Leadership — an alternative perspective

I love reading biographies and autobiographies — it’s a useful way to learn about leadership and to find traits and habits that you might want to replicate.

However, 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 very diverse set of ideas about leadership and what it means to become, and to be, a leader.

This year, I’ve focused on reading about female leaders. As a female founder, I particularly like reading about entrepreneurs, but also found that some of the most inspirational stories came from women in politics, fashion and comedy.

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, but got round this by working hard and by having a Growth Mindset — if they weren’t currently the best, they would work hard to learn what it takes to be the best.

This is not an exhaustive list (I’m still finding new gems every day), but when I was looking for books on female leadership I found it hard find a comprehensive list (Amazon was useless…). If you’re interested in leadership, whatever your gender, I’d strongly recommend the books below.

Meg Whitman

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/companies which is what makes Meg Whitman’s book even more exciting for me to read. Meg was CEO of eBay from 1998–2007, seeing it through enormous growth. This book focuses on her time at eBay (she is now CEO of HP Enterprise) and is a brilliant business book that combines both her personal philosophies and experiences from running a high growth company. The book has tangible business advice with specific examples from Whitman’s time growing eBay.

In terms of what is it like to be a leader in the fast moving tech world, this book is fantastic — “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 Lamarr

Hedy’s Folly: The life and breakthrough inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in the world — Richard Rhodes

The title of this book is crazy! And pretty much sums up what it’s about — Heddy Lamarr, glamorous actress and Hollywood starlet, who in her spare time liked to invent. I loved this book — she is so head strong, independent and constantly challenges what’s expected of her. She also has an insanely good Growth Mindset. As war broke out, she began thinking about ways she could help her country — which ended up with her getting a U.S. patent for a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Let IT Go — Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Shirley is famous for going by ‘Steve’ so she could battle gender stereotypes while building the UK’s largest software consultancy in the 1970s. She challenged the status quo around work; in particular about whether mothers could work and about how work operates. 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”. “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.”

In Her Shoes — Tamara Mellon

This book is extraordinary. It’s the story of how Tamara built Jimmy Choo from one cobbler into a business worth nearly half a billion dollars (alongside the story of her very messy personal life, which includes being sued by her family). It’s a good read, showing her resilience and determination through multiple scandals and backstabbing. Her closing comments focus on how 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.”

Alexandra Shulman

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 interesting insight into how her life works and how she spends her time — running to catch fashion shows, meeting with famous designers and spending 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 of personal impact and 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 around her to support her through her career. She writes briefly about sexism and I like her advice to go “Over! Under! Through!”

Sophia Amoruso

#GIRLBOSS, by Sophia Amoruso

Sophia is founder of NastyGal, the giant fashion startup that grew out of her eBay store. #GIRLBOSS is more 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), than it is about running and growing the business. It’s uplifting and empowering, but I would have liked more insight into what it’s like to scale a company so ridiculously fast. That said the main message is powerful and heavily iterated — work hard and be yourself.

Michelle Obama: A Life — Peter B Slevin

I didn’t know much about Michelle Obama, although I had seen her speeches around the recent election and had been very impressed. I’m even more impressed having read this very detailed biography. She 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. That said, one of her skills that comes across is her charisma and warmth, and her ability to motivate and rally those around her.

The strong theme from this book is about choosing what kind of impact and what kind of life you want to have. Michelle left a highly lucrative corporate law career to focus on what she really 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.”

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 with Kate as an intern when the AGI was first being set up. This is a beautiful book from a woman who is looking really hard at life and trying to understand what bits make it most worthwhile. This isn’t a book about leadership, but it’s a thoughtful and insightful leader’s perspective on life which I will re-read every couple of years.

Dame Stella Rimmington

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 mainly 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.”

Michelle Mone

My Fight to the Top — Michelle Mone

This book reads in a very similar way to Tamara Mellon’s book — it’s a story of the strife of founding, alongside a very turbulent personal life. Mone founded the lingerie brand Ultimo alongside her husband and quickly became one of the UK’s highest profile female entrepreneurs. The book is honest and emotional and takes her from being raised in the East End of Glasgow to living the millionaire lifestyle in the house she designed and built. 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 total focus that gets her through.

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 >100 companies worth >$1B so far.

We currently run programmes in Berlin, Singapore and London, you can apply here or sign up below to get advice from the EF team on your startup journey.