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  • Helen Woodward

Five Books I Wish I'd Read Before Leading a Team



Successful leadership is about the impact we have on those around us, and the extent to which we enable those we lead to be the best possible version of themselves.


Some leaders challenge and inspire us, and enable us to thrive. Leaders we respect and admire, leaders who are good at what they do and who we’d go the extra mile for. Leaders who make the way forward clear, explain the ‘Why’, build a sense of belonging and purpose, and give us direct and candid feedback which we can act on and improve. We rise to challenges feeling supported and part of a team.


You may of course have experienced the opposite and felt the frustration and isolation that follows confusing directions, vague or conflicting feedback and a lack of training and support.

New leaders often ask me in coaching meetings,

‘What if I, unintentionally, turn out to be someone who does it really badly?’

It’s a good question, our way of being a leader will impact many people. And, none of us are perfect, there will be moments, times, possibly days which are not our finest.

Structured reflection, learning and application are all valuable in developing leadership practice. A coach or mentor with the right balance of challenge and support can help move us on. Reading the right material really helps too. Here’s an overview of five books I really wish I’d read before I was first leading a team. Some of these books hadn’t been written then - but if they had, and I’d read them, it would have made a difference. They’re in the order I’d have found helpful - but let me encourage you to start with one you want to read. Leave ‘should’ aside, and read the book you’re most curious about.


High Output Management by Andy Grove.

Andy Grove delivers honesty about the task at hand and clarity about responsibility.


‘You need to try to do the impossible, to anticipate the unexpected. And when the unexpected happens, you should double your efforts to make order from the disorder it creates in your life.

The book is based around three basic principles:

1. An output orientated approach. ‘The output of a manager is the output of the organsational units under his or her supervision or influence.’ And no one owes you your career - you are the sole proprietor.

2. He’s strong on the value of teams and focuses on ‘managerial leverage’, choosing to focus on what best improves outputs.

3. Team performance depending on enabling individuals to be their personal best, task-relevant feedback and the role of one-to-one meetings bring about mutual education and information exchange.

Grove is very clear about responsibility and gives managers questions to consider:

  • Are you adding real value?

  • Are you plugged into what’s happening around you?

  • Are you trying out new ideas?

He advises that rather than waiting for change to come from the top, ‘micro CEOs’ can improve their own group's performance, whether or not the rest of the company follows. ‘Learn to add value,’ is a strong theme throughout the book.


Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

This is the personal story of Phil Knight of Nike. ‘The man behind the swoosh’.

He begins the story in 1962 when he first borrowed $50 from his father to import high quality sports shoes and improve sports performance. The story is told affectionately with hilarious moments as he recounts the audacity of his early negotiations in Japan. He shares his visionary ideas, failings, the impact and his troubleshooting. Commitment to forging deep relationships run deep through the book with the triumphs and joys, loss and heartbreak which inevitably accompany our leadership journeys.

I love his total commitment to finding out, doing and learning which never stops. He went on a writing course before writing his book to learn to write well. A great story packed with leadership learning.


Dare to Lead by Dr Brené Brown

Brené Brown’s TED talk now has over 16m views translated into 39 different languages. She’s a grounded theory researcher who for two decades has studied courage, shame, empathy and vulnerability and is a research professor at the University of Houston. I was delighted when the CEO at Zen Educate, Slava Kremmerman messaged me one Sunday - ‘Have you come across Brené Brown?’ I replied with a photo of the book… ‘YES!!!’


She begins with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, Man in the arena: ‘It’s not the critic who counts…’

She pulls no punches - ‘If you choose courage you will absolutely know failure, disappointment and setback, even heartbreak. That’s why we call it courage.’

She writes about brave leaders and courage cultures drawing on 20 years of interviews and research. She identifies ten behaviours and cultural issues that get in the way of our organisations (globally) and shares what they learned including:

  • Rumbling with vulnerability

  • Living into Our Values

  • Braving Trust

  • Learning to Rise

She gives practical examples of how to actively manage our emotional state, explore difficult conversations without evoking shame, and how to get up when we’ve experienced setbacks.

Brené Brown challenges leaders with questions including:

  • ‘If there was a gap between the chatter of your colleagues and your values of xxxx how would you handle that?

  • Would you be able to say ‘This is outside of our values?’’

Leadership isn’t just a cerebral endeavour - we bring our whole selves to work, our experience, learning, skills and emotions. From her research she concludes:

‘Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander unreasonable amounts of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviours.’ It’s an enjoyable and engaging read, with plenty of challenge as well as practical suggestions and linked resources to draw on.


The Culture Code, The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle


My son encouraged me to read this. ‘My last book was heavy, I want something light!’ I said. He replied, ‘It’s written as stories - you’ll enjoy it. It’s not heavy.’ He’s right.

Right at the start of the book we see that culture comes from the Latin, cultus, to care.

This book is all about teams, all kinds of teams from Navy SEALS to a band of international jewel thieves - and it’s riveting. You want to read the stories and find out how they manage to achieve their successes.

‘We tend to use the word story casually, as if stories and narratives were ephemeral decorations for some unchanging and underlying reality…. Stories are not just stories, they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behaviour’.’

The book is written around the three essentials for success:

  • Build Safety

  • Share Vulnerability

  • Establish Purpose

Each section ends with ideas for actions which can be applied to a range of work settings. Daniel is clear that building and maintaining these essentials within teams takes regular, ongoing practice.

Attention to detail and a frequency of specific, targeted actions are needed to build the commitment. There’s no silver bullet, this is about doing many small things, really well, consistently over extended time.

Radical Candor, How to Get What you Want by Saying What you Mean by Kim Scott


Without doubt this is the best book I’ve ever read about getting and giving feedback. If you’re new to leading a team (or even if you’re very experienced) this will help you to gain and give useful feedback which leads to improvement. Notice gain and give, she’s clear about this - start by asking for feedback from your team, then you can begin giving it.


Kim Scott shares openly about her mistakes, failures, good and bad experiences of getting and giving feedback. Some of it will make you wince - ‘She did what?’ I found myself saying out loud!

The Radical Candor framework is based on two dimensions which form the axis of the model

Care Personally - Challenge Directly. This is how we create trust.

She suggests we ‘Use the Radical Candor Framework like a compass to guide individual conversations to a better place,’ and includes stories, examples and models to help readers put the ideas into practice.




Difficulties are addressed head on, she quotes Steve Jobs: ‘I have always found it enormously difficult to reassure people that I have confidence in their abilities while simultaneously making it clear that I think the work is not good enough.’ Brilliantly put. This is the stuff of leadership.

It takes thought, but the ideas and ethos are so helpful. I could easily reflect on conversations and see when and where I’d been in the model, and can already hear how my conversations are changing and see the impact.

If you’re new into a role this term, I wish you every success. The road is always bumpy with issues to manage and new opportunities to create. I hope this post encourages you to find time to read in your busy schedule and in the words of Kim Scott, help you to:

‘ ...build teams of people who do the best work of their lives and build the best relationships of their careers’.

My best advice is that you find time to read:


‘The more that you read, the more things that you’ll know, The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go’.

Dr. Seuss


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