Business Book Classics: Leadership is an Art

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For a long time, we didn’t have to worry about business book “classics” because there just weren’t that many business books. Today gazillions of business books are published every year. Some are great, others are horrid, and the vast majority are mediocre. It’s the bell curve at work.

That’s why it’s worth going back to some high quality business classics. I call a business book a classic if it was first published more than twenty-five years ago and is still worth reading.

I read Leadership Is an Art by Max DePree for the first time almost 30 years ago. I highlighted it, wrote in the margins, and learned some of its lessons. I thought it was a great book then.

When I opened the book this past summer, I was amazed by two things. I was amazed that I had not opened this book in more than two decades. And, I was amazed at how many things in this book had become part of the tapestry that is the way I think about leadership.

Max DePree speaks to me in an especially strong voice because we start from a similar place. We are both Christians, and that affects how we try to live our lives. We both believe that leadership is a servant role and that what leaders are challenged to do is unleash the potential of others.

Now, if any of that bothers you, you won’t enjoy this book. If you think any mention of faith is inappropriate in a business book or that servant leadership is mushy nonsense or that leaders are there to show people the way, not to unleash their energies, you won’t like this book. Don’t buy it. Don’t read it. If you do choose to buy it, here’s what you’ll find.

There is a retired executive that I see frequently. We share good meals and good wine and other drinks. Occasionally, we have a cigar together. Some of the time we talk about what it’s like to be the person responsible for a group.

My friend was an executive vice president in a Fortune 200 company. He created their international business in the 50s and 60s. He knows a lot about people and leadership and doing the right thing. Over meals and cigars and drinks and sometimes just sitting on the deck, we talk about those things.

Reading Leadership is an Art is a lot like having a conversation with my friend. He’s principled and clear-thinking. He will challenge you from time to time.

I suggest that if you buy this book you do a couple of things to get the most out of it. The first one is read the preface that DePree wrote for the latest edition of the book. The original book was published in 1987, DePree’s preface is from 2003.

Then just start reading, but keep a pencil or highlighter or digital voice recorder handy. The first thing you’ll find in the book is a short true story called “The Millwright Died.” It sets the tone for the rest of the book. Make sure you read it. Mark the page so you can get back to it.

Then read. Make notes. Take time to reflect. This is not a book about techniques or tricks or processes. It is about how a thoughtful and caring leader approaches his or her work. So, keep the book with you. Dip into it from time to time. Take time to reflect on what you learned and your insights.

One more thing. When you finish Leadership is an Art, go back to it frequently. Don’t make this mistake I did and put it back on the shelf for a decade or more.

Now it’s your turn

What books would you nominate as business book classics?


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