, a path I’m still on today.  And it showed me the importance of mentorship. My friend and mentor, David Manning, hand selected this book for me many years ago when I was in his administrator cohort program. I’ve taken its lessons on my life-long journey—and I hope I’ve passed this message on to the people I’ve mentored: if we don’t follow our hearts, we are doomed to a life of mediocrity.

Tip for Leaders: As you read leadership books ask, “Do these ideas align with my core values? And how can I pass them on to the people around me?” Reflect on who you want to be as a leader and the messages you send your staff in your beliefs and your actions.


Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Why is a book of poetry on a list of leadership books? Because Whitman shows me it’s okay to think differently and to be brave enough to share new ideas. When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in the 1850’s, his free verse changed poetry forever. A few of his peers hailed him as a genius, but many bookstores refused to sell his book because of its explicit content. Today, we work in schools being rocked by change, and I tell educators, “New ideas have to start somewhere. Why not here?” We must be bold; we must be like Whitman. As a leader, I keep a book of Whitman poetry in my office as a personal reminder to think independently. And in this culture of test-driven insanity I take solace in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Whitman reassures me I’m here to help kids find the awe in the education and not just give them the facts and figures to get them through their next standardized assessment. I want them to love learning—and wander off from time to time and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

Tip for Leaders: Read the words of Whitman or some other great poet and ask, “How can I apply these lines to my school leadership?” Delve into a poet from your past and read his or her words again. Link the words to who you are as a leader.


Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

Readers around the world love the tale of Zorba, the free spirited drifter who teaches the scholarly Basil to laugh, sing, and to dance on the beach. These two disparate characters pull the best traits from each other and throw them into a scheme to become rich—and then see their work come crashing down around them as they finish. It’s safe to say few people view Zorba the Greek as a leadership book, but I see this adventure as a parable of what we do as leaders in schools: we pull different personalities together, seek common ground, try to move the school forward, and then we step back and gauge our success. Sometimes we’re successful, and sometimes we’re not. When Zorba and Basil are left standing in the ruins, they don’t despair — they drink wine and laugh. They celebrate their friendship and their efforts. They remind me if I never try, then I’ll never succeed. As Zorba says, “Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all… is not to have one.” I make sure I keep a folly or two in my career—because sometimes crazy dreams come true.

Tip for Leaders: Look for leadership tips in great fiction. As you read ask, “What lessons can these characters teach me about relationships, hard work, resilience, and dreams that I can apply to leadership?” Great authors understand humanity; great school leaders help humanity. Highlight the best lines in your favorite book. Compile them into a list. Let those ideas become part of your career.


The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

In too many places, and in too many minds, school improvement has become a checklist of objectives and test scores. Instead, we should invest in our people—and then everything else will fall more easily into place. Written over 2,500 years ago, the Tao Te Ching is perhaps the ultimate leadership book. Its 81 short Taoist verses were compiled as a daily guide for peaceful living; yet, they can also serve as a daily guide for effective leadership. Each morning I read a passage before I leave for school. My favorite phrase is taken from the 17th Verse:

The great leader speaks little.

He never speaks carelessly.

He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.

When all is finished, the people say, “We did it ourselves…”

We have a similar quote in schools today, “It doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as the school is successful.” Lao Tzu provided this simple wisdom, along with other leadership tips, over 500 years before the birth of Christ. In a world of hyper-change, I need more than data and improvement plans to survive: I need books that re-energize me and help me to focus on the basics of leadership. Great leadership is more than a job; it’s an art and a passion. Lao Tzu reminds me to care about the school more than I care about myself. If I could snap my fingers and change the world, I’d put the Tao Te Ching on the reading list of every education leadership program in America. And I’d give a copy to all the school leaders who are beaten down, and I’d say, “Read a verse in this book each morning. It will remind you of why you step into schools each day…”

Tip for Leaders: Find a philosophical work that you can study daily and ask, “How can these words or ideas help me to reflect on my role as a school leader? How can they renew me and remind me that the leader’s job is to serve others?” Sink into an inspirational book or perhaps a special YouTube channel or website. On those days when the leadership storms are raging, let it be your North Star.  


Works Cited

Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001. Print.

Dyer, Wayne W. Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2007. Print.

Kazantzakis, Nikos. Zorba the Greek. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Modern Library, 1993. Print.

Whyte, David. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1994. Print.

Written by

Mark White is a school leadership and training consultant. Previously, he was the Director of Education and Outreach at Mindset Digital and Academic Principal in the International Department of the Beijing National Day School in Beijing, China. As the superintendent of the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools in Gahanna, Ohio, he played a key role in the design of Clark Hall and the implementation of global skills and technology into its curriculum. During his tenure as superintendent, the district earned the state’s highest academic ranking, opened Clark Hall, and achieved financial stability. Mr. White has been a consultant to both the College Board and the ACT and has served on two national education reform committees. He has frequently been a guest speaker at schools and universities and at local, state, and national conferences. Prior to being a superintendent, Mr. White was a band director, high school English teacher and department head, high school assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent. Mark is the co-author of What’s in Your Space? 5 Steps to Better School and Classroom Design.

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