The 5 Best Leadership Books for Nonprofit Leaders

The 5 Best Leadership Books for Nonprofit LeadersAn executive coaching client recently asked me about my favorite 2 or 3 leadership books. Here are the first five that came to mind. Not surprisingly, each one is within easy reach of my desk. And I find myself thinking about their concepts or quoting them practically every week.

Influence, Robert Cialdini

Best Leadership Books for Nonprofits - Cialdini's InfluenceIn most of my coaching sessions and media interviews, I find myself quoting Cialdini's work. His studies on influence are a must-read for nonprofit leaders and fundraisers. Whether it's about how we look for "social proof" (and how that impacts fundraising) or reciprocity, Cialdini will help you with your employees, your board, and your donors. These aren't anecdotal stories. These are academically tested results. And it's not about manipulation. As nonprofit leaders, we have to communicate our vision. It's our responsibility to learn how to do that most effectively. This book shows you the way.

Coaching for Performance, John Whitmore

Best books for nonprofit leaders- Coaching for Performance, James WhitmoreSir James Whitmore's book Coaching for Performance was part of the curriculum for my certification as a Franklin Covey Coach. He has a powerful ability to use athletic analogies and weave them into growing individuals. For example, he tells of a tennis player trying to change his technique. When the player focused on his arm movement, he never improved. But then the coach asked him, "What direction is the ball rotating when it comes over the net?" That took the player's focus off what wasn't working onto something else in the equation. And it worked. When the player focused on the ball's rotation, his arm "just moved" in the way it needed to. As leaders, rather than banging our heads against the wall because people aren't doing what we expect, sometimes we need to be simply change the question.

First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman

Best books for nonprofit leaders- First Break All The RulesMarcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman went through reams of Gallup data to find out what set excellent managers about from all other managers. What they found surprised them. It turns out, excellent managers pretty much break all the excepted "rules" of management. One of the big ones is focusing on weaknesses. Most organizations that do performance reviews show employees what they're doing well at and where they're underperforming. The plan for the next year becomes to work on the underperforming areas. Buckingham & Coffman discovered that managers who brought organizations to great levels of achievement didn't have employees focus on their areas of weakness. Instead, they constantly put employees in areas where their strengths can shine. They forsook the pursuit of "well rounded" people, choosing to let their employees shine at different tasks. This book is filled with statistical evidence for tossing out "business as usual." It's also a great introduction to a strengths based form of leadership.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie

Best books for nonprofit leaders- How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale CarnegieI avoided reading this book for years. I assumed that it was about tricking and manipulating people. How wrong I was! Dale Carnegie's classic is an excellent handbook on how to be a good human being. Something we all to often forget. This is a treasure trove of wisdom that will help people in our nonprofits have an even greater impact on the world. If we took to heart that a person's name is the sweetest sounding word in any language, we'd cut the "Dear friend" letters and be much more effective at our fundraising. Or that arguments usually lead to both sides losing, we'd be much more effective working with people who disagree with us. This is a book I try to review every year or so. It's that good.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey

Best books for nonprofit leaders- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, CoveyI first read this book when I was 17 years old. Covey's book embodies most of the books on this list and puts it into a complete package. He did an extensive review of "self-help" literature from the founding of the USA. Over the centuries, he discovered a shift toward the superficial. This book is a distillation of what he calls the "character ethic" lacking in modern works:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win-win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

Remembering each of these seven habits will make you a better leader and have great fulfillment in both your professional and personal life.

Over the years, I've learned that Covey's academic style is a bit dry to some readers. If that's you, Sean Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens is for you. Don't let the title fool you, thousands of adults have read it and found it easier to understand than Sean's dad's book.

What leadership books would you add?

These are the books I recommended to my coaching client and find myself referring to over and over. What books would you add to this list? Tell us here in the comments!

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About Marc A. Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the CEO of The Concord Leadership Group, the author of Ask Without Fear! and director of The Nonprofit Academy. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family! You can connect with him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook.
To get his free ebook on 21 ways to get board members engaged with fundraising, go to


  1. Thanks for this list. I have read two of them and will read the others. I would also recommend Love Works by Joel Manby, Start by Jon Acuff, and Good to Great in God's Eyes by Chip Ingram.

  2. Playing to Win by Larry Wilson - all about how we sometimes prefer to 'Play not to lose'... some great insights into leadership.

  3. Matthew Oaks says:

    One of my favorite authors on this is David Silverstein, he has a few books on leadership and they are all good. I've been reading his book Become and Elite Mental Athlete, it's more based on health...of the brain and body. It's a short but very good read on how to keep the brain at top performance which in turn filters down into all areas of out life.I suggest checking him out, Leadership is a very special trait, it's good to learn as much as you can so you can lead with confidence!

What would you add?