I love reading biographies and autobiographies . It’s a useful way to learn about leadership and to find traits that you might want to include in your own leadership style.
Last Christmas I realised I had spent the year reading about men . Fantastic books about Elon Musk, Ben Horowitz, Warren Buffett, etc. But, they didn’t provide a diverse set of ideas about leadership and what it means to become, and to be, a leader.
I’ve now started focusing on reading about female leaders. As a female founder, I like reading about entrepreneurs, but this list includes politicians, comedians and activists.
There are some common themes from these women — the most striking of which is hard work, coupled with resilience. They were all at times told no. They got round this by working hard and by having a Growth Mindset .
This is not an exhaustive list. It’s a starting point for anyone interested in leadership, whatever your gender. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.
The Power of Many : Values and success in business and in life — Meg Whitman
There aren’t that many female CEOs of large tech startups. This makes Meg’s book even more exciting for me to read. Meg was CEO of eBay from 1998–2007, seeing it through enormous growth. This is a brilliant business book that focuses on that period.
It combines both her personal philosophies with her experiences running a high growth company. “I believe that being a leader is a constant exercise in moving your gaze back and forth between different focal lengths — what’s right in front of you, what’s ahead of you, what’s coming at you, what’s happening elsewhere that might eventually ensnare you — and making decisions in real time that steadily move the organisation forward.”
Hedy’s Folly: The life and breakthrough inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in the world — Richard Rhodes
The story of Heddy, glamorous actress and Hollywood starlet, who in her spare time liked to invent. She is head strong, independent and constantly challenges what’s expected of her, particularly as a woman in the 1950s. As war broke out, she began thinking about ways she could help her country. She ended up getting a U.S. patent for a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes.
Let IT Go — Dame Stephanie Shirley
Dame Shirley built the UK’s largest software consultancy in the 1970s (she famously went by ‘Steve’ so she could battle gender stereotypes). She challenged the status quo around work; in particular around working mothers. “I had come up with a kind of business that no one had imagined before, and had run it in a way that the small-minded traditionalists, who blocked women’s career paths in the conventional workplace, considered mad.”
She was a pioneer for flexi-working, remote working and for sharing ownership of the company with her employees “F International was thriving…unlike its competitors, it was an enterprise founded on trust. Its workforce were not sullen, submissive employees. They were self-motivated self-starters who loved and understood what they did and took pride in and responsibility for their work”.
The Skills — Mishal Husain
Mishal is an award-winning broadcaster, including being a BBC news anchor. I’d recommend this book to early career women. As the title suggests, it offers the latest research and advice on various skills, in particular communication. I found the bit about female voices particularly interesting, and concerning!
She emphasises how hard she had to work to get where she is, for example, for her first Today show as a presenter “I did two things: first, spending as much time shadowing the programme, seeing how the presenters and the team worked, trying to soak up as much of the mechanics of the operation as possible, so that when the time came I could better focus on the content. And then, to prepare for the latter, I closeted myself away for a few days with a long reading list.”
Make Trouble — Cecile Richards
Cecile was the President of Planned Parenthood, the US reproductive health care not-for-profit. With a long career in activism and politics, she is a real disrupter; “for all those inspiring women, it wasn’t as if the world just threw open the door and invited them in. Each one has been a disrupter in one way or another.”
She comes across as fearless, particularly during the congressional hearing where she was grilled for hours, by a mainly male panel, on women’s sexual health. I love this quote at the end “Feminist is not a passive label; it means speaking out and standing up for women everywhere, and also for yourself. One woman calling out an injustice is powerful enough; when we raise our voices together, we can shake the status quo to its foundation.”
In Her Shoes — Tamara Mellon
This book is extraordinary. It’s the story of how Tamara built Jimmy Choo to be worth nearly half a billion dollars. It also has all the details of her her very messy personal life, which includes being sued by her family. It shows her resilience and determination through multiple scandals and backstabbing.
At times she felt she was too willing to be led by those around her, and didn’t have confidence in herself and her own abilities “You have to know where you stand, and that your value as a human being doesn’t depend on anyone else’s assessment, and yet you must always remain open to learning and growth.”
The Vogue Diaries — Alexandra Shulman
This is written as a diary by the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Magazine covering it’s 100th anniversary year. As it’s a diary, it’s an insight into how her life works and how she spends her time . She runs to catch fashion shows, meets with famous designers and spends hours pouring over guest-lists. In the run up to the launch of the Vogue 100 celebrations she says “I’m starting to feel like a sheep dog herding my flock from a very large field towards some gate that opens on to who-knows-where.”
What made this fascinating was watching the BBC documentary that was filmed at the same time . I felt that Alexandra comes across differently in the film, compared to the book. In the book she is warm and relatable, and in the film she comes across cold and stressed. It’s a useful reminder how as a leader people will make quick judgements on limited interactions.
My Own Story — Emmeline Pankhurst
I read this book after watching the film Suffragette. The film is excellent, but doesn’t focus on Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the movement. Her autobiography, My Own Story, is totally unbelievable. In a time when women were their husband’s property, she created a movement and philosophy that made thousands of women challenge the lives they thought they had to accept. What really struck me was how long the fight for the vote lasted and how she didn’t give up, despite advancing old age and ill health. I recommend this book highly.
Bossypants — Tina Fey
Comedian Tina Fey’s autobiography is, as you would imagine, pretty amusing. But, the thing that stuck with me was how hard she worked to get where she is. She took risks, had a baby at the point where her career took off and built an amazing selection of people to support her. She writes briefly about sexism and I like her advice to go “Over! Under! Through!”.
#GIRLBOSS, by Sophia Amoruso
Sophia is founder of NastyGal, the giant fashion startup that grew out of her eBay store. #GIRLBOSS is a collection of her philosophies on life (“money looks better in the bank than on your feet”), and anecdotes from her days before NastyGal (shoplifting and doing random jobs). It’s uplifting and empowering, but I would have liked more insight into what it’s like to scale a company so fast. That said the main message is powerful and heavily iterated — work hard and be yourself.
Michelle Obama: A Life — Peter B Slevin
Michelle grew up in the South Side of Chicago and fought to go to Princeton and Harvard Law School. Arguably, at the time that Barack Obama went for the Senate, she had the more established and successful career. As a biography, you feel detached from Michelle as a person — it only shares what she thinks based on her speeches — and I look forward to the day when she writes an autobiography (update, see below!).
The theme is about choosing what kind of impact and what kind of life you want to have. Michelle left a lucrative corporate law career to focus on what she cared about — helping communities. Reflecting on the choice she made she said “I began asking myself some hard questions. Questions like, ‘If I die tomorrow, what did I really do with my life? What kind of mark would I leave? How would I be remembered?’ And none of my answers satisfied me.”
Becoming — Michelle Obama
This book has been insanely popular, and rightly so. It’s a must read, but I’d encourage you to read it with the biography above. I felt Becoming skimmed over her successful career, in favour of describing life in the White House.
The thing that stuck out in Becoming is her warmth and genuine interest in people, particularly children, and how she used that warmth to progress the goals she cared about most.
Late Fragments: Everything I want to tell you — Kate Gross
Kate Gross was the founding CEO of Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) and she died in 2014 age 36. This is the book she wrote as she realised that her battle with cancer was coming to an end. I was lucky enough to work briefly as an intern with Kate when the AGI was first being set up. This is a beautiful book. She is looking really hard at life and trying to understand what bits make it most worthwhile. It’s a thoughtful and insightful leader’s perspective on life which I will re-read every couple of years.
Open Secret — Stella Rimmington
I was so excited to read this book — the autobiography of the first female Director General of MI5. However, as you can imagine, she couldn’t say a huge amount about the work that she did as Director General. The book focuses on her career before her appointment.
As a woman in the 1960s and 70s, she had to challenge many of the standard assumptions of time and eruditely gets round the ingrained sexism. “I took the opportunity to ask what was the reason that prevented me from being an officer. The poor man was completely taken aback…I do not think it had ever occurred to him that a woman might want to be an officer at MI5.”
The Vanity Fair Diaries — Tina Brown
Love this book! I was wowed by what she was achieving, particularly when she was so young. She was editor of Tatler at 25 and took over Vanity Fair at 31. There are loads of fantastic lessons on leadership in here; “An editor’s job is to make people say yes to something they hadn’t thought they could do”. I particularly enjoyed the stories of various negotiations she had to go through and how she pushed working relationships to get what she wanted.
My Fight to the Top — Michelle Mone
This is a story of the strife of founding, alongside a very turbulent personal life. Mone founded the lingerie brand Ultimo and became one of the UK’s highest profile entrepreneurs. The book is honest and emotional and takes her from the East End of Glasgow to living the millionaire lifestyle. The business went through some serious ups and downs, not helped by her failing marriage with her husband and co-founder, and it’s her resilience and focus that gets her through.
Bad Blood — John Carreyou
The story of Theranos is well known as it moved from a hyped startup to being investigated for fraud. Elizabeth Holmes’ role in this, as the founder and front-woman, has been dissected and examined, including in court. This book is not a biography, but the story of Theranos and Elizabeth’s role in building the mirage that was created “Like her idol Steve Jobs, she emitted a reality distortion field that forced people to momentarily suspend disbelief.” It’s a rollicking must read. Maybe controversially there is still a positive lesson on female leadership here — the power of her confidence and conviction seems to be the single driving factor in Theranos’s success (obviously use with care!).
Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality — Jonatahn Aitken
Politics aside, Margaret was the first female Prime Minister in the UK and the longest serving PM of the 20th Century. This is a biography that explores life, career and behaviour. The book talks about how her insecurity both enabled her to succeed and potentially was also part of her downfall “The key to her style was that she did not have excessive confidence. On the contrary she lacked self-confidence. That was why she was so assertive.”
She was a divisive character and it was fascinating to read how opinion of her changed during her long time in government “In her first term she was often insecure. In her third term she was overbearing. In her second term her personality was moving somewhere between the two, with growing signs of arrogance.”
Let me know if there’s any books you think I missed :) @alicebentinck
Alice Bentinck is Co-Founder of Entrepreneur First (EF.) EF runs full-time programmes that fund the most talented scientists, engineers, developers and industry experts to find a co-founder, then helps those teams grow their businesses and raise funding. We’ve built >200 companies worth >$1.5B so far.
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