Recommended Reading: 15 Books Recommended by Top Leaders

Recommended Reading from Leaders Like Steve Jobs

I’m always looking for great books to add to my reading list and I often get requests recommendations from friends and colleagues. I figured it was high time I put together a list of recommended reading from some of the top business leaders and CEOs of our time.

Most CEOs and business leaders will tell you that a constant commitment to learning is one of the key drivers for their success. Reading is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to expand your knowledge or learn about new topics.

Feel free to add your own thoughts and recommendations in the comments. For now, off to the list!

The Innovator’s Dilemma

Since I included a Steve Jobs quote I will start with his recommendation of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen. This was probably the first book on Innovation that I read and it set me on a very different path in my career. Understanding the principles of disruptive innovation has allowed me to identify opportunities for innovation in a completely new way in many different industries and organizations.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, author Clayton M Christensen shows what the Honda Supercub, Intel’s 8088 processor, and hydraulic excavators have in common. They are all examples of disruptive technologies that helped to redefine the competitive landscape of their respective markets. These products did not come about as the result of successful companies carrying out sound business practices in established markets. Christensen shows how these and other products cut into the low end of the marketplace and eventually evolved to displace high-end competitors and their reigning technologies.

At the heart of The Innovator’s Dilemma is how a successful company with established products keeps from being pushed aside by newer, cheaper products that will, over time, get better and become a serious threat. Christensen writes that even the best-managed companies, in spite of their attention to customers and continual investment in new technology, are susceptible to failure no matter what the industry, be it hard drives or consumer retailing. Succinct and clearly written, The Innovator’s Dilemma is an important book that belongs on every manager’s bookshelf.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement

One of Jeff Bezos’ highlighted recommendations is “The Goal” by Eliyahu M Goldratt. I was first introduced to The Goal in my first foray into manufacturing where my production manager recommended it to me. The Goal will fundamentally change how you think about process, structure, and the ongoing improvement of your business productivity.

Written in a fast-paced thriller style, The Goal, a gripping novel, is transforming management thinking throughout the world. It is a book to recommend to your friends in industry – even to your bosses – but not to your competitors. Alex Rogo is a harried plant manager working ever more desperately to try improve performance. His factory is rapidly heading for disaster. So is his marriage. He has ninety days to save his plant – or it will be closed by corporate HQ, with hundreds of job losses. It takes a chance meeting with a professor from student days – Jonah – to help him break out of conventional ways of thinking to see what needs to be done. The story of Alex’s fight to save his plant is more than compulsive reading. It contains a serious message for all managers in industry and explains the ideas, which underline the Theory of Constraints (TOC), developed by Eli Goldratt.

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street

Bill Gates read this book on the recommendation of Warren Buffett, and has included it on almost every “recommended reading” list that I have seen him publish. “Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street” by John Brooks is on my list of books to finish this year.

What do the $350 million Ford Motor Company disaster known as the Edsel, the fast and incredible rise of Xerox, and the unbelievable scandals at General Electric and Texas Gulf Sulphur have in common? Each is an example of how an iconic company was defined by a particular moment of fame or notoriety; these notable and fascinating accounts are as relevant today to understanding the intricacies of corporate life as they were when the events happened.

Stories about Wall Street are infused with drama and adventure and reveal the machinations and volatile nature of the world of finance. Longtime New Yorker contributor John Brooks’s insightful reportage is so full of personality and critical detail that whether he is looking at the astounding market crash of 1962, the collapse of a well-known brokerage firm, or the bold attempt by American bankers to save the British pound, one gets the sense that history repeats itself.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

I had never heard of this book before doing my research today, but it has made its way onto my must-read list thanks to the recommendation of Larry Page from Google. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” by Richard P. Feynman is made up of a series of anecdotes that Feynman has assembled to represent an autobiography.

Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, thrived on outrageous adventures. Here he recounts in his inimitable voice his experience trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek; cracking the uncrackable safes guarding the most deeply held nuclear secrets; accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums; painting a naked female toreador. In short, here is Feynman’s life in all its eccentric―a combustible mixture of high intelligence, unlimited curiosity, and raging chutzpah.

Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works

As a giant fan of Roger Martin and his work, I was excited to pick up this collaboration with A.G. Lafley which comes recommended by Meg Whitman of HP. If you have ever struggled with strategy or the strategic planning process, Lafley and Martin break it down into an approachable framework. And it works. “Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works” by A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin is a master class on how to do strategic planning.

Strategy is not complex. But it is hard. It’s hard because it forces people and organizations to make specific choices about their future—something that doesn’t happen in most companies.

Now two of today’s best-known business thinkers get to the heart of strategy—explaining what it’s for, how to think about it, why you need it, and how to get it done. And they use one of the most successful corporate turnarounds of the past century, which they achieved together, to prove their point.

The result is a playbook for winning. Lafley and Martin have created a set of five essential strategic choices that, when addressed in an integrated way, will move you ahead of your competitors.

Competing Against Time: How Time-Based Competition is Reshaping Global Markets

Another one that resides in my list of upcoming reading comes from Tim Cook from Apple. “Competing Against Time” by George Stalk examines the power of time as a competitive advantage in business, and comes with the endorsement of a whole group of business leaders from John Deere, FedEx, and Ford.

Today, time is the cutting edge. In fact, as a strategic weapon, contend George Stalk, Jr., and Thomas M. Hout, time is the equivalent of money, productivity, quality, even innovation. In this path-breaking book based upon ten years of research, the authors argue that the ways leading companies manage time–in production, in new product development, and in sales and distribution–represent the most powerful new sources of competitive advantage.With many detailed examples from companies that have put time-based strategies in place, such as Federal Express, Ford, Milliken, Honda, Deere, Toyota, Sun Microsystems, Wal-Mart, Citicorp, Harley-Davidson, and Mitsubishi, the authors describe exactly how reducing elapsed time can make the critical difference between success and failure. Give customers what they want when they want it, or the competition will. Time-based companies are offering greater varieties of products and services, at lower costs, and with quicker delivery times than their more pedestrian competitors.

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

Jeff Bezos includes this Jim Collins classic on his recommended list and I couldn’t agree more. All of Jim Collins’ work is worth reading, but “Built to Last” is the one I see most often on business leaders’ bookshelves. I have read this on multiple occasions to remind me of the tools within, and I highly recommend you buy rather than borrow this book.

Drawing upon a six-year research project at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras took eighteen truly exceptional and long-lasting companies and studied each in direct comparison to one of its top competitors. They examined the companies from their very beginnings to the present day — as start-ups, as midsize companies, and as large corporations. Throughout, the authors asked: “What makes the truly exceptional companies different from the comparison companies and what were the common practices these enduringly great companies followed throughout their history?”

Filled with hundreds of specific examples and organized into a coherent framework of practical concepts that can be applied by managers and entrepreneurs at all levels, Built to Last provides a master blueprint for building organizations that will prosper long into the 21st century and beyond.

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Perhaps the best business (and career, and life) book that I have read in my life comes recommended by Sir Richard Branson. “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek has spawned one of the most watched TED Talks of all time and has ignited a movement of inspiration around the world with his Golden Circles. This is one you need to read.

Sinek starts with a fundamental question: Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? Why do some command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike? Even among the successful, why are so few able to repeat their success over and over?

People like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with WHY. They realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

With recommendations from Sir Richard Branson and John Chambers, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” is an important read for leaders. While progress has been made in balancing the workforce, women still make up very few of the senior leadership roles in business today. Using personal examples, stories, stats, and research, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg challenges all leaders to do better.

Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.

Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and is ranked on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2010, she gave an electrifying TEDTalk in which she described how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. Her talk, which became a phenomenon and has been viewed more than two million times, encouraged women to “sit at the table,” seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their goals with gusto.

Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything

Warren Buffett has been a huge influence on Bill Gates, which likely leads to Bill’s recommendation of this book. In “Tap Dancing to Work”, Carol Loomis has collected and curated the best articles that Fortune Magazine has published on the man who built Berkshire Hathaway from 1966 to 2013. There are some incredible lessons that can be learned from the life and times of Buffett, and these articles follow his story in a unique and interesting way.

When Carol Loomis first mentioned a little-known Omaha hedge fund manager in a 1966 Fortune article, she didn’t dream that Warren Buffett would one day be considered the world’s greatest investor—nor that she and Buffett would quickly become close personal friends. As Buf­fett’s fortune and reputation grew over time, Loomis used her unique insight into Buffett’s thinking to chronicle his work for Fortune, writ­ing and proposing scores of stories that tracked his many accomplishments—and also his occa­sional mistakes.

Now Loomis has collected and updated the best Buffett articles Fortune published between 1966 and 2012, including thirteen cover stories and a dozen pieces authored by Buffett himself. Loomis has provided commentary about each major arti­cle that supplies context and her own informed point of view. Readers will gain fresh insights into Buffett’s investment strategies and his thinking on management, philanthropy, public policy, and even parenting.

Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think

As science and technology continue to grow exponentially, the power to create abundance for the entire planet is within our reach. At least that is the believe of Sir Richard Branson who includes this book in his recommended reading. “Abundance” by Peter H. Diamandis explores the possibilities for the future that address overpopulation, food, water, energy, education, healthcare, and more.

Since the dawn of humanity, a privileged few have lived in stark contrast to the hardscrabble majority. Conventional wisdom says this gap cannot be closed. But it is closing—fast.

In Abundance, space entrepreneur turned innovation pioneer Peter H. Diamandis and award-winning science writer Steven Kotler document how progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing synthetic biology, and other exponentially growing technologies will enable us to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have in the previous 200 years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every person on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike

Recently added to Bill Gates’ recommendations is this autobiography from the creator of Nike. Phil Knight has been media-shy throughout his career, but he opens up in “Shoe Dog” to give us an inside view into the creation and evolution of Nike over the years.

Fresh out of business school, Phil Knight borrowed fifty dollars from his father and launched a company with one simple mission: import high-quality, low-cost running shoes from Japan. Selling the shoes from the trunk of his car in 1963, Knight grossed eight thousand dollars that first year. Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion. In this age of start-ups, Knight’s Nike is the gold standard, and its swoosh is one of the few icons instantly recognized in every corner of the world.

But Knight, the man behind the swoosh, has always been a mystery. In Shoe Dog, he tells his story at last. At twenty-four, Knight decides that rather than work for a big corporation, he will create something all his own, new, dynamic, different. He details the many risks he encountered, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors and hostile bankers—as well as his many thrilling triumphs. Above all, he recalls the relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with his former track coach, the irascible and charismatic Bill Bowerman, and with his first employees, a ragtag group of misfits and savants who quickly became a band of swoosh-crazed brothers.

The Design of Everyday Things

For all the failings of Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, the design improvements she drove in their products wasn’t one of them. Design has been a critical element of every business whether it be customer experience, user experience, or pure creative design. In “The Design of Everyday Things”, Don Norman helps make simple usable design approachable to everyone and should be a must-read for any leader.

Even the smartest among us can feel inept as we fail to figure out which light switch or oven burner to turn on, or whether to push, pull, or slide a door. The fault, argues this ingenious-even liberating-book, lies not in ourselves, but in product design that ignores the needs of users and the principles of cognitive psychology. The problems range from ambiguous and hidden controls to arbitrary relationships between controls and functions, coupled with a lack of feedback or other assistance and unreasonable demands on memorization.

The Design of Everyday Things shows that good, usable design is possible. The rules are simple: make things visible, exploit natural relationships that couple function and control, and make intelligent use of constraints. The goal: guide the user effortlessly to the right action on the right control at the right time.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

I find most people either love or hate checklists. There is rarely a position in between. But whether you like them or hate them it is hard to argue with the power of checklists that Atul Gawande demonstrates in “The Checklist Manifesto”. Starting from their application in medicine you will learn how to apply the simple power of checklists to almost any process or task, reducing errors and increasing productivity all along the way.

The modern world has given us stupendous know-how. Yet avoidable failures continue to plague us in health care, government, the law, the financial industry―in almost every realm of organized activity. And the reason is simple: the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people―consistently, correctly, safely. We train longer, specialize more, use ever-advancing technologies, and still we fail. Atul Gawande makes a compelling argument that we can do better, using the simplest of methods: the checklist. In riveting stories, he reveals what checklists can do, what they can’t, and how they could bring about striking improvements in a variety of fields, from medicine and disaster recovery to professions and businesses of all kinds. And the insights are making a difference. Already, a simple surgical checklist from the World Health Organization designed by following the ideas described here has been adopted in more than twenty countries as a standard for care and has been heralded as “the biggest clinical invention in thirty years”

Dream Big: How the Brazilian Trio behind 3G Capital acquired Anheuser-Busch, Burger King and Heinz

I have not read this one, but given that it made Warren Buffett’s list I am interested in giving it a shot. “Dream Big” by Christine Correa profiles the three Brazilian leaders who have built the behemoth that is 3G Capital including the acquisition of Anheuser-Busch, Burger King, and Heinz. It’s on my reading list now… will it make yours?

In just 40 years this Brazilian trio built the biggest empire in the history of Brazilian capitalism and launched themselves onto the world stage in an unprecedented way.

The management method they developed, which has been zealously followed by their employees, is based on meritocracy, simplicity and constant cost cutting.

Their culture is as efficient as it is merciless and leaves no room for mediocre performance. On the other hand, those who bring in exceptional results have the chance to become company partners and make a fortune.

Dream Big presents a detailed behind-the-scenes portrait of the meteoric rise of these three businessmen, from the founding of Banco Garantia in the 1970s to the present day.

Feel free to share your favourites or other CEO recommendations in the comments!

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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