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14 Books Nonprofit Leaders Should Have on Their Reading Lists

What is the mark of a great leader?

Sure, they share ideas, boost morale, and encourage others. But some of the most important skills for a leader to have are a willingness to learn and a desire to grow.

Here at Arthur Alley, we make an effort to continually sharpen our skills and become the best partners for your nonprofit we can be. And one of the ways we have done that is by learning from others’ experience and wisdom. Here are some of our favorite leadership books that we’ve enjoyed and found helpful over the years — shaping us into the leaders we are today.

Derek Alley

My all-time favorite is Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret Wheatley. For those of us who love order (and don’t love chaos), Wheatley uses quantum physics to show that order comes from chaos. So, it’s a good reminder that it’s okay to embrace a little chaos.

My second favorite is The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge. I love learning about organizational systems. The concept of systems and how they work in organizations has been helpful to me as a leader and consultant.

Steve Waiksnoris

Perhaps better known for his golden insights on marketing, Seth Godin presents Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us as an easy-to-read collection of blog posts and vignettes focused on leadership in a modern world connected by the web and social media. “Leadership almost always involves thinking and acting like the underdog. That’s because leaders work to change things, and the people who are winning rarely do.” Inspiration abounds for leaders of tribes, both big and small.

Are you a leader or a manager? In The Vision Driven Leader, Michael Hyatt poses this and nine other questions to help you craft a clear, inspiring, and practical vision; ensure your team is on board; break it down into action plans; and learn how to pivot when obstacles arise. Make sure you’ve got your highlighter ready for this read.

Ann Shackelford

One of my favorite books is Inspiring Leadership: Character and Ethics Matter by R. Stewart Fisher and Perry J. Martini, published by Academy Leadership — which is affiliated with the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. I had the privilege of participating in a training week on campus in 2005 led by one of the authors, so I have a signed copy. Getting up-close interaction with one of the writers was really inspirational and has helped me connect with the book on a deeper level. The training was an amazing experience. They did a personality test modified from DISC, which was really interesting!

Another classic for me is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong. I’m pulling this one out to read again. Armstrong is a noted writer on religion. This emphasis on compassion seems very timely in this challenging environment.

Chuck Nutt

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin — subtitled, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln — could easily be considered as the “Leadership Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” It’s chiefly the story of Lincoln’s three rivals (who, in the beginning, thought Lincoln a bumbling backwoods hayseed) for the Republican nomination for President in 1860. It talks about how Lincoln pulled them into his Presidential Cabinet and maximized, in his own unique way, their collective genius to address one of the greatest crises in American history.

Sometimes there’s a line in a book that’s just so good, it becomes an instant favorite. For me, that book is The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham. In a nutshell (borrowed from the cover), this book is …About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success. Oh, and that rising star line I mentioned? For me, my favorite sentence from the book is, “You must learn to place less value on all that you can remember and more on those few things that you must never forget.”

Chris McGown

Awesomely Simple by John Spence immediately comes to mind. John is a friend of mine, but that isn't why I'm recommending it. John is an award-winning writer, speaker, and business coach. He takes complex concepts and techniques and skillfully boils them down till they are … well, awesomely simple and actionable. It is a quick read, and I've read and reread it.

The Trust Edge by David Horsager is another great book. The subtitle perfectly summarizes the book: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Bottom Line. David is an amazing guy — very down-to-earth and genuine. The concepts in the book are easy to understand and seem like no-brainers, yet they are missing in so many of the leaders and would-be leaders I’ve encountered over the years.

Juli Pattison

Lead Like Jesus by Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges has helped keep me on track multiple times. Leadership is not just about skills and knowledge — it begins with character and integrity. A servant leader is transformational.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott is another one that resonates with me. As a woman, being the boss often conflicts with my deeply nurturing sensibilities. Scott reassured me that this is not a bad thing, but she gave me confidence to give employee feedback that, sometimes, can be difficult — caring personally and challenging directly.

Marion Platt

The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations by Barry Posner and James M. Kouzes has been formative for me as a leader. Their five practices of exemplary leadership (Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart) have transformed the way I engage my team, my constituents, and my community.

Early in my leadership journey, I read Jesus, Life Coach: Learn from the Best, by Laurie Beth Jones, as my daily devotional and enjoyed the ancient insights and how they apply to the work of the executive leader. In fact, I enjoy just about any book by Laurie Beth Jones, including Jesus, CEO and The Path.

With so many great books out there, it’s hard to come up with one comprehensive list featuring the best of the best. That said, we are so happy to share our favorites with you, and we encourage you to read any of the titles from this list that inspire you.

Be sure to let us know what you think of our favorites. And feel free to share your favorite books that have influenced your role as a leader!


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