As business leaders, CEOs face incredible challenges at work. How do they get through it? They seek ideas, inspiration, and strategies from books. Here is a list of 10 novels, works of history, and classic business books that have inspired today’s top CEOs.
1. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (Jeff Bezos, Amazon)
“Visionary companies pursue a cluster of objectives, of which making money is only one—and not necessarily the primary one.”
Jeff Bezos recommends this book because it shows how to create a long lasting company. If you are seeking to build a legacy in business, this modern classic is required reading. Collins and Porras bring outstanding research depth to the book. A key insight from the book is that profit is usually not the only motivation for visionary companies.
2. The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right by Atul Gawande (Jack Dorsey, Square/Twitter)
“Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss.”
Jack Dorsey recommends this book because he knows that top notch execution is essential to business. Having good ideas is only part of the equation. Improving performance is a major concern for leaders and CEOs. If you are frustrated with mistakes and errors, building a checklist is a great solution. As Atul Gawande explains, surgeons, doctors, and commercial pilots use check lists to save lives. For a checklist to be useful, it must have a small number of steps that address major problems.
To get started, read How To Build A Checklist In 6 Steps.
3. Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright (Tony Hsieh, Zappos)
“Change the language in the tribe, and you have changed the tribe itself.”
Leadership makes the difference between a company that grows and one that fails. We only need to think about corporate scandals and the problems caused by unethical leaders (e.g. Enron) to understand that principle. Tony Hsieh admires the book because it explains the importance of creating a strong company culture. If your organization, department, or team is in trouble, tribal leadership could be the answer.
4. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson (Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola)
“Only when savers can put their money in reliable banks that it can be channeled from the idle to the industrious.”
In the modern business world, we have endless financial options and resources to use. There are plenty of ways to borrow money and many ways to seek investors. However, the financial system is a human system that can break down. In Ferguson’s book, you will learn how the financial system evolves and the forces that drive it. Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent considers it a great read. On a personal level, I found this book to be an outstanding and highly engaging introduction to economic history.
5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Randall Stephenson, AT&T)
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
A long-standing classic of world literature, The Brothers Karamazov is a powerful read. CEO Randall Stephenson recommended this book in Scouting Magazine. There is much to learn from this book including perspectives on family life and life in Russia. If you’re looking for an engaging work of fiction to read, this book is a great place to start.
6. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman (Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase)
“No matter what your profession – doctor, lawyer, architect, accountant – if you are an American, you better be good at the touchy-feely service stuff, because anything that can be digitized can be outsourced to either the smartest or the cheapest producer.”
Understanding recent changes in the global economy is a challenge. In this popular book, Friedman has explained several key trends including outsourcing and improving technology. As you interact with global customers and competitors, this book will give you a big picture understanding. CEO Jamie Dimon recommends this book (along with The Intelligent Investor) in his suggestion to JP Morgan summer interns.
7. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil)
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won.”
Atlas Shrugged is a popular book among many successful people. Financial blogger Trent Hamm listed the book as one of the 10 books that changed his life. CEO Rex Tillerson recommends the book because it shows the positive impact that business leaders can make on the world. Published over 50 years ago, the novel remains a popular read in the business community.
8. The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (Warren Buffett, Berkshire-Hathaway)
“The tale of Enron is a story of human weakness, of hubris and greed and rampant self-delusion; of ambition run amok; of a grand experiment in the deregulated world; of a business model that didn’t work; and of smart people who believed their next gamble would cover their last disaster—and who couldn’t admit they were wrong.”
As you build a career, you will be faced with choices. You may have decide whether to take a job or move to a new city. You will also be faced with the decision on whether to act ethically. This book is a great case study in what happens when an unethical focus to produce profits takes over. Warren Buffett has recommended the book. Buffett’s recommendation is in line with his famous newspaper test principle.
9. Competing Against Time by George Stalk (Tim Cook, Apple)
“The creation of value by using time as a competitive weapon requires strategies to lock up the most attractive customers to keep competitors at bay.”
With millions of customers to impress, it is no surprise that Apple CEO Tim Cook recommends this book. The recommendation is likely influenced by the fact that Cook came up through the ranks with a focus on operations and procurement. After all, if materials and inventory do not arrive on schedule, it is very difficult to run an effective business.
10. The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin (Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs)
“I have included the story of only a few crucial inventions – the clock, the compass, the telescope and the microscope, the printing press and movable type – which have been essential instruments of discovery… My focus remains on mankind’s need to know – to know what is out there.”
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has been reading this sweeping history book for years. Much like The World is Flat and The Ascent of Money, this book puts our world into context. You will learn about the people who explored the world, took risks and challenged their society’s ideas. Those are all important lessons to learn as you navigate through new business challenges. This book may also inspire you to keep working if you are working on a new product or a start-up – situations where you are confronted with uncertainty.
11. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (Marilyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin)
“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”
Gladwell has become a widely quoted and important author for good reason. His insights and storytelling ability have few peers. In Blink, you will learn about the fine art of decision making and how fast decisions work. CEO Marilyn Hewson recommends this book because it helped her to trust her instincts in business.
12. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman (Larry Page, Google)
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.”
Google co-founder Larry Page has listed this book as one of his favorites. As a scientist who worked on many different problems in physics and technology, Feynman is a great example of pushing boundaries. As Google continues to develop new products such as driverless cars, one can see the Feynman’s innovative approach shining through. If your business ideas are novel and facing challenges, Feynman’s book will inspire you to keep working at it.
Featured photo credit: Jeff Bezos/Desk.com via desk.com