Leaders Are Readers: Q1 2024 Reading List

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The suggested readings in this installment of the "Leaders Are Readers" series challenge traditional notions of productivity. They also underscore the importance of resilience and belonging and explore the relationship between leading well and writing well. Finally, they remind us that the most important leadership lessons often come from students.

open book with a lightbulb over it
Credit: NeMaria / Shutterstock.com © 2023

The new year is in full swing. I hope 2024 will be full of wonderful books, learning, and growing. I also hope the "Leaders Are Readers" series will continue to inspire fresh thinking by giving you new ideas and challenging old ones. As always, thank you for reading this article series. If you give one or more of the following readings a closer look, please let me know what you think by leaving a comment at the end of this article or reaching out to me on LinkedIn.

Without further ado, here are my favorite reads since the calendar turned over.

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

By Oliver Burkeman

I have a long, storied history of following the unofficial mantra of our society: "Give me productivity or give me death!" I also have a history of feeling anxious and professionally purposeless. It's not a coincidence that the two go together.

Many people reached out to share their affection for The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, which I featured in December 2023. If you like that book or appreciate the idea that a hurried life isn't the best, you'll enjoy Four Thousand Weeks.Footnote1 Oliver Burkeman is a self-proclaimed former productivity geek. This book is as much a memoir of his journey to a less hurried life as it is a guide to practical ways of thinking and acting.

Four Thousand Weeks is "yet another book about making the best use of your time. But it is written in the belief that time management as we know it has failed miserably and that we need to stop pretending otherwise."Footnote2 We must accept that reaching inbox zero, checking off every item on our to-do list, fitting in a workout, and perfectly meeting all of our work and home obligations is a fantasy, not a goal.

Living well is not about maximizing every minute. It's about being aware of every minute as it happens. Burkeman lays out a bunch of awesome counterintuitive ideas, including resisting the "allure of middling priorities," letting go of worry, and placing limits on your time so that you spend it well.Footnote3

From a leadership perspective, I love his conversations around taking time off and creating limits on the time we spend on any given thing to better focus and ensure we don't bulldoze time on important things—like family—in the name of ten more minutes on that email.

If nothing else, sit with this: "Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick up the rubble and get started on them today."Footnote4

Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution.

By Brené Brown

Last year, I recommended Dare to Lead, Brené Brown's quintessential leadership book. But Rising Strong is the first of her books that I read. I picked it up years ago during a time of personal heartbreak and recently revisited it in a tough leadership moment. I found it helpful both times.

Leading and working with human beings means we will inevitably face defeat, resistance, hardship, and even tragedy. As the blurb on the cover of the book says, "This is a book about what it takes to get back up."Footnote5 In Rising Strong, Brown outlines a three-part process: reckoning, rumbling, and revolutionizing. We reckon with what we feel, rumble honestly with the stories, topics, and events of our lives, and revolutionize the lessons we learn about living, loving, and leading.

In her typical and powerful style, Brown makes the reader feel like a student and a best friend at the same time. If you've been a leader for a long time, you already know how real things can get. If you have yet to experience this, you will. It's inevitable. What isn't inevitable is how you respond. Brown provides the lessons leaders need to respond well to challenging situations.

Life is hard. Leadership is hard. But we owe it to ourselves and those we lead to get back up when we get knocked down.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

By Sebastian Junger

What can a war journalist teach us about leadership? A lot. One of the key themes in Sebastian Junger's book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is that from battlefields to office desks, people have a deep need to belong.

Junger articulates the critical need for humans to live in close communities and the equally critical loss of such communities in modern Western society.Footnote6 Communities nourish the soul, body, and brain. The lack of community results in selfishness, mental health breakdown, mass murder and other violent crimes, and pretty much every other social issue society faces today.

Separation has always been harmful—from the Garden of Eden to the modern boardroom. For leaders, Junger's book is a call to reframe our purpose to prioritize human flourishing. Each team member has a fundamental need to belong to the tribe. People don't need and shouldn't try to be a family at work.Footnote7 But leaders do need to make sure everyone feels like they belong.

Much of this book is about war. Junger is refreshingly straightforward, but Tribe might be intense for some readers. Check it out for yourself and decide if it's something you can learn from. If nothing else, consider that community will nearly always trump material benefits in motivating someone. Junger saw the power of community play out in war. Researchers have confirmed the link between community and motivation.Footnote8 You can't pay people enough if they never feel like they belong. You can't retain good employees if they don't have a sense of belonging.

In an era of incentives, Ping-Pong tables, slides, beer on Fridays, and other retention gimmicks, we should remember that our most important work as leaders is building a sense of belonging.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

By William Zinsser

Leaders are readers. But they are also writers. I don't know a single leader who isn't a regular author. They may not write books or articles—though many do—but they certainly write emails, reports, updates, and more. If you lead, you need to write well.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is a classic, which means that its truths have withstood the test of time. It also means the book may contain some outdated components. Still, I imagine that many leaders would benefit from taking some time to refine their writing. William Zinsser lays out foundational writing principles clearly and practically. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking.

First, people generally write too many words. Some leaders might believe that using more words makes them sound important. It doesn't. As Zinsser explains, "The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to the cleanest components."Footnote9 Ever worry that you're simplifying too much? Most first drafts are cut by 50 percent before they are clean and clear.

Second, many of us were given flawed advice in high school. If you were taught never to write in the first person—and you follow that advice today—it's time to change your point of view. Maybe you want to write in the first person but don't because you think it makes your words too personal, and you'd rather maintain some distance. Perhaps you don't want to go too far out on a limb by saying, "I believe . . ." and instead opt for the less impactful, "One might believe . . . ." Bring back "I," "me," and "we" more often. It's better, and it shows that we're human.

Third, leaders tend to pack too many ideas into each piece. Look at the last few emails you sent. Do they abide by the rule of one thought? Zinsser writes, "Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought. . . . Not two thoughts, or five—just one."Footnote10 My writing sure doesn't pass this test, but I want it to.

Here's to writing well and communicating clearly.

Bonus Entry: "Will Our Educational System Keep Pace with AI? A Student's Perspective on AI and Learning"

By William J. Yin

I included the article "Will Our Educational System Keep Pace with AI? A Student's Perspective on AI and Learning" as a bonus entry because it offers a hidden leadership lesson.Footnote11 Sometimes we need to remember that higher education leadership begins and ends with students. No matter how far removed you are from students in your daily work, the decisions you make, the people you hire, and everything else you do as a leader ultimately impacts students. Students have much to teach leaders, yet we often leave out their voices.

Artificial intelligence is, of course, a topic that our leadership community needs to focus on. William Yin poses some good questions that challenge us to think deeply and more intentionally about how AI will impact learning and whether higher education is ready. My favorite question from the article is, "Are we ready to fully step into personalized education?"Footnote12 Talk about a question that's been around for decades, yet we've evaded the "fully" aspect. Reading Yin's article is worthwhile for that nuance alone. But the broader lesson is to double-check which voices inform your leadership. Experts, gurus, and colleagues are great, but students are where the real magic is.

Closing Thoughts

I wish you well as you begin or continue your leadership journey in 2024. The world needs great leaders who are willing to refine their practice. Perhaps one of these books can help you do that.

Be curious. Be well.


  1. John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2019); Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). I want to send a shoutout to my colleague Sophie White at EDUCAUSE for recommending Four Thousand Weeks. When I first came across this book, I pretty much snubbed my nose at it. I figured it was another productivity life-hack extravaganza, but I was totally wrong. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks, 13. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Ibid., 77. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Ibid., 222. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Brené Brown, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumbling. The Revolution. (New York: Random House, 2015). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (New York: Twelvebooks, 2016). Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. I find it problematic when an organization includes notions about being a "family" in its missions, vision, or values. Work does not and should not constitute a family. Work is about team membership—a group of people working together toward a common goal. It falls far short of what a family is meant to be. I'll step down from my soapbox now. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Christine Porath and Carla Piñeyro Sublett, "Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work," Harvard Business Review, August 26, 2022. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2016), 6. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Ibid., 53. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. William J. Yin, "Will Our Educational System Keep Pace with AI? A Student's Perspective on AI and Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, January 24, 2024. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.

Ryan MacTaggart is Associate Director, Professional Learning, at EDUCAUSE.

© 2024 Ryan MacTaggart. The content of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.