10 books that CEOs keep returning to, over and over again

We asked 10 leaders to tell us which books they keep close at hand.

10 books that CEOs keep returning to, over and over again
[Photo: Pixabay/Unsplash]

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, and Oprah Winfrey share one thing in common beyond their billionaire status: they’re voracious readers. Buffett famously claims he still reads 600 to 1,000 pages a day. Many of today’s up-and-coming CEOs read a lot as well, so we decided to ask several which books have profoundly impacted their businesses and lives enough that they reread them regularly


When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

“Being an entrepreneur and a female immigrant can often become a lonely journey, and during those times, I found myself going back to a certain set of books, looking for inspiration and to restore faith in my own abilities,” says Medina Baitemirova, founder and CEO of Clinicai, a predictive healthcare startup that detects colorectal cancers and other diseases. “[When Breath Becomes Air] reminds me that my life is much bigger than it seems, in terms of my work and dreams but also in terms of people that surround me.” 

The entire Harry Potter series — J.K. Rowling

Christie Marchese, founder and CEO of Picture Motion, an impact agency for film and entertainment, says she rereads the whole saga every other year at least. “J.K. Rowling created an incredible world that I truly enjoy revisiting when I need a mental break from work,” she says. “Plus, Dumbledore gives great advice, and I take inspiration from Hermione’s activism for the rights of house elves.” 

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln — Doris Kearns Goodwin

“I’ve liked history books since I was a kid,” says Richard Matsui, founder and CEO of kWh Analytics, a solar fintech company. “Imagine you meet your professional idol who then dismisses you as an ‘ape’ because you’re poorly educated and even more poorly dressed. Ten years later, you’re president of the United States, and you make that professional idol your secretary of war during the Civil War, because you know he’s the best person for the job. That’s one of many instances reflecting Lincoln’s clarity of purpose. He consistently put what he was trying to accomplish above his own ego.”


Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life — Byron Katie

“Startups involve so many ups and downs, and it’s easy to tie my own sense of worth to the company’s and become too attached to outcomes,” says Vlada Bortnik, cofounder of the video communication app Marco Polo. “This book helps me maintain healthy distinctions and reminds me to enjoy the journey.”

Blue Ocean Strategy — Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim

Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim

“I tend to stick to entrepreneurial classics,” says Michelle Cordeiro Grant, CEO of LIVELY, an inclusive bra and underwear startup. “Blue Ocean forces you to focus on how to create market share rather than take market share, in order to build a long-term, successful business.”

Dare to Lead — Brené Brown

“This is the one business book that I return to frequently, as our company has scaled quickly over the past three years,” says John Paasonen, founder and CEO of digital mortgage platform Maxwell Financial Labs. “It’s not a typical leadership book filled with hyperbole but a practical guide for managers to address the emotion of leading a team. . . . This is required reading for everyone on our leadership team.”


Thinking, Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman

Evan Maridou, founder and CEO of Milo, a startup that offers technology-enabled wellness clinics for pets, says, “More than any other book, this book has challenged my way of thinking and how I make decisions. The lessons in the book can help CEOs understand the best way to market to customers, communicate more effectively with their teams, and raise money from investors. For my generation, so much emphasis was placed on IQ, but the most common thread I’ve observed in successful CEOs I’ve worked for are high levels of emotional intelligence.”

The Boys in the Boat — Daniel James Brown

“Set during the time of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, this novel made a lasting impression on me,” says Julie Hansen, U.S. CEO of language learning app Babbel. “It teaches the importance of grit, perseverance, and hard work, as well as teamwork and putting the group before the self. It’s an incredible story of triumph against all odds, and a great read. Naturally, it was recommended by my rowing coach.”

The Longevity Economy — Joseph F. Coughlin

The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market by Joseph F. Coughlin

“I love this book because it focuses on user-centered design for people over 50, a demographic that is typically underserved when it comes to innovative design—and one that we are excited to build empowering technology for,” says Rhian Horgan, Founder and CEO of Kindur, a retirement planning app. “We see significant differences in usability patterns for our 60-year-old customer as compared to a 20-year-old, and user research ensures we meet our customers where they are.”


Radical Candor — Kim Scott

“This is the best book I have read on managing, period,” says Andrew Myers, CEO of RippleMatch, a job and internship matching platform for college and early-career seekers. “There has been some pushback on how ‘candid’ management styles can be an excuse for poor emotional intelligence and overly critical feedback, but Scott handles this in stride. . . . In a fast-moving startup environment, teams need to be able to count on each other for a consistent stream of honest feedback to perform at their best.” 


About the author

Beck Bamberger founded BAM Communications in 2008 and writes regularly for Forbes, Inc., and HuffPost about entrepreneurship, public relations, and culture.