It seems ironic and almost antiquated that many of the great modern business leaders still recommend picking up books and reading them as a means to self-improvement.
Most of the biggest companies in the world are based on tech industries and modern media. And yet the immersive experience of reading page after page is still heralded as vital if you want to become a successful leader of business.
Warren Buffett begins his reading straight after breakfast, while Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates often post in blogs about their preferred reading. Many leaders see it as a form of meditation as well as simply gaining information.
Whether it’s a book while travelling, or simply reading at night for relaxation, all great business leaders have a voracious appetite for the written word. Here are some reading tips from 20 of the greatest leaders in the business world.
- Warren Buffett, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway
The world’s most famous investor is still an avid reader in his late 80s – consuming more than 500 pages a day by all accounts. He has recommended many books to leaders over the years, but a book he read when only 19 is still his favourite.
The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, published 70 years ago gave Buffett the intellectual framework and emotional discipline required to make him a multibillionaire. So much so, that the fourth edition, published in 1973, included a preface and appendices from Buffett himself.
- Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon
It’s not surprising that the founder of Amazon would be a big reader, but his choice of favourite book is somewhat unusual – not least that it’s a novel: The Remains of the Day, the Booker Prize winner by Kazuo Ishiguro.
A poignant tale of regret, as the protagonist recalls his life as a butler leading up to World War II. Bezos believes that he learns more from fiction than from business books. Although several of the books by Jim Collins about business sustainability are also on the Bezos’ reading list.
- Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla
Another of the great modern-day business leaders also has a novel among his recommended reading; Musk is a fan of Lord of the Flies by British Nobel laureate William Golding.
Written in the 1950s about a group of British schoolboys stranded on a deserted island and forced to organise themselves, it is perhaps the ultimate raw tale of greed and survival. And Musk is certainly a survivor. His other reading tastes perhaps unsurprisingly include a mix of business and science fiction.
- Brian Chesky, CEO, Airbnb
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neil Gabler is one of the books sitting on Chesky’s shelves. As is the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. Two visionary American geniuses born 50 years apart, who both died in California of cancer, way too young.
Chesky, a former bodybuilder, is the CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, which he started in 2007 by buying three blow-up mattresses and renting them out – effectively turning his apartment into an ‘Air Bed and Breakfast’ – as he couldn’t afford the rent. Disney and Jobs would have been proud of such entrepreneurial creativity.
- Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook
You could argue that his company has eroded the use of books more than any other, but Zuckerberg himself enjoys an eclectic mix of science, business and religious non-fiction reading. Two interesting works often cited include The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James and World Order by Henry Kissinger.
Charting the history of European, Chinese, Islamic and American ideals, Kissinger attempts to show how they all struggle for position within today’s international framework; the book written almost 60 years after his first works has received great acclaim, from Hillary Clinton among others.
- Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
Biographies of Gandhi and Bobby Kennedy, along with the March graphic novels of John Lewis show how important civil rights are to Cook. Perhaps they helped give him the strength to be the first Fortune 500 CEO to come out as gay in 2014.
He apparently also recommends Competing Against Time by George Stalk Jr and Thomas Hout to anyone he employs. Written almost 30 years ago now by two vice presidents of The Boston Consulting Group it stands, well, the test of time.
- Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft
Now an author himself, the CEO of Microsoft often looks to the past when helping to shape the future. One of the interesting books on his reading list is The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown; the heroic tale of the 1936 US rowing team that took gold at Hitler’s Olympics.
Not as acclaimed as Jesse Owens feats at the same games, their story is nevertheless the stuff of depression-era dreams. A movie of the book is currently in development.
- Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google
The head of Google recommends a work by fellow Indian American and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Gene: An Intimate History is the acclaimed follow-up to Mukherjee’s bestseller The Emperor of All Maladies.
Now a New Yorker, Mukherjee spends much time researching the link between stem cells and cancer cells, and is also a columnist for The New York Times.
- Jack Dorsey, CEO, Twitter
Ernest Hemingway’s masculine prose has had fans as diverse as Hunter S Thompson, James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy; and The Old Man and the Sea is one of Dorsey’s favourite books. It won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize and contributed massively to his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The book is largely about the spirit of man and his struggles with fate and chance; redefining success as being about purpose rather than results. Hard to sum up in 140 characters…
- Larry Page, CEO, Alphabet
With a name like Page, you’d have to be a reader. And when it comes to reading matter for the co-founder of Google, look no further than the works of deceased scientist Richard Feynman. An American theoretical physicist who was known for his work on particle and quantum physics, he was also a prolific writer.
A winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! became a bestseller. That, along with some of his more accessible and popular works, are among Page’s favourites.
- Rupert Murdoch, Founder, News Corp
A man who has published millions of words and been the subject of many books himself, the media mogul counts The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley among his recommended reading. The premise of the book is that modern civilisation is based on the need to trade goods – and Murdoch is certainly a fan of such a philosophy.
Bill Gates is another to praise the book. Forget the negative press, globalisation is making the world a better place according to Ridley – although you could argue some of Murdoch’s publications don’t carry this message as strongly as they might…
- Sir Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group
Something of a Peter Pan character himself, the JM Barrie children’s book Peter and Wendy was among a long list of books Branson released that he said had influenced his life. Many were playful and fun books for kids that no doubt shaped the Virgin leader.
Some of his later reading included A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – possibly the most interesting and accessible account of the universe, and the search for a unified theory of physics. Almost the logical extension of Branson’s childhood reading and dreams.
- Stewart Butterfield, Co-Founder, Flickr and Slack
Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute is recommended reading to all execs at Slack and Flickr. First published in 2000 and now in its third edition, this bestseller gives people a glimpse of what life could be if we were able to throw off the boundaries and constraints we burden ourselves with.
The latest edition gives help on closing the gap on this self-deception, to help improve personal lives and organisational efficiency. If you feel trapped at work or home, then this is essential reading.
- Daniel Ek, CEO, Spotify
As the founder of Spotify there are unsurprisingly some musical biographies among Ek’s reading tastes, and also Alex Ferguson’s book on leadership, that the ex-Manchester United boss wrote with Michael Moritz. But like many other leaders in business Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed is a book that Ek recommends.
A former British table tennis champion, Syed’s debut book Bounce was a masterful study of nature verses nurture among sporting greats. Black Box Thinking explores our inert inability to study our failures and learn from them, due to the pain involved with self-examination.
- Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix
Powerful by Patty McCord is about the culture that allowed Netflix to succeed – and Reed Hastings recommends it! So much so, that he’s writing his own account of the streaming giant.
Indeed if you want to look at a successful business model in the 21st century then the OTT television service is as good as you can get. Wait for Reed’s version, or read McCord’s version in the meantime. Perhaps even wait for the Netflix exclusive, which seems inevitable.
- Travis Kalanick, Co-founder, Uber
The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s novel, has sold over 6.5 million copies in English since its publication in the 1940s and been adapted into many films and plays. Kalanick is a fan of the book about innovation and individualism. His brainchild Uber displaying many of the books creative traits.
The book has given rise to a philosophy called Objectivism, which puts man’s productive achievements at the heart of happiness and a meaning to life. Like Uber itself though, the book has also attracted some criticism for its lack of altruism.
- Meg Whitman, previously CEO, Hewlett Packard
Some people use a book to refine their professional or personal skills, Meg Whitman used one to base a whole company’s strategy around. Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by AG Lafley provided the blue print for when Whitman was in charge of Hewlett Packard.
Written by the CEO and Chairman of Procter & Gamble – where Whitman famously started her career – it outlined a simple framework for decision-making that the ex-eBay CEO thought fit HP perfectly at the time.
- Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn
Major influences for LinkedIn's CEO are Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, and Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. The latter, a work of non-fiction by Tracy Kidder, considers the life and times of the protagonist who dedicated a large part of his life to curing tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru and Russia.
- Dan Schulman, President, PayPal
Schulman is a veteran of senior exec positions with Amex, AT&T, Virgin Mobile and now PayPal, and his book of choice comes from another leader on this list: Satya Nadella. Hit Refresh has a subtitle that sums up its content quite directly: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine A Better Future for Everyone.
A social activist and genuine philanthropist, you can imagine Schulman identifying with Nadella’s approach to life – which saw him donate profits from the book to not-for-profit organisations and charities.
- Arianna Huffington, Founder, Huffington Post
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius was never intended for publication. It was simply a leader reflecting on his own skills and challenges, trying to understand the world he was operating in. And yet it has resonance still today, some 2000 years later. Arianna Huffington for one has previously included it in her reading lists, and she’s someone who understands the quality of the written word.
Bill Clinton once described it as his favourite book, and it includes such philosophical gems as: “If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it.”