CEO Reading List: 20 Books on Business and Life

CEO Reading List: 20 Must-Read Books on Business and Life

The CEO Reading List – Do you know that a CEO reads on average 60 books per year?

We’re not asking you to start reading 60 books and acquire a CEO’s reading habits immediately. Habits take time to develop. So if you could only read 20 books, we recommend you to read these.

These are books written and/or recommended by CEOs and billionaires that changed their life.

CEO Reading List – If You Could Only Read 20 Books, Read These

*This CEO Reading List post has affiliate links from Amazon. Click on the image so you can immediately order your copy of the book! 🙂

1. A Book on Wealth Mindset

Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki

Rich Dad, Poor Dad is based on Robertrt T. Kiyosaki’s life, his story growing up with two fathers: one poor (his own dad), and one rich (his best friend’s dad). The book teaches you the key mindset and knowledge you need to build a successful and wealthy life.

“Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.”

Robert Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Truthfully, there is a lot of controversy regarding this book and I also have a love-hate relationship with self-development books. But I cannot discount the impact Rich Dad, Poor Dad had on me. This is one of the first self-development books I have read when I was still a high school student–and it blew my mind away. This is one of the books that shifted my mindset in a major way.

The book is rife with quotable quotes, but my key takeaways are:

  1. School teaches us to work for the money, but does not teach us how to make the money work for us.
  2. Use money to acquire assets, not liabilities. Car is a liability.
  3. Work to learn, do not work to earn.
  4. To be successful, do not be afraid of failure.

2. A Book on Women Leadership

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Takeaways from Lean In by Sheryl SandbergSheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, one of the world’s most powerful women according to Forbes, and the bestselling author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Back in 2010, she gave a Ted Talk which went viral.

Quotable Quote:

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

3. A Book on Women Leadership

Lean in by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg is among the world’s most powerful women according to Forbes. She was one of the most successful women out there: pivotal in the growth of Google as a business manager, turned down the position of Chief Financial Officer, and moved on to a then smaller known startup called ‘Facebook’ as Chief Operating Officer. Billionaire, philanthropist, chief executive–it seems like Sheryl could do it all.

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s international bestseller, is based on her motto to ‘lean in’ and make herself heard (as a woman in the workplace). The book outlines strategies on how women can achieve success–in both business and also in personal contexts.

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean in

Key Takeaways:

  • Men still rule the world. There are still subliminal rules to follow for women; there are still internal struggles women face in the workplace. For example, if men take initiative, they would be called ‘boss’. If women take initiative, they would be called ‘bossy’.
  • Don’t look for a mentor. It’s now the professional version of looking for a prince charming. ‘If I find a mentor, I will excel. Instead, do a proactive approach: ‘If I excel, a mentor will come to you.’
  • Likewise, finding a life partner will be the most important business decision is who you marry. So choose well (also read, Love is a crappy investment)
  • Women should not expect to be superwomen (ironic, because it seems like she is). Women are now sharing their load in earning, and men should also share half of the work in the home and parenting. This is finding someone who is collaborative, supportive, and growth-driven.

4. A Book on Value Investing

The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing” by Benjamin Graham

If you could only read one finance book, read this. Best known as Warren Buffett’s mentor, economist Benjamin Graham is known as the ‘father of value investing’ and for his approaches on investing safely in the market.

His book was published in 1949, and 7 decades later his guiding principles still influence many investors today. Warren Buffett himself is also a big fan of the book, calling it, “by far the best book on investing ever written.”

His principles are largely shaped from his early experience on investing when he lost most of his money during the 1929 stock market crash. From that experience, he learned to mitigate risks, move cautiously, and understand market psychology.

“The intelligent investor is a realist who sells to optimists and buys from pessimists.”

Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

Key Takeaways from The Intelligent Investor:

  • When investing, take your emotions out of it.
  • Two types of investors: defensive investors and enterprising speculators
  • Understanding market psychology – ‘Mr. Market’ can be reasonable or illogical in proposing prices, given the external conditions.
  • Value Investing. the practice of buying a stock price below the conservative valuation of the business to have a profitable upside when the market recalibrates the stock for fair value
  • Safe, steady returns over big, risky gambles

5. A Book on Soft Skills

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

I don’t need to sell you this book: Warren Buffett can do it for you. He’s been very vocal about how Dale Carnegie changed his life.

The young Warren Buffett used to have a deep fear for public speaking. If he had to give a talk, he would throw up. Even so, Warren was so determined to get over his fear that he worked on it. Warren Buffett tells Forbes that you can significantly improve your success just by being able to communicate better and enhancing your skills.

The book is an easy read, with concrete steps and highly applicable advice. Here are my Key Takeaways:

  • Be diplomatic and be more open in giving praise. People are more receptive to reward versus punishment. They tend to repeat good behavior if they get good feedback, rather than getting criticism.
  • Be genuinely interested in people. Remember their names and be a good listener. In the book, it is summarized:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • Create a win-win situation for people. Influence them by giving them their side, and framing it that will get them to act of their own accord

6. A Book on Putting in the Work

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell talks about “outliers”–the best, the brightest, the most famous and the most successful in their field or expertise.

An outlier, as defined in the book, is a person that is so out of the ordinary whose level of success goes beyond our level of understanding. How does one person become an outlier? The secret sauce to success is really just putting in the hard work. As is mentioned in the book:

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Outliers popularized one concept: 10,000 hours. It goes beyond successful businessmen and billionaires. It also studies athletes, musicians, and entertainers of the world.

Key Takeaways:

  • High IQ does not guarantee success. Intelligence is just one part of the equation.
  • Self-made successful people did not just spring from the earth. You need to put in the work–10,000 hours–to achieve mastery. This was how the likes of Mozart, Michael Jordan, and the Beatles separated themselves from the ‘good’ to be the ‘greats’.

7. A Book on a Different Kind of History

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Although not a self-development, business, or finance book, I recommend every would-be CEO to read this. Sapiens is well-loved among the intellectuals: it is recommended by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates; and all of Silicon Valley reveres it. (Business Insider)

Sapiens is a non-fiction book that is fascinating page-by-page, I could not put it down once I started reading it. It’s important to read history and anthropology so we have a better understanding of us as a species and how we operate. More often than not, we realize that history does repeat itself.

“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Some of my takeaways:

  • There was a time when 6 other homo species living in the world. Our cognitive ability to imagine and see what is not there and create fiction is what sets homo sapiens apart from other homo species, and integral to our survival
  • Stories are a great tool for collaboration among humans to create an imagined order. Many of our most successful orders are based on stories believed at scale (religions, political ideologies, economy, and yes, money)
  • We may have been better off without the Industrial Revolution. We may have been better off without the Agricultural Revolution.
  • Our species is the biggest success story among all species: from big cat prey in the savannahs to ‘self-empowered gods’ of the future

Harari has since then published two more books but the subsequent literature has not surpassed the influence and popularity of Sapiens.

8. A Book on Entrepreneurship

Everyone knows that famous white swoosh.

Nike is now a behemoth, a household name in the world of sports and shoes. However, not many people know the man behind it and the hardships Phil Knight faced during the early days of Nike.

Then called Blue Ribbon Sports, Knight started his business by selling shoes from the trunk of his car in various sporting events. For 16 years, Nike has always been at the brink of bankruptcy, but Phil Knight never gave up on his dream.

The book Shoe Dog is a biographical memoir on Nike founder Phil Knight, chornicling the early struggles and its long, arduous journey to becoming the most profitable and recognizable brands in the world.

“The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way — that leaves us, ladies and gentlemen.”

Phil Knight, Shoe Dog

Even if you’re not a fan of Nike (I don’t know who isn’t, though), this is a recommended read. Shoe Dog is of the best books to teach you about entrepreneurship.

Some key takeaways from Phil Knight with lessons ont business and life:

  • Business is never just business. To quote Phil Knight: “It seems wrong to call it “business.” It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days & sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs & desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. 
  • Entrepreneurship is about never giving up. Often, entrepreneurship is portrayed as glamorous, but the truth is, the difficult parts are often not shown in the media. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a unique type of person to persevere through the path of entrepreneurship.

9. A Book on Personal Finance 101

The Richest Man in Babylon

This book is a classic. It contains very basic practical financial advice and truths that everyone should take to heart. This is the first finance book I will give to my children.

Key Takeaways:

1. Doing something well makes one a better person

“Remember, work well done does good to the man who does it. It makes him a better man.

2. Save at least 1/10 of what you earn

“Gold comes gladly and in increasing quantity to any man who will put by not less than one-tenth of his earnings to create an estate for his future and that of his family.”

3. Don’t invest in what you don’t know

“Gold slips away from the man who invests it in businesses or purposes with which he is not familiar or which are not approved by those skilled in its keep.”

10. A Book on Innovation

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel is an iconoclast of Sillicon Valley. He is a central figure of the PayPal Mafia, a group which includes Elon Musk, Max Levchin, Reid Hoffman and other tech luminaries that have gone on to build billion dollar companies.

Zero to One is a truly unique book that will change your perspective on business and how value is found and created. Here are three lessons from the book:

1. Practice deterministic optimism.

We have a tendency to accumulate skills as a way to cast a wide net on opportunities. There are college degrees that are meant to hedge against the wrong choice by including a mix of loosely related subject matter. We “add” to our skillset because we want to catch opportunities and ride industry trends. We diversify our investments to reduce risk because we can’t know what the future holds.

Yet the future is ours to take. The truly great are unreasonably confident in who they are and what they can do, and double down on their talents.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson captured this ethos when he wrote: “Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances…. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

2.  Monopoly is a good thing

The goal of business is to become a monopoly. That may sound against the competitive capitalistic ethos but Thiel argues that competition, while conducive to business efficiency and customer sovereignty, carries an opportunity cost: the inability to innovate.

Companies that reach monopoly status are the ones that have the luxury of thinking long term and making wild bets on game-changing technology. Meanwhile, undifferentiated companies are trapped in a game of trying to be more efficient at the same thing than the other company.

Monopoly companies are the ones that have successfully differentiated themselves by means of innovation.  

“Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition”

3. Billion dollar companies are based on secrets

Secrets are powerful. They are truths about the world and about people that are known only to a few. We may call these few people as the “founders.”

Innovative companies are based on a shared belief by the founders which at a certain point in time was against conventional wisdom or even somewhat crazy.

One way to find secrets is to ask others “what important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

11. A Book on A Great Wealth Creation

Titan by Ron Chernow

Titan by Ron Chernow is a biography of John D. Rockefeller who was the man behind Standard Oil, one of the largest companies in the United States in the late 1800s. This is a big book that contains a grand story of a man who from modest circumstances acquired tremendous wealth.

A few lessons from Titan:

1. Work hard in silence

“A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.”

2. Expand your reach towards monopoly status

“To ensure that he won, he submitted to games only where he could dictate the rules.”

3. Be calm when others are terrified.

“Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: The more agitated others became, the calmer he grew.”

12. A Book on Tribes & Leadership

Tribes by Seth Godin

Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us is an easy and insightful read, with a revolutionary simple take on leadership. The idea is simple: creating a tribe is putting together like-minded people, sharing the same goals, and doing amazing things together.

Through this book, I learned that I don’t need to make everyone happy. I just need to find my people and make them happy. All you need is 1,000 true fans to create something meaningful. Be consistent, be passionate, and take care of them.

“The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.”

Seth Godin, Tribes

Seth Godin’s book Tribes has the following key ideas:

  • You can’t have a tribe without a leader; same as you can’t be a leader without a tribe.
  • We as human beings are social beings. We are designed with the need to belong.
  • A tribe is a group of people connected to each other, to a leader, and to a common goal or idea. The rise of technology and the internet has enabled communities or ‘tribes’ of all niches, cutting former boundaries of geography and demography.

13. A Book on Practical Wisdom

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Balthasar Gracian

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Balthasar Gracian: For me the best book on pithy aphorisms out there. Gracian was a 17th century Jesuit priest and philosopher who wrote practical advice in a subtle but powerful way.

1. Be measured in your speech

“Never exaggerate. It is a matter of great importance to forego superlatives, in part to avoid offending the truth, and in part to avoid cheapening your judgment.”

2. Practice sprezzatura

“The more pains you take with a thing, the more should you conceal them, so that it may appear to arise spontaneously from your own natural character.”

3. Think like a Don, talk like the mob

“Think with the few and speak with the many.”

14. A Book on New Markets

Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne, W. Chan Kim

Blue Ocean Strategy is a required reading for most business schools, and for good reason.

Quotable Quote:

“Blue oceans are right next to you in every industry.”

Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, Blue Ocean Strategy

Key takeaways of Blue Ocean Strategy:

  • Think differently, venture into the blue ocean. Find new markets through value innovation. Venture through underserved markets and customers rather than staying on highly competitive red ocean.

15. A Book on How to Get Rich

How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis

The late Felix Dennis was an Englishman who made money in the publishing business, owning such magazines as Maxim, The Week, PC Pro, Mental Floss, among others. He was one of the first biographers of Bruce Lee. Dennis was a poet at heart and his book “How to Get Rich” contains many vignettes about his life. Reading is like sitting down and speaking with an extravagantly rich English uncle over a cup of tea. The book has much wisdom, candor and honesty.

Key takeaways:

1. Execute better than the rest

“Having a great idea is simply not enough. The eventual goal is vastly more important than any idea. It is how ideas are implemented that counts in the long run”

2. You should hire people smarter than you

“You do not need to be clever. You do not even need to be that adept. You need only a little cunning and massive determination to become rich. Providing you can pay much cleverer but risk-averse people properly, and promote them and lead them in such a way that they are all rowing in the same direction, they will sign on to your little ship.”

3. Know when to enter into negotiations

“Few of us are any good at detailed negotiations. That includes your opponent, by the way. Most negotiations are unnecessary. Don’t enter into them. Remember that ‘the fortress that parleys is already half taken.’ Save serious negotiations for serious occasions.

16. A Book on Resilience

Resilience by Eric Greitens

Resilience author Eric Greitens is a former Navy SEAL who wrote his book Resilience as a collection of letters to his friend Walker. Every chapter is written in plain language as a personal letter to Walker teaching him various life lessons.

It reads like a modern day version of Seneca’s Letters. The book explores topics like freedom, mentorship, suffering, leadership, and yes resilience.

A few lessons out of the many:

1. Focus on your mission in life

“One of the reasons you are suffering right now is precisely because the purpose of your struggle is unclear. What are you working toward? What are you fighting for? Who are you going to be?”

2. Own your pain and your past

“What happens to us becomes part of us. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives. In time, people find that great calamity met with great spirit can create great strength.”

17. A Book on Picking Stocks

Beating the Street by Peter Lynch

Peter Lynch is one of the best explainers of investing and the financial markets. He ran the Magellan Fund between 1977 and 1990, a period in which he averaged an annual return of 29.2%, making the Magellan Fund the best performing mutual funds in the world. You will learn a lot with his book, Beating the Street.

Here are some key takeaways:

1. Buy and stick with the stock of a great company

“But it’s better to stick with a steady and consistent performer than to move in and out of funds, trying to catch the waves.”

2. Keep your investing approach simple

“Never invest in any idea you can’t illustrate with a crayon.”

3. Observe a company’s record of dividend payout

“The dividend is such an important factor in the success of many stocks that you could hardly go wrong by making an entire portfolio of companies that have raised their dividends for 10 or 20 years in a row.”

18. A Book on the Paths to Wealth

The Millionaire Fastlane by M.J. DeMarco

DeMarco’s book The Millionaire Fastlane sounds like another get-rich-quick book but it offers a powerful and realistic framework to understand wealth acquisition. You will not be mystified about money or about those who have tons of it after reading this book.

Anyone can get rich at an old age by following the standard advice. But to reach great wealth at a relatively young age requires driving on the Millionaire Fastlane.  

1. If you really love doing something, you don’t need a job to do it

If you are forced to do anything, even something you purport to love, in exchange for a paycheck, that love is put in danger.

2. Set yourself apart from your competition with selling skills  

Some of the greatest books in the world go unread, while the mediocre stuff sells millions. The difference lies in marketing, public relations, and just good old-fashioned business know-how. Writing a book is not a business; selling the book is.

3. Money is value neutral and is just a means to an end

Freedom has a price, and that price is money. Big dreams, from materialistic Ferraris to altruistic nonprofit foundations, cost money. You can’t travel the world by swimming in the oceans. You have to pay your way, and if you think money is evil, you’ve already lost.

19. A Book on Focus

The One Thing by Gary Keller

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were once asked what was the most important factor to their success. They had the same answer: FOCUS.

Keller’s book, The One Thing, gives you a lot of perspective on what focus means and why it is important.

Key Takeaways:

1. Work is something you can lose and regain

“Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls– family, health, friends, integrity– are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”

2. To focus means focusing on just one thing

“You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once.”

3. Learn to ask the right questions

“Answers come from questions, and the quality of any answer is directly determined by the quality of the question. Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. Ask the right question, get the right answer. Ask the most powerful question possible, and the answer can be life altering.”

20. A Book on Economics

How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes by Peter and Andrew Schiff

Key Takeaways:

1. Genuine economic expansion originates from the act of saving

“Saving creates the capital that allows for the expansion of production. As a result, a dollar saved makes more of a positive economic impact than a dollar spent. Just don’t try to explain this to an economist or a politician.”

2. Monetary policy is deceptive

“…the creation of a constantly expanding money supply, and the government’s seemingly limitless ability to take on debt, have hidden the fact that real credit is limited by a finite supply of savings.

People now assume that all that is needed for a functioning credit market is willing borrowers. But like any other resource, savings must be accumulated before it can be lent out.”

3. Beware of experts

“By any measure of sober valuation, home prices by 2006 had passed into Fantasyland. Valuations were disconnected from every gauge that had been designed to measure their affordability. None of the numbers added up. Yet somehow, economists came up with rationales that seemingly justified the ascent.”

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