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13 books that CEOs think you should read in 2020

As you make your reading list for the next decade, consider titles that span everything from healthy school lunches to Trump’s immigration record.

13 books that CEOs think you should read in 2020
[Photo: Fedor Kozyr/iStock; Annie Spratt/Unsplash]

As another year comes to an end—and this time, the decade too—perhaps you’ve realized you haven’t quite made it through your reading list. If you’re starting anew in 2020 with a more realistic Goodreads challenge, you might want to consider the titles we’ve compiled below.

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We asked a number of CEOs for their book recommendations going into the New Year. Here, you won’t find just business tomes, but a mix of books on leadership, history, food—and even some fiction.

Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

When it comes to managing teams, emotional intelligence is as important as IQ, according to Amanda Nguyen, the founder and CEO of Rise, a nonprofit that advocates for sexual assault survivors. “Building a company involves treating employees as partners in building your dream,” Nguyen says. “Learning who they are, what drives them, and what makes them happy will make for a better community and workplace culture.”

The Banker’s Wife, by Cristina Alger

“One of my favorite films is The Big Short, and earlier this year, I was looking for a novel of a similar genre that is entertaining and suspenseful, while being a superfast read,” says Aleen Kuperman, the cofounder and CEO of media company Betches. “I came across The Banker’s Wife and finished it in a day. I highly recommend it if you like scandal, suspense, and the finance industry.”

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight

“We all love to admire and aspire to be like billion-dollar brand Nike, but it’s easy to forget it too had a rocky and humble start,” says Daina Trout, the founder and CEO of Health-Ade Kombucha. “I love this book because it’s a great reminder that even the best of the best had to start at the beginning. I’m super inspired by this book because Nike was once where Health-Ade was in terms of size and struggles, so I know there is a way I can take it all the way just like [Phil] did.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

“Our healthcare system is deeply flawed in ways that are often hard for people of privilege to comprehend,” says Joel Wishkovsky, founder and CEO of birth control delivery startup Simple Health. “This book brings you on an incredible, real-life journey that vividly paints a picture of the systems of inequality that persist in healthcare today. For anyone that is interested in solving problems in healthcare, this book dives right into the heart of issues around morality, intellectual property, healthcare access, and scientific discovery that still persist to this day.”

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

This book tells the stories of the eight vice presidents—including Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson—who were thrust into the top job after their predecessors died. “It’s a thrilling read with tales of brawls in Congress and failed assassination attempts,” says Ruzwana Bashir, founder and CEO of travel startup Peek. “Although politics feels very tumultuous right now, it reminded me that America has always been incredibly resilient through extraordinary moments of strife.”

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The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, by Jennifer Gaddis

The author argues that Americans need to look beyond other infrastructure issues and “see the urgency of bringing our nation’s 100,000 school cafeterias into the 21st century,” according to Curt Ellis, the cofounder and CEO of nonprofit FoodCorps, which helps give students access to healthy food. “She’s on the right track,” Ellis says. “What if our nation’s largest restaurant chain—our 100,000 schools—could be retooled as an engine for creating good jobs in our communities, building our local farm economies, and nourishing our kids with fresh-cooked food?”

Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration, by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear

Xiao Wang, the founder and CEO of immigration startup Boundless, believes this is the rare policy book that manages to be a page-turner. “You may think you know what’s going on with the current administration’s stance on immigration, but the true lack of strategy, organization, and planning behind every initiative is revealed,” he says. “As immigration continues to be a key issue through the 2020 elections, this is a thorough primer on how we got here and what to expect moving forward. The only drawback is that this isn’t fiction, and decisions are impacting millions of lives.”

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, by Samantha Power

Michelle Nunn, the CEO of humanitarian aid organization Care, calls this memoir by the former U.N. ambassador a “compelling and authentic personal narrative,” as well as an account of major geopolitical events in recent decades. “Power unsparingly reveals how idealism confronts morally ambiguous leadership decisions, laying bare both human frailty and the inner workings of impossible situations,” Nunn says. “Yet she still leaves the reader inspired to make a difference in the world.”

Endurance: An Illustrated Account of Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic, by Alfred Lansing

“It’s an inspiring story that contains parallels that will resonate with any entrepreneur,” says Fritz Lanman, the CEO of fitness startup ClassPass. “Tales of great ambition, decision-making, perseverance, and, of course, luck.”

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker

Aliza Kline, the founding executive director and CEO of OneTable—a nonprofit that empowers young people to host Shabbat dinners—sees this as a handbook to hosting. “I meet so many anxious hosts in my line of work, and this is wisdom we all need to hear,” Kline says. “As someone obsessed with design thinking, I was immediately drawn to Priya Parker’s human-centered approach to gathering and was not disappointed. Her argument that being a ‘chill’ host is ultimately selfish will really change the way you see meetings, dinner parties, Shabbat dinners, conferences, and everything else. It all starts with an invitation. Set your intention, and share it. Your guests will be grateful.”

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, by Chip and Dan Heath

“Alexa Von Tobel—one of our investors—suggested I read [this book] as we were just launching Chief,” says Carolyn Childers, the cofounder and CEO of Chief, the private club for executive women. “It dives deep into how to build impactful experiences and the importance of overinvesting in key moments to create fewer but more powerful experiences instead of a bunch of decent ones. I reference this book all the time as we work to build an impactful experience for Chief members.”

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The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture, by Scott Belsky

“Not only is [this book] superrelatable, but in times where some startups struggle with hubris, it keeps you grounded, while helping you to think outside of the box,” says Isabelle Steichen, the cofounder and CEO of food business Lupii. “One of my big takeaways is around fundraising and how fundraising should not be celebrated. It’s a means to an end. On the flip side, it’s essential to celebrate all other milestones and progress, big and small, to build great work culture and a team that sticks together.”

On the High Wire, by Philippe Petit

Henry Elkus, the founder and CEO of nonpartisan institute Helena, dubs this book “one of the hidden classics” of leadership reads. “Petit, the greatest tightrope walker of all time, [imparts] Zen-like ideas on how to focus on what matters in the present while blocking out all else,” Elkus says. “I found this more valuable than any business memoir, and it’s a shame it isn’t read more widely.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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