You’re eager to write a book about business leadership – but the question of where to begin has you hesitating. Should you start with a story? A quote? A case history? A personal observation about business?
There are no hard and fast “how to begin” rules to guide authors, but numerous approaches have been utilized in various popular books. To help you get started, I’ve studied several New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling business leadership books to see how they begin. Perhaps one of their approaches will be right for your book.
#1 – Begin by presenting a moment of sudden realization
Brené Brown does this in Dare to Lead:
The moment the universe put the Roosevelt quote in front of me, three lessons came into sharp focus. The first one is what I call “the physics of vulnerability.” It’s pretty simple: If we are brave enough often enough, we will fail. Daring is not saying “I’m willing to risk failure.” Daring is saying “I know I will eventually fail, and I’m still all in.” I’ve never met a brave person who hasn’t known disappointment, failure, even heartbreak.
With this beginning, you invite the readers to share your epiphany. You ask them to recognize the realization and travel down the new path, just as you did. (Brown also gives the full, famous Teddy Roosevelt quote, which begins, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”)
#2 – Begin with the story of a leader in an extremely stressful situation
Simon Sinek uses this opening in Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t:
A thick layer of clouds blocked out any light. There were no stars and there was no moon. Just black. The team slowly made its way through the valley, the rocky terrain making it impossible to go any faster than a snail’s pace. Worse, they knew they were being watched. Every one of them was on edge.
Sinek goes on to relate the true story of Captain Mike Drowley, pilot of an A-10 “Warthog” aircraft protecting the Special Operations Forces on the ground beneath him. On that cloudy night, Drowley repeatedly led his wingman into tremendous danger to protect the soldiers on the ground, the men making up the “team” that he had not even met. Drowley risked his life because of his great empathy for the soldiers below, and empathy is one of the qualities that Sinek asserts leaders must possess.
Beginning with the story of a leader operating in an extremely stressful situation allows the readers to see how the leadership skills you are presenting actually work, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
#3 – Begin a business leadership book by explaining why the standard thinking is wrong
Carol Dewar, Scott Keller, and Vikram Malhotra use this approach in CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest:
In today’s complex world, many CEOs try to minimize uncertainty and guard against making mistakes. It sounds sensible. After all, the old adage that “discretion is the better part of valor” would seem to make sense for a job that has such a huge impact on a company’s stakeholders. Ultimately, however, such a cautious mindset has proven to deliver results that follow the dreaded “hockey stick” effect, consisting of a dip in next year’s budget followed by the promise of success, which never occurs.
This technique is useful if your book is designed to solve a widespread problem or misunderstanding. Your readers are probably being held back by the very same problem, and are eager to move onward and upward in business. After explaining why this current practice is dangerous, you can go on to show why your ideas will steer your readers to success.
#4 – Begin by laying out the problem your book will solve
Stephen Covey begins The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People with this opening:
In more than twenty-five years of working with people in business, university, and marriage and family settings, I have come in contact with many individuals who have achieved an incredible degree of outward success, but have found themselves struggling with an inner hunger, a deep need for personal congruency and effectiveness and for healthy, growing relationships with other people.
In this short paragraph, Covey sets out the problem he addresses in his book. Readers who struggle with this issue will want to read on. Note that while this is not specifically a business book, its lessons apply to business leaders.
#5 – Begin a business leadership book with a metaphor
John Maxwell starts The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You by introducing one of his leadership concepts:
I have often opened my leadership conferences by explaining the Law of the Lid because it helps people understand the value of leadership. If you can get a handle on this law, you will see the incredible impact of leadership on every aspect of life. So here it is: how well you lead determines how well you succeed. Leadership is the lid to your potential. The lower your leadership ability, the lower the lid on your potential. The higher your leadership ability, the higher the lid on your potential….
Maxwell goes on to tell the story of the McDonald brothers, who hit upon a great idea for a hamburger restaurant but lacked the business leadership skills to turn a single restaurant into a worldwide chain.
By using the easy-to-visualize metaphor of the lid, which represents the upper limit of potential, the author invites the readers to think about what their lids might be, and how they can push them aside.
#6 – Begin a business leadership book with a summation of the “law”
Robert Greene uses this approach in The 48 Laws of Power:
Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite—inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.
Greene presents 48 laws in his book, each in its own chapter. He starts each chapter with a brief summary of one of the laws. This summary tells the readers what they will be learning in the next several pages, which entices them to read on.
#7 – Begin with a story of someone who changed the world, and then failed
Adam Grant opens his Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know in this way:
You probably don’t recognize his name, but Mike Lazaridis has had a defining impact on your life. From an early age, it was clear that Mike was something of an electronics wizard. By the time he turned four, he was building his own record player out of Legos and rubber bands. In high school, when his teachers had broken TVs, they called Mike to fix them. In his spare time, he built a computer and designed a better buzzer for high school quiz-bowl teams, which ended up paying for his first year of college. Just months before finishing his electrical engineering degree, Mike did what so many great entrepreneurs of his era would do: he dropped out of college. It was time for this son of immigrants to make his mark on the world.
As Grant continues the story, we learn that Mike developed the idea for the BlackBerry, a revolutionary new way to communicate. In 2009, half of all smartphones sold in the U.S. were BlackBerrys. But five years later, BlackBerry did not even command one percent of the market.
Beginning your business leadership book in this manner draws readers in by making them wonder: who is Mike and how did he affect me? They want to read on.
#8 – Begin with a story of you stepping into a leadership position for which you are utterly unprepared
L. David Marquet starts his Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say – And What you Don’t in this manner:
My journey took an unexpected detour when the captain of the nuclear-powered submarine USS Santa Fe abruptly quit and I was suddenly put in command. Santa Fe was the laughingstock of the fleet. At the time, I joked that it had only two problems: the fleet’s worst morale, and its worst performance to boot. Each month, the navy would publish the twelve-month reenlistment and retention rate for all fifty or so submarines and, inevitably, Santa Fe would be at the bottom of the list. Not near the bottom. All the way at the bottom, by a good margin, with 90 percent of Santa Fe’s crew getting out of the navy at the end of their time on board.
Marquet goes on to explain that because he had not been given months to study the submarine and its problems before being assigned to command, he abruptly found himself in very hot water.
Starting a business leadership book this way invites the readers to sweat along with the author as he discovers and masters the path to success.
#9 – Begin by explaining your methodology
Tom Rath uses this approach to open StrengthsFinder 2.0:
In 1998, I began working with a team of Gallup scientists led by the late Father of Strengths Psychology, Donald O. Clifton. Our goal was to start a global conversation about what’s right with people.
The author goes on to explain how he and the Gallup team developed the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. This approach establishes your credentials right up front, so your readers will trust what you tell them.
What’s the best way to begin a business leadership book?
There is no single winning way, but there are many excellent approaches. Try out several openings and find the one that works best for your book.
To learn more about the art and science of penning a business book, see “How to Write a Business Book” and “12 Ways to Write a Business Book.”
IF YOU’D LIKE HELP WRITING YOUR BUSINESS LEADERSHIP BOOK…
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