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InsightDec 11, 2019

Resource List: 6 Books on Leadership

Written by Scott Ferguson RGD

I have chosen six books to review that have been instrumental in developing the way I think about leadership. 

Sometimes we as designers can get so focussed on our passion for being creative that we overlook the other aspects of our careers that also require growth.

When I look back on the last 20 years of my design career, what stands out the most in my memory is the great people I have worked with and the leaders who have helped me along the way.

I hope these books will help others see the positive impact that can be made on other people’s lives when you take the time to care about the principles of quality leadership.   

Cover of the book "Working With Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman

Working With Emotional Intelligence

By Daniel Goleman

I meet a lot of graphic designers who feel their value relates purely to their hard skills, or in other words, the mastery of their craft. Designers feel they need to constantly update their portfolios with wow-factor work to impress future employers. This can lead to creative competition between designers and friction in design departments. 

Working With Emotional Intelligence solves two problems at once. First, reading the book will allow you to see that the value you bring to a team or company is much greater than just your hard skills or your ability to be creative. It will help you break the mindset that you are only as good as your last project. Second, the book is a great primer for leadership. It will help you identify and build upon the skills and concepts required to work effectively with other team members. 

Cover of the book "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink, Commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser & Leif Babin, A SEAL Platoon Commander in Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser

Extreme Ownership

By Jocko Willink, Commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser & Leif Babin, A SEAL Platoon Commander in Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser

The last place I expected to find cutting edge concepts of leadership was in the US military. From the outside, the military appears to be the type of leadership structure that is not very interesting to me: one that is strictly hierarchical. When I finished reading this book, I realized I could not have been more wrong. 

The fundamental concept of Extreme Ownership is this: “A leader must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.” We often go through life thinking that much of what happens to us is out of our control.  The concept of extreme Ownership is not just the idea that you must be held accountable for your actions. Extreme Ownership explains that taking responsibility will allow you to find solutions that once seemed outside of your control. When we lead a team of people, that responsibility extends outwards towards everyone on the team and every part of that team’s mission. This concept is not the same as micro managing or controlling people. It is the principle that, as the leader, you must ensure that every person on your team has been given the information, resources, training and authority required to perform their role at the highest possible level. It is the understanding that ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the team and the success of the mission rests with you, the leader. “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”

Every point in the book is driven home with examples from the author’s military experience in Ramadi, the most dangerous city in the Iraq War of 2006. With that in mind, this book may not be for everyone. For me it illustrated how valuable great leadership can be when lives are on the line.

Cover of the book "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott

Radical Candor

By Kim Scott

This is a book every leader should read if they want to communicate more effectively with their team. Kim Scott breaks down communication into four basic styles and provides a strategy for building culture around feedback. 

The core principle is to challenge people directly while caring about them personally. As an example, imagine this scenario: a colleague is about to enter a meeting with a piece of food stuck between their teeth. What do you do? Challenging directly and caring personally means letting the person know about the issue, even though it is a small embarrassment. This action prevents a greater embarrassment in front of a group. Conversely, not telling the other person saves you both from a small embarrassment but it is a self-serving form of what Kim Scott calls ruinous empathy. The misuse of empathy or the fear of offending people can often be a more widespread problem in the workplace than a lack of empathy. It prevents people from gaining the information they need to be effective.

As a leader, it is essential that everyone on your team feels empowered to tell you about the smaller problems so that you don’t end up exposed to the larger ones. Building a culture based on radical candor minimizes your exposure to sycophants and ensures that you are hearing what you need to hear from your team and not just what you want to hear. This book has helped me to understand that the most difficult conversations are often opportunities to achieve the most growth.

Cover of the book "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek

Leaders Eat Last

By Simon Sinek

This is a great place to start learning about the merits of servant leadership. For Simon Sinek, the most important factor in providing outstanding leadership is getting the environment of the workplace right. That doesn’t mean an open office plan vs cubicles. Sinek believes that “If you look at the culture of the companies you’ve worked for, if trust and cooperation run high, that’s a condition of good leadership. If trust and cooperation run low, that’s a condition of bad leadership. It’s [the] environment not the people.” Sinek explains how leaders can establish an environment in the workplace where people can thrive, and in doing so, accomplish their best work.

Sinek has a knack for bringing fresh perspectives to poor leadership. He includes this quote in the book to illustrate how important the soft skills of leadership can be.

"No one wakes up in the morning to go to work with the hope that someone will manage us. We wake up in the morning and go to work with the hope that someone will lead us."

- Bob Chapman, CEO

It is Sinek’s ability to state the painfully obvious that makes this book a winner. 

Cover of the book "Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From A Life At Disney" by Lee Cockerell, Retired Executive VP of Walt Disney World

Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From A Life At Disney

By Lee Cockerell

Retired Executive VP of Walt Disney World

As a designer and a fan of amusement parks, I really appreciate the creative thought and care that goes into every detail at Walt Disney World. With the voluminous amount of IP within arms-reach at Disney, I was surprised to read that Lee Cockerell considers people to be the Disney Brand. Guests interact with Cockerell's front-line team members so they determine the quality of guests' experiences. He also outlines that every person in the chain of command is important and has the potential to offer unique insights into improving the guest experience. With that in mind, Cockerell explains the importance of empowering team members to problem solve with both empathy and independence. 

This book highlights the importance of leading through example and clarifies the necessity of setting high standards for the team. Cockerell is a great role model for leadership and breaks down his strategies for motivating the team in a way that is easy to digest. 

Cover of the book "Creativity Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration" by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation

Creativity Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration

By Ed Catmull

President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation

This is an entertaining and informative book about the fascinating history of Pixar Animation. Pixar was founded in 1986 by Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray and Steve Jobs. Ed Catmull shares his thoughts onleadership as he walks the reader through the development of the company with many examples of Pixar’s successes and failures. The book was well worth reading just to hear the behind the scenes tale of how Toy Story 2 was made. However, the real value of the book lies in Catmull’s leadership advice for creative companies. In the case of Pixar, leading a creative team using a people-first philosophy has resulted in some of the most successful animated movies of all time. 

Scott Ferguson RGD

With extensive experience as a Registered Graphic Designer specializing in motion design for television, Scott Ferguson has spearheaded creative projects for numerous renowned Canadian channels, including Much, MTV, CTV, Comedy, and HBO. His journey in the industry has been fueled by creative curiosity and a commitment to continuous learning. Through countless projects, he has discovered that true innovation comes from pushing the boundaries of what's possible. Developing a creative environment that allows people to flourish and design at their highest potential excites him to pursue creative leadership. Finding solutions supporting and developing other designers ultimately leads to inspired design. Scott is delighted to share his experiences and insights to inspire others in their creative journeys. Please check out his portfolio at to see the results of this approach in action.


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