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What’s the title of your leadership story?

Authors often begin with a title before writing a book, which holds lessons for leaders seeking to make a name for themselves, writes Steve McKee.

5 min read



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Steve McKee

President. CEO. Executive Director. These are titles that many people who read SmartBrief on Leadership aspire to. However, focusing on a title as an accomplishment is less productive than earning one by stacking up accomplishments. A title alone doesn’t make you special; you earn one by being special. A title does, however, distinguish you. There can only be one president, executive director or CEO at a time (despite some foolish experiments with “co-chiefs,” an oxymoron if there ever was one). That’s as true of an organization as it is of a book, and therein lies a lesson.

One of the first things aspiring authors do is check to see if the book titles they have in mind are already on the shelves. There’s no point in writing something that’s already written. For a new volume to have any chance in the marketplace, it must be distinct. Original. Uniquely contributing something to the world. Just like a leader. 

What book are you writing?

You may have yet to think about writing a book, but operating as if you are doing so can help bring focus to your career. I’ve encouraged many people to reflect upon the title of the book they’re “writing” when they go to work each day. What is it about you, your division or your company that is differentiating? Why is your story — or what will become your story — one about which people will care? What title would you give it?

My first book effectively named itself, tracking as it did with the travails my company had recently undergone. Amid a trying two-year period during which we almost went out of business, we commissioned a study among the fastest-growing private companies in America to identify the secret to regenerating growth. We didn’t realize that we would instead discover the secrets to failure (which, when held up to a figurative mirror, ended up being the same thing). “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What to Do About It” perfectly summed up what we learned and something new that I felt had to be shared with the world. One glance at the title and prospective readers can quickly determine if they’re interested. 

Titles as a “shortcut to meaning”

That’s the secret of a good book title — recognizing that it’s a shortcut to meaning. I wanted to learn everything about my chosen field when I started my career. “The Marketing Imagination,” written by a prominent professor at the Harvard Business School, seemed like a great place to start. As did “Ogilvy on Advertising,” a practical treatise from one of the most notable business personalities of the 20th Century. “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” added icing to the career cake I was baking.

I picked up “The Elements of Style” to improve my writing. When I desired to learn how to better deal with the press, “Feeding the Media Beast” was irresistible. When my development as a consultant required increasing my know-how regarding guiding companies from good to great and ensuring their longevity, “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” were just what the doctor ordered. 

They were also just what the doctor ordered for the book’s author, distinguishing him as an expert without a peer. This brings me back to the point: Jim Collins wrote “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” but “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” “wrote” Jim Collins. Collins had to set out with intention and diligence to conduct significant research that would reveal the findings he opines in the books. As his bestsellers came to fruition, so did his reputation, which brought additional focus and direction to his career. The same thing happened to my firm as we increasingly became the experts in navigating the complex interaction between external circumstances and internal dynamics when an organization is dealing with stalled growth. Now we’re the only company of our kind.

A title as a North Star

Scan the non-fiction bestseller list; the titles will tell you about the books and their authors. Before publishing a manuscript, they had to commit to bringing something new to the world. Every author I know had at least a pretty good idea of their book’s eventual title, guiding them through the complex process of research and writing (and often a lot of rejection before finding a publisher, which is its metaphor for persevering in business). 

I’ve often joked that my business autobiography would be called “Perseverance because so much of my career has been about just that. But that’s looking in the rearview mirror. What is it you wish to see up ahead, through the windshield? How is it distinct and of value? And what would you call it? A book title, real or contrived, can serve as a North Star to your career or company, guiding you as you develop unique expertise by which you can stack up accomplishments. You’re on your way to writing it, if you can name it. Perhaps literally someday.


Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork, a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. McKee is the author of  “TURNS: Where Business Is Won and Lost,” “When Growth Stalls” and  “Power Branding.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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