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15 top CEOs, executives name their favorite leadership books that inspire and challenge

Posted by Neha De

January 27, 2022

Whether you like the feel of a hard-bound book or prefer to listen to the audio version, a good book can be the ideal companion, source of inspiration or relaxation aid. 

Here is a roundup of 15 leadership books that “taught, challenged and inspired minds at Bank of America, IBM, Unilever and more,” as compiled by the World Economic Forum.

1. A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian GrazerA Curious Mind comes highly recommended from Brian Moynihan, CEO, Bank of America. Moynihan believes curiosity plays a key role in tackling challenges, helping one stay curious about different questions and not presuming you know all the answers. This New York Times bestseller offers a brilliant peek into the curiosity conversations that inspired Grazer to create some of the world’s most iconic movies and television shows.

2. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department by Dean Acheson – Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state during the presidency of Harry Truman, played a central role in building a range of global structures after the second world war. Acheson navigated that time thanks to boundless energy, determination and near complete ignorance of the challenge that he faced. 

According to Tom Shannon, former ambassador, “Our modern era also brings uncertainty but we sometimes have a better sense for certain challenges before us and these memoirs can be an inspiring take on grappling with difficult times.”

3. Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference by Desmond Tutu and Mpho TutuMade for Goodness is the go-to book for Tariq Al Olaimy, founder, 3BL Associates. The book talks about the horrors of the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, but also the trust and goodness that existed. Al Olaimy shares, “It is a remembrance for me of believing in the goodness of human beings.”

4. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche – This book is a top recommendation from Leena Nair, chief human resource officer, Unilever. It offers an introduction to Tibetan Buddhist wisdom. After the tragedies of COVID-19, this book prompted Nair to think about both life and death but also purpose and meaning.

5. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant Give and Take comes highly recommended from Rich Lesser, CEO, Boston Consulting Group. Lesser read it early in his tenure as the top boss and found the message of putting others’ success first shaping and key to BCG’s priorities. Lesser gives a copy of this book to every managing director and partner, and it even led to a special book club night with his executive committee.

6. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This book explores Lincoln’s cabinet, a group that included enemies and rivals who became a team of allies thanks to their respect and reverence of the president. David Rubenstein, co-founder, The Carlyle Group, explains, “What you get from that is that even though you have enemies, even though you have competitors, if you work together with them, you can achieve some great things.”

7. Ten Years to Midnight: Four Urgent Global Crises and Their Strategic Solutions by Blair H. Sheppard – Sheppard is the global leader for strategy and leadership for the PwC network. She outlines some of the top challenges gleaned from interviews with a range of people, from global leaders to taxi drivers. 

Ten Years to Midnight discovers that regardless of background, interviewees shared concerns over problems such as wealth disparity and technological disruption. The book also describes how these problems provoked four major crises, analyzing each and offering sometimes counterintuitive solutions. 

Bob Moritz, global chairman, PwC, says the book helped PwC refine its strategic thinking and find ways to take action. He says, “To me, it was a great opportunity to encapsulate the challenges and then really get to the next steps of what do we do.”

8. The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations out of Poverty, by Clayton M. ChristensenThe Prosperity Paradox identifies the limits of common economic development models, which tend to be top-down efforts, and offers a new framework for economic growth based on entrepreneurship and market-creating innovation. 

Lindiwe Matlali, founder of Africa Teen Geeks (Africa's largest computer science NGO), is committed to using tech education to reshape opportunities across the continent and create a pipeline of new developers, engineers and entrepreneurs. Promoting entrepreneurship is a huge priority for Matlali and, according to her, Christiansen’s approach to creating is key to helping people around the world reshape their opportunity.

9. I Love Capitalism!: An American Story by Ken Langone – This recommendation from Ernst & Young CEO Carmine Di Sibio explores the story of the Long Island native, who became a world-class philanthropist, a director of the New York Stock Exchange and the co-founder of Home Depot. The book shows the types of opportunities that capitalism can make possible.

10. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins – Based on facts and figures, Good to Great looks at how businesses built their success through effective company cultures, and that only with great people and culture can you tackle big challenges. Carlos Brito, former CEO of AB InBev, says, “The fact that you are attracting talented people is the biggest determinant of whether you're going to be able to build a great enduring company. As they grow, the company will grow.”

11. The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future by Fiona Reynolds – This book explores the history of Britain’s belief in the importance of landscape beauty, and at the political and economic forces that have shaped the countryside. Polly Courtice, former founder director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, says that she enjoyed this exploration of the tussle between nature and the economy. Having grown up in South Africa and having developed a sense of the beauty of the world around us, she was also very moved by the book. 

Courtice believes readers will understand that some of the battles we are tackling are not new but the scale is more significant and the risks greater “if we don't recognize that we have to live in harmony with the natural world.”

12. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good by Michael Sandel – This book explores society’s obsession with achievement and how it can serve as the surprising root of divisions and inequities. According to Dario Gil, director, IBM Research, “It’s an analysis of the dark side of meritocracy.” Winners in this system can have an outsized sense of their own importance, while losers — shut out from certain routes to success, such as degrees and other credentials —  can be dismissed and discarded as not deserving.

13. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – Organizational psychologist John Amaechi’s recommendation offers a fresh analysis to show why greater economic equality and not wealth is the mark of the most successful societies.

14. Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi – This book recommendation is written by the mother of Audrey Choi, chief sustainability officer at Morgan Stanley. It offers a personal family story about her mother’s time growing up in North Korea during the Japanese occupation during World War II. Being raised in America, Audrey says the book also offers an incredible perspective on the nature of opportunity and how advancement is increasingly out of reach in areas around the world.

15. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton – While writing a book about the second half of life, Debra Whitman, chief public policy officer at AARP, dug into this book and uncovered a range of surprising shifts for life expectancy, including the fact that men at the top 1% of income live 15 years longer than men at the bottom. Such facts show how income inequality has paved the way for life inequality, driving gaps in the amount of time certain people can spend on Earth with their families. This “under-the-radar” idea of life-inequality, according to Whitman, has impacted our politics and understanding it can help anyone understand how many see their future. 

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