The most successful people typically work hard, practice the right habits every day, and often are readers who strive for self-improvement. If reading is something you're willing to do to sharpen yourself, take some suggestions from more than two dozen executives who highly recommend these titles.
1. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
"Nobel Prize Laureate Kahneman packs in gems like, 'We either ignore [small risks] or give them too much weight. Nothing in between.' In moving from information to intelligence, this book is a must-read for leaders at any level. The audiobook is amazing, and I love the real-life examples that shed light on inherent biases from the truth."
--Ryan Smith, founder and CEO of FTSY ("footsy"), an artificial intelligence platform for matching people to shoes that fit
2. The Power of Now, by Eckart Tolle
"Spearheading the vision of any company tends to cause leaders to live in the future, focusing on when milestones will be reached and goals will be met. The interesting part is this 'when' is often never realized when we stay in this future-focused state. [This book] showcases the power of being truly present to where you are. The answers are often right in front of you. The success is playing out for you in the now. As leaders, we love the end game, but we must also learn to smell the roses, be mindful, and be fully present. Falling in love with the process of being present is a reminder for all leaders. Tolle not only logically breaks down the madness of future living but shows a new way to be a visionary in the now."
--Janice Taylor, founder and CEO ofMazu, a social-media village built on core values, safety, and curated content for families
3. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
"This book tells a tale about the life of Paul Kalanithi--an Oxford English major turned neurosurgeon--who finds himself as both a doctor and terminally-ill patient at the same time. It speaks to the fragility of life and highlights the imperativeness of living life to the fullest. It is a great book for entrepreneurs and risk-takers who are looking for new perspectives on life, career, and family. Like the roller coaster of building a large sustainable business, this book truly illustrates how real life's proverbial roller coaster really is."
--Derrick Fung, CEO of Drop, a Millennial-focused reward program that lets users accrue points while shopping their favorite brands
4. Acting Power, by Robert Cohen
"It may be surprising to learn that one of the best leadership books has nothing to do with leadership at all, or business for that matter. In fact, [this book] is just the opposite: an academic text about dramatic performance written to be used in college acting courses. Still, it remains an essential read for anyone interested in professional success. A critical part of leadership is understanding human behavior and using that knowledge to more effectively communicate an idea or vision. Acting Power teaches readers how to identify the core motivations behind behavior and use that knowledge as a powerful tool."
--Michael Parrish DuDell, Millennial expert and chief strategy officer of CouponFollow
5. The End of Illness, by David Agus, M.D.
"I mostly read books about science and health these days. At this point in my life, and at the age of 72, I think staying young, fit, and alert are the most important things I can do to continue to succeed in all aspects of my life, including professionally. The End of Illness by my friend David Agus is a book I go back to over and over, not only because he acknowledges my contribution (right next to Steve Jobs) but because it is a guide for staying healthy. In my opinion, being healthy is much more important than being rich, although being both is not bad."
--Avram Miller, former corporate VP of business development at Intel, the co-founder of Intel Capital, and current board vice chairman of Sommetrics, a company developing products and services aimed at enhancing health and well-being by improving sleep quality
6. The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, by Rebecca Z. Shafir
"Our minds are bombarded by a constant stream of to-do lists, deadlines, noisy emails, and even noisier newsfeeds. Information can go in one ear and out the other easier than expected, creating the difficult task of being truly present. [This book] is grounded in the Zen concept of mindfulness, a simple yet profound way of learning how to filter our distractions and be totally present in a conversation. Rather than a list of tricks, this book is an all-encompassing approach, allowing me to learn the barricades of misunderstanding with simple strategies to use immediately in my personal and professional life."
--James Ingram, CEO of Splashlight, a visual content creation company geared toward e-commerce and social media
7. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Pat Lencioni
"Nothing gets done in business alone. Everything is dependent on teams, which in turn is a function of alignment, communications, trust, and accountability. This book highlights what often sidelines teams and gives leaders a look into what it takes to build high-performing teams, not just teams of high-performing individuals."
--Neil Lustig, CEO of Sailthru, a cross-channel experience management platform for retail and media companies
8. Brand Hijack, by Alex Wipperfürth
"This is an oldie but a goodie. The customer is always right, no matter what. This book explains why the supplier of a good or a service needs to understand that they are exposing their brand to the customer, and the customer will make the brand what they want it to be, so let them. The book has great case studies outlining the success of letting the consumer evolve your brand and catering your marketing communications to what the consumer believes your brand is. A must-read for marketing professionals."
--Justin LaGosh, sales and marketing director at SunButter, a U.S. grown, seed-to-jar sunflower butter, free of the top eight food allergens, including peanuts, tree nuts, soy, dairy, eggs, wheat, fish, and shellfish
9. and 10. Endurance, by Alfred Lansing and In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick
"I recommend a few books that provide survival analogues and reality checks which help to place things in perspective. These are tales from the past.... Both are harrowing reads based on actual events, where individuals and teams were thrust into stressful situations and pushed beyond controls and limits. These reads will guide you to self-reflect on your life journey."
--Drew Richardson, president and CEO of PADI Worldwide (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors), a company committed to diver safety and education, underwater adventure and exploration, community and conservation
11. Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman
"This book challenges so many basic principles that we often take for granted, or ones that we don't even recognize exist. Its applications to dynamic teams, growing companies, or struggling entrepreneurs is invaluable. It underscores the importance of exploring, doing, stumbling, and learning. In my experience, most great outcomes include many of those activities."
--Terry Tierney, CEO of Daiya Foods, a maker of plant-based foods
12. The Servant, by James C. Hunter
"This book takes a deep dive into the leadership style known as 'the true essence of leadership.' It makes the argument that in order to lead and flourish, individuals need the support, and not authority, of a traditional boss...completely turning leadership around. It explains that, as leaders of an organization, our only responsibility is to support (be the servant) to everyone else in the organization by empowering others to lead. Being a servant leader creates an opportunity for individuals to reach their peak potential within your organization. The theory makes sense to me--it's the same way we treat customers, so why not our employees?"
--Michael J. Miller, CEO and executive chairman of Kiddie Academy, a nationwide provider of educational child care
13. Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki
"I feel like I learned an important lesson really early in life, one reinforced by [this book] that I read at the dawn of Volusion, while I was still in high school: 'In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.' Tech companies today are still teaching the 'fail fast' concept of learning mistakes and 'it's OK to fail' because that's how you learn."
--Kevin Sproles, CEO of Volusion, an e-commerce platform built for small and medium-size businesses
14. The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
"I'm not usually one to read nonfiction, but I'd highly recommend this book. It's about a supposed mythical, forgotten city in the Honduran jungle that is finally rediscovered via imaging technology. It's a great choice for those who like to take a break from the day to escape into a book, and a good reminder of how one person's unrelenting determination can accomplish the unthinkable, including solving a centuries-old mystery and locating a lost city."
--Bernard Luthi, CEO of Monoprice, an e-commerce seller of high-quality consumer electronics and products direct-to-consumer
15. Why We Buy, by Paco Underhill
"Despite the fact that it was originally published in 1999, and has not been updated in almost 10 years, the concepts in this book are stunningly relevant in our digitally enabled, e-commerce-driven retail age. Underhill and his teams literally cracked open the minds of consumers and determined why (and how) all of us react the way we do when we buy: how do we perceive wait time, what actually makes retail signage effective, the importance of sightlines, and how often customers do things they never intended to do. As the leader of a technology-enabled, retail health care service business that acquires a substantial portion of its customers/patients online, I continue to be amazed by how many of Underhill's findings still hold true today."
--Todd Latz, CEO of GoHealth Urgent Care
16. Mastery, by Robert Greene
"This book has been on my nightstand and my Kindle since it came out in 2012. A book about becoming who you are by learning who you are. About always having an apprentice mindset no matter what level you are at in your career--just starting out or CEO. Finding your passion and a guidebook for becoming the best at what it is you are passionate about. Once you think you've mastered it, break everything and challenge what you know by being the eternal beginner."
--Paul Marobella, chairman and CEO of Havas Creative, U.S.
17. Finding My Virginity, by Richard Branson
"I loved this book because it spoke to the tremendous challenges he faced launching Virgin and the amount of leadership courage it requires to fulfill your dream."
--Kelly Cook, chief marketing and digital officer of Sears and Kmart
18. Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl
"Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust and worked his entire life helping others. He was a remarkable neurologist, psychiatrist, and author. Despite facing some of the worst atrocities recorded in history, he only had love in his heart. [This book] contains so many powerful insights on overcoming adversity. Specifically, Frankl's quote: "In the space between stimulus and response we have the power to choose." As a founder, leader, and three-time cancer survivor, I have found myself in many situations that were out of my control. Being mindful of my situation and remembering that I have the freedom to choose is what gave me the strength to persevere. My career has been defined by my choices. Choosing to fight and persevere has made all the difference."
--Jill Johnson, founder and creative director of Awe, a New York City-based jewelry line designed to celebrate, unite, and honor survivors
19. The Toyota Way, by Jeffrey Liker
"I read [this book] when we were in very early stages of operations at The Farmer's Dog, and it taught me that no process is ever perfect and that there's always room for improvement. In other words, never become complacent or happy with the status quo."
--Brett Podolsky, Forbes "30 Under 30" entrepreneur and co-founder of The Farmer's Dog, a New York City-based direct-to-consumer pet food company
20. The Founder's Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup, by Noam Wasserman
"I'd recommend [this book] to anyone who's thinking about a startup. [It] focuses on organizational behavior and entrepreneurship, based on examples. It presented dilemmas I already faced and showed me which ones I will be facing in the future as the company's co-founder and CEO. It reminded me what I did wrong and outlined the reasons why some of these things happened. As CEO, co-founder, or founder, we face a number of dilemmas each day, and this book provides the answers and knowledge we need to resolve them."
--Primoz Zelensek, co-founder and CEO of Chipolo, a multinational technology company operating in the Bluetooth tracker market
21. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
"Motivation comes from emotion, and emotion comes from feeling inspired. World heritage literature like [this book] contains universal insights into people and culture. One idea that manifests repeatedly in the story (usually in a military context) was that all the best planning and preparation could be ruined by poor morale, which has direct business application. I came away from this book with an increased sense of serenity about all that is beyond my control, and a deeper desire to really know and value each person I interact with."
--Arup Barat, co-CEO and CCO of infiswift, an enterprise-grade Internet of Things platform
22. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, by Tony Hsieh
"This book helps you think outside the box as a leader, not only through building a culture around happiness, but actually delivering on it in a positive, effective way. It emphasizes placing your focus on the happiness of others around you, which will then help you prioritize your own happiness. With this internal mindset, it's helped us put experience over everything for our customers. The core value of our company is delivering the 'best damn experience,' from our staff as a whole, not just the customer service department. I would highly recommend this as a mandatory read for both building up your internal culture and projecting that philosophy into the services you offer."
--Suneera Madhani, founder and CEO of Fattmerchant, a provider of flat rate payments technology solutions
23. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight
"Turning passions into starting your own business is no easy feat, and as an entrepreneur, no one can prepare you more for reality than those who have been through the process before. For established entrepreneurs and budding business owners alike, [this book] emphasizes how challenging it can be to start a company. From being on the brink of failure a few times before, Nike founder Phil Knight was able to expand and succeed in the mass market. I didn't expect a business book to be such an emotional roller coaster, but I could feel my heart race when they were in a bind. [It] is a must for all fellow entrepreneurs who ride the highs and lows, push through the tough times, and are too busy to celebrate the good times, but still call their dad looking for some fatherly advice."
--James Miceli, CEO of Epoch Lacrosse/C6 Composites which builds technologically advanced lacrosse equipment
24. Raving Fans, by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles
"No matter what industry you're in, this book applies to multiple practices with a strong, common theme of the importance of customer service. The book takes an in-depth look into what excellent customer service really means and how, as a society, we have grown used to mediocre or even sub-par service, so when we do get good customer service, we are almost taken aback. As a business owner, I require all my associates to read this book to learn more about customer service practices and help them grow. Not only does this book teach its readers to live their lives as raving fans, it also encourages them to make a difference in the work force and change how people view normal customer service."
--Diane Gillin, co-owner and advanced nurse practitioner, Couture Med Spa, a luxury affordable medical spa
25. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
"It's a bit of an old book, and I still have the paperback copy that I read as a teenager. On first read, it's a great story about a group of rabbits that leave their home to avoid impending disaster, and venture out to find a new home. But it's also a great contrast between two leaders with very different styles. One leader rules by fear--he doesn't listen to his followers and thinks of himself and not others. The other leader is the complete opposite--she is a great listener, cares about the other rabbits, and figures out the unique strengths and contributions of her followers and leverages them. I've worked for leaders with both styles, and the greatest leaders I know are the ones who are tough and demanding but have a clear vision, understand they are better when they make the most of the talent around them, and care to listen to others. They engender respect and cause the team to break down barriers because they create a true team."
--Jim Rogers, CMO of Romacorp, parent company of Tony Roma's, a restaurant chain specializing in ribs
26. A New Brand World, by Scott Bedbury
"This book is all about the baseline for the way a brand should live by. A brand is a living and breathing being. As Scott says, 'Humans bring brands to life--and every good brand needs good long-term parents.' Our differentiator is that we are more than just a product or a service, we are a collection of small touchpoints and experiences. Scott taught me this first-hand when he consulted at Outback Steakhouse 12 years ago and I worked there before I started Fitlife Foods. When I started Fitlife Foods, and as I lead it day to day, I take a 'brand as our business approach.' This means that everyone from the wellness coach working on our retail floor to the line cook at the culinary center to our people resources leaders is responsible for the brand. Each interaction with a team member and a customer is a manifestation of our brand. They are all to be taught, reinforced, and nurtured."
--David Osterweil, founder of Fitlife Foods, a lifestyle brand committed to creating fresh, all-natural meals
27. The New Rules for Marketing and PR, by David Scott
"When I first read this book, I immediately thought, 'That's exactly how it works.' Scott clearly articulates the shifts in marketing and PR, especially the critical role of social media and direct customer engagement. He does an excellent job of explaining the new relationship developing between consumers and sellers. This new paradigm is as important for established businesses, startups, local businesses, and not-for-profits as it is for global businesses."
--Bassam Khocheiche, managing director of The Swag USA, a line of eco-friendly produce bags that keep produce fresher longer
28. Scaling Lean: Mastering the Key Metrics for Startup Growth, by Ash Maurya
"For anyone seeking to start a business or grow an existing business, [this book] combines some of the best methodologies and best practices for business development and growth into a single book. The concepts in the book (Throughput Accounting, Theory of Constraints, Business Modeling, and Build/Measure/Learn) have been critical to the success of our companies. It is a great book that changes your mindset from creating a company that makes products to creating a company that creates value for your customer. Ash also does a great job explaining why businesses should utilize the scientific method to run experiments in the pursuit of value creation for your customer."
--Matthew Polstein, co-founder of LateShipment, a software provider that tracks shipments, delivery failures, and refund claims; and president and co-founder of Rip-It, a sporting goods company that specializes in softball and baseball equipment
29. The One Minute Manager, by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
"My favorite management/leadership book is one that has been around for a long time, but its message is timeless. This book sets a foundation for people who are just starting out their leadership careers or are struggling in their current position. The theories professed are applicable for any leader at any level and at any point in their career. My favorite quote from the book is, 'The best minute I spend is the minute I invest in people,' and my favorite takeaway is, 'Help people reach their full potential by catching them doing something right.'"
--Randy Swart, COO of A. Duie Pyle, a Northeast transportation and logistics provider
30. Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
"I was first exposed to George Orwell's writing through his famous works Animal Farm and 1984. I was entertained by his wit (the "civility" of the Spanish Civil War) and absorbed by his commentaries weaving politics, economics, and sociology. This memoir is about his time living essentially as a tramp in the late 1920s, during a time when Europe--and the U.S., for that matter--was peaking in an economic boom fueled by the creative monetary policy that would soon lead to a global Depression. The associated asset inflation of the boom widened the gap between those who owned and those who earned: workers whose standard of living had eroded. Orwell captures the humanity and spirit of the downtrodden poor during this period, in 1929, at a peak of extravagance that we now know was in its twilight, on the cusp of the Great Depression and WWII. One quotation especially sticks with me today: 'When you have a hundred francs in the world you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that.' In hindsight, [this book] was a gateway to my deeper exploration of behavioral economics and the struggle of the working class."
--Mike Duffy, CEO of CityBase, which makes technology that makes government and utilities more personal and responsive
31. Private Parts, by Howard Stern
"My dad gave me this book during my first semester away at university and it remains one of my favorites. Above all, Stern's book taught me the value in cultivating a point of view and sharing it. In business settings, far too many people fail to have their own point of view on matters that are crucial to their business. If you're fortunate enough to be asked for your opinion on a matter that's relevant to your work, you owe it to your team to deliver. Ultimately, it's less about right or wrong, it's more about contributing, so that, together with those you're in conversation with, you can arrive at some improved understanding."
--P.J. Worsfold, head of product for FTSY ("footsy"), an artificial intelligence platform for matching people to shoes that fit
32. The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor
"This book has a simple premise, that the mind's plasticity is something you can use to your advantage if you feed it right and train it with the right behaviors. I think I've always been an eternal optimist, most entrepreneurs are, but by focusing on the good things no matter how simple, I've been able to train my mind to always look on the bright side of life. Many times, pure will is the difference between succeeding or failing, so the more will I can train to my mind to take advantage of to find solutions instead of doom and gloom, the better the outcomes will tend to be."
--Tracey Wiedmeyer, CTO of InContext Solutions, a global provider of virtual reality (VR) solutions for retailers and manufacturers
Published on: Nov 21, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.
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