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Often, inspiration can come from seemingly random places. Industry consultant and leadership guru Kelly Bennett always preaches to clients to keep their minds open and be ready for that inspiration to come.

Whether it’s from formal training in a seminar or from going to a movie, ideas on how to become a better leader are everywhere in our daily lives, Bennett says. And books can be one of the best places to look.

Not all leadership books are helpful, though, and some of the best, well, they’re not even technically about leadership. Five industry leaders shared their most inspirational reads—ones that shaped the leaders they’ve become today—with Ratchet+Wrench.

The Book:
The One Minute Manager
by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

The Leader:
Gary Keyes,
owner of E and M Auto Service Center in Stuart, Fla.

The Takeaway:
Leadership is not a tangible skill, and coming from the “technician side of things,” as most shop owners do, makes it that much more difficult to fully grasp, says Keyes, who serves on the Automotive Service Association national board of directors.

But that’s the reason The One Minute Manager had such a profound impact on Keyes when he first read it several years ago: The book gives a systematic approach to better managing employees.

Although management and leadership are technically different concepts, Keyes says the book gives any owner, operator or supervisor the tools they need to make consistent decisions that affect employees and the business.

“A lot of the book deals with setting goals—not just as a company, but every member of the team needs to have goals they have to strive to meet,” he says.
Keyes now does group meetings every month with his staff to go over personal and company goals.

“It keeps everyone involved and it helps them keep each other accountable,” he says. “And everyone knows where we’re at and what we have to do to move forward.”

The Book:
Customers for Life
by Carl Sewell

The Leader:
Mike Gordon,
owner of Gordon Automotive Inc. in Austin, Texas.

The Takeaway:

Everyone has likely heard the phrase “lead by example,” Gordon says, but too many shop owners can take that advice as some sort of burn-the-midnight-oil mandate.
Not enough people see it in its most basic—and possibly most impactful—form: the way you treat other people.

In Customers for Life, Texas automotive dealership mogul Car Sewell gives his “Ten Commandments for Customer Service,” sharing advice that any business in any industry can utilize to improve its customer experience.

From a leadership standpoint, Gordon says, the book is chalk-full of tips for how to manage and lead employees in these customer service areas. It tells as much about the dealership’s loaner cars and free car washes as it does about how to properly handle a customer interaction as an owner to set the example for employees.

“Customer service is an aspect of leadership that it seems most people overlook,” Gordon says. “We use a lot of the tips that he gives, and it’s made me, as an owner, much more aware of the way I do things, and how my employees learn from that. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we’re definitely working on it.”

The Book:
Panzer Leader
by Heinz Guderian

The Leader:
Keith Krehel,
owner of Krehel Automotive Repair Inc. in Clifton, N.J.

The Takeaway:
Keith Krehel admits that most of his leadership skills have been handed down from his father, and many of his other mentors during his career.

Still, he’s always looking to improve when it comes to leading his business to long-term success. That’s why the book Panzer Leader stuck out so much to Krehel the first time he read it.

It was written by German World War II general Heinz Guderian, which may make it seem like an odd place to look for inspiration. But Krehel is a history buff, and knew Guderian’s contributions to war tactics. Aside from being a tell-all about the Nazi regime (the book was published in 1952), Guderian gives a glimpse into his tactical approaches that led to his many technological innovations, such as being the first to put radio communication inside armored tanks.

Innovation is the key word in all of this.

“He was very technically savvy—a brilliant tactician—but he was also someone who pushed to engage technology at every opportunity,” says Krehel. “A lot of us in the industry get dragged up to speed with technology. We need to always be pushing forward and staying ahead of everyone else.”

The Book:
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t
by Jim Collins

The Leader:
Cecil Bullard,
former shop owner and current president of the Institute for Automotive Business Excellence

The Takeaway:
Bullard is an avid reader—always has been, dating back to his days running some of the country’s most successful independent repair facilities.

His current work as an industry consultant focuses daily on the topics that author Jim Collins brings up in his bestselling book Good to Great: How can a “good company” (or even average or struggling ones) achieve long-lasting greatness?

The research for the book is extensive. Collins and his team took five years to analyze the history of 28 different companies, looking at key data and interviews to figure out what made each business great. Collins was able to narrow it down into several specific aspects of leadership, including creating the right culture and the ability to properly lead through change.

“Leadership should be for the betterment of everybody,” Bullard says. “In our industry, people are so trapped in the day-to-day, needing to make a living, that they don’t know, or just forget, that they need to have this vision for the future. The vision needs to be about how everyone can succeed.”

The Book:
Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead
by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer

The Leader:
Jim Sweetwood,
owner of Elmer Sweetwood and Son’s Automotive in El Cajon, Calif.

The Takeaway:
Anyone who’s seen an old Western movie has witnessed the scene: A gun fires, and all the cattle (or nearby buffalo) scatter in one direction.

“They just run after whoever’s in front,” says Sweetwood. “They’ll follow the leader right off a cliff if that’s where he takes them.”

This is the concept at the heart of Flight of the Buffalo, a 1990s bestseller written by a professor, business consultant and renowned speaker (Belasco) and a small business owner (Stayer).

“The idea is that in any business, if you become the one person that everyone always goes to, and become the hub of the wheel, everything else will fall apart,” Sweetwood says. “The goal is to instill in each employee a management and leadership ideal.”

Instead of stampeding buffalo, the authors suggest a business should be more like a flock of geese—uniform, ordered and with different members of the group taking the lead spot at different times.

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