THE INC. LIFE

32 Highly Recommended Books for Getting Ahead in Business and Life

These are the books dozens of successful executives say everyone should read.

Share on
BY Christina DesMarais - 17 Apr 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Inspiration, escape and ideas for self-improvement often come in the form of a good book. Here are the top picks of more than two dozen high-achieving executives.

 

1. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

"[E]very single piece of advice she gives is infused with honesty--simple, sometimes brutal, and thoroughly empathetic honesty. It's an inspiring model for how each of us should endeavor to communicate in our own lives. Part of being of what seems impossible about being a leader is holding people to the highest expectations while also understanding and accepting their failings. Reading this book will make you better at resolving that paradox."

--Jamie Hodari, cofounder and CEO of national coworking provider Industrious

 

2. Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

"While it is a fictional account of the life of the modern poet Delmore Schwartz, it is notable and worth reading if only for the line that reflects the extended period of time before Schwartz--who died destitute--[which] was identified on his death. Bellow writes 'there were no readers of modern poetry at the morgue' nor shall there be readers of Inc., Fast Company, or Fortune or any breathless devotees of Andrew Ross Sorkin at the morgue. All of us consumed by the vicissitudes of commerce should be attuned to the admonition of St. Paul to focus our gaze not on the seen, but the unseen, for the seen is transitory and the unseen is forever. Commerce is transitory, literature is forever. Put down Tom Peters, pick up Saul Bellow. The world will be better for it."

--Jeff Haley, president and CEO of Marketron, a provider of revenue management and digital solutions to broadcasters

 

3. The Bible

"I'm always blown away by how inspired and timeless scriptural truths are, and learn more each time I re-read them and observe them playing out in narratives like the book of Genesis or in my own life's path. The wisdom of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible is so profound and he was right when he wrote that 'there is nothing new under the sun.' I never read it as a list of dos and don'ts but if God is real and so is love, then it's best read as a letter of love from your Father."

--Greg Leekley, founder and CEO of the music sharing app Vertigo

 

4. Evolutionary Psychology by Dr. David Buss

"[It] gives me explanations for things I don't understand, and that's what motivates me. The book explains things such as why people betray each other, why friends stick together and why governments fail. It's very logical and informative."

--Tai Lopez, investor, partner and advisor to several multi-million dollar businesses

 

5. Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock

"This a great book that opens the mind to alternative ideas regarding the origins of human history. This is one of my favorite books in that it backs up all theories with as much science as possible and offers a compelling narrative to look at our history in a new way."

--Nader Hamda, founder and CEO of smart toy robot company Ozobot

 

6. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

"The fact that two brothers with no engineering background could achieve something previously thought physically impossible is itself inspiring. But understanding how they did it--mostly through a combination of hard work, fearlessness, and persistence--makes this a must-read for any entrepreneur. It helped me understand that most roadblocks, even ones that initially seem impossible to overcome, are really all about your mindset."

--Jonathan Frankel, founder and CEO of home intercom company Nucleus

 

7. The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

"[A]dmittedly, it's a little scary. The book exemplifies how people have gained and lost power throughout the ages, which is what I find really interesting: Learning from iconic figures from past centuries and applying them to our drastically different, hyper-modern business models of the present. It's not about following the 'laws' exactly, but more of a source of inspiration to see how historical figures throughout history have expressed what power meant in that era. It's a fun challenge to think about the way that we can now apply those lessons in a way that's less about power, and more about true collaboration."

--Elliot Tomaeno, founder and CEO of ASTRSK PR, a New York City-based PR agency for brands, apps, and platforms

 

8. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

"[It] inspires CEOs to learn how to be the best possible leader they can be. The book is about motivating your team, knowing the competition, and being strategic with all tactical decisions to put yourself in the best possible situation to be successful, which translates very well to running a startup. I have to keep my team moving forward at all times without ever getting complacent. We are constantly studying the market and competition to make sure we are always innovating and staying ahead of the curve. Whether it's adding new product features, hiring new talent, or deciding how certain obstacles are tackled in the office, we need to keep ourselves in the best possible position to reach our goals."

--Cyril Paglino, cofounder and CEO of augmented video messaging app Tribe

 

9. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

"[Written by Nike's founder, it] offers a great picture into how hard business can be and how unknown that is to the rest of the world. As a founder, hearing how shitty things have gone for people who have become incredibly successful is inspiring because it makes you believe in yourself. If Phil Knight can do it, then I can just do it."

--Brett Jurgens, cofounder and CEO of the home monitoring system company Notion

 

10. Leading at the Speed of Growth: Journey from Entrepreneur to CEO by Katherine Catlin.

"The author walks you through the various stages of a company, the problems you'll face, and how your role as a founder/CEO needs to evolve to accommodate. I initially read this book when our company was around 50 to 75 people in size, and while it was good, there were some topics for larger companies that didn't resonate. A few years later, when we were 200 people and experiencing growing pains, I stumbled upon this book again. This time, reading it felt almost magical as it laid out solutions to all our problems, and this inspired us to create the change to power through."

--Dan Veltri, cofounder and chief product officer of the website hosting service Weebly

 

11. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

"Working professionals have hundreds of people and tasks demanding their attention on any given day. With the massive increase in digital noise layered on top of that, it is easy to drown in what seems like a sea of infinite important items requiring your attention. Essentialism cuts to the core of what is truly important in all aspects of life, from personal to professional, and provides tangible tools that will help you think about how you spend your time and energy. I found the book incredibly inspiring. It is fundamentally about unlocking your maximum potential through a disciplined, but deeper, pursuit of fewer truly essential pursuits."

--Chris Akhavan, chief revenue officer of Glu Mobile, a free-to-play mobile gaming company

 

12. Good to Great by Jim Collins

"Building a successful business is hard. Sustaining that success is even harder. Jim Collins makes a compelling case for why truly outstanding organizations aren't defined by their breakthrough moments, but rather what comes afterwards. Most business case studies seem to assume a binary between success and failure. This book depicts the gray area in between, showing why some companies rise to another level where others plateau. I think it's the most nuanced explanation of how a company can reinvent itself without disrupting itself. I'd recommend this book to anyone who's interested in the difference between competence and excellence. It's a convincing argument for why executives should strive to do better than good enough."

--Dan Ruch, founder and CEO of Rocketrip, a company that incentivizes employees to save money on business travel.

 

13. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

"I love books that help you understand or change your perspective on life, on humanity, on what it means to be a person, on what it means to be an animal. [In this book], the main character grows up in a zoo and talks about what it means to be an animal in the wild and an animal in the zoo, and then he sort of experiences it on a journey. I just love the perspective on humanity there."

--Aaron Hirschhorn, founder and CEO of DogVacay

 

14. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

"It is not the story, nor the characters, nor the outline of social issues that draw me back, but the sheer beauty of the structure of this grand, one could even say, 'model' novel. It can be argued over and interpreted for centuries, but watching even a dozen films based on Tolstoy's text will provide only a partial glimpse into its intricacies. Tolstoy has created an ocean of a literary piece whose fabric can only be experienced through diving deep into the text, not hearing about it or seeing someone's interpretations. I come back to this book almost religiously every few years if only to find aspects of it that escaped me in previous readings."

--Edward Shenderovich, cofounder of headquarters-as-a-service company Knotel

 

15. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves

"I've always been curious on what qualities make the most successful leaders. Is it resilience, focus, creativity, confidence, and does one specific trait count above the rest? I believe emotional intelligence and self-awareness are key to success. Having the ability to understand your effect on others and manage yourself accordingly can impact a company's performance immensely. People are more inclined to work more effectively for an empathetic person they respect and admire, creating a healthy work environment when everyone's goals are aligned."

--Lauren Wallack, cofounder of Mindsail, a platform to discover on-demand programs from top thought leaders and experts

 

16. Revising Prose by Richard Lanham

"Great CEOs or founders are also often great writers, not necessarily from a creative fiction or fancy words perspective, but a sharp, concise, and persuasive one. For example, Steve Jobs' thoughts on Flash isn't beautifully worded, but it's concise and punchy and leaves you wondering why they didn't kill Flash sooner. Revising Prose teaches you how to get messages down to their core parts and share them. The better you can communicate, the better you can lead, persuade, and inspire. You come to realize how important that is when you need to write a message to your entire company. The conciseness of the message will determine how well read and understood it is, and serves as a sign of how much you've understood and internalized what you're trying to communicate."

--Des Traynor, cofounder of customer messaging platform Intercom

 

17. Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose

"A day full of meetings and quick decisions can quickly conceal what matter most to achieving great things: people, purpose and attitude. Every time I read this book, I am reminded never to underestimate the power of a team with a common mission. A great team will overcome any obstacle from competition to organizational barriers to achieve their goals. So, all of a sudden, it doesn't seem like such a big deal if we make the right decisions so long as the right people are in the room. Maybe more importantly, you can't read the book without being grateful to those who laid the foundation for us to live as we do and remember that the stress we feel is minor compared to what others face."

--Andrew Malcolm, CMO of note-taking, organizing and archiving app Evernote

 

18. Grit by Angela Duckworth

"Grit gave me both a scientific and logical understanding of how to optimize performance while maintaining my quality of life and feeling of fulfillment. The book helped me understand how other people think and why we run ourselves into trouble by trying to conform or follow other people's formulas for success. It forced me to think about how I improve myself both personally and professionally. Along with helping me understand aspects of my own psychology, that uncovered why I enjoy/am good at certain things and not others. Angela provided me with an insight on how I can use that information to make better decisions for myself."

--Gabby Slome, cofounder and chief experience officer of customized dogfood company Ollie

 

19. The Fred Factor by Mark Sanborn

"[It] helped me uncover another passion beyond helping small businesses succeed: a passion for the creativity and quality of my work. When I think of the example of Fred, a mailman who for thirty years pushed the boundaries of putting mail in a box, I am constantly reminded to reframe problems when it seems there are no more possible solutions. More importantly, in the great times when I feel like I am just going through the motions, I am reminded by Fred's example to always strive to find a more eloquent or efficient strategy. There will always be a time when that doubt inevitably creeps in and Fred provides me with the "proof that there are no insignificant or ordinary jobs when they are performed by significant or extraordinary people" - the 'Fred Factor' that I hope everyone can leverage in those times as I have."

--Ilir Sela, founder and CEO of pizza delivery app Slice

 

20. Different: Escaping the Competitive Heard by Youngme Moon

"It focuses on how companies tend to look around at competitors and imitate them over time. Similar to the herd mentality, everyone becomes the same and follows the same path. However, those who have the courage to be different and challenge the status quo tend to differentiate themselves better and win."

--Bryan Lalezarian, CEO of underwear company MeUndies

 

21. Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris

"It's a tome, but it's well-worth the effort. It describes how world-class performers achieve peak performance. He gathers insights from a wide range of people across a wide range of fields: renowned artists, professional athletes, highly-successful business people and many others. What's interesting is the commonalities in terms of how they approach their lives and their work. Ferris does a great job of identifying and then making them actionable for the reader."

--Sami McCabe, CEO of Clarity PR, an international tech PR agency

 

22. Governing Business and Relationships by A. Parthasarathy

"Today's education system from schools and universities exists to build intelligence but this book highlights that there is an even bigger need to develop a strong reasoning and judgement mechanism--'the intellect' when it comes to business and relationships. This book focuses on how one needs to manage oneself before attempting to manage your external business or relationships and how it stems from building a value system for positive living. Out of all the books I have read around entrepreneurship, business and leadership success, this has hands down had the most impact on the growth of myself, our business and the development my own leadership skills as our team has grown from a startup to a global company with offices in London, Singapore and New York."

--Rupa Ganatra, cofounder of the Millennial 20/20 Summit

 

23. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

"He's such an endlessly fascinating and enigmatic character who left an enormous mark on the entrepreneur and tech community. As someone who considers himself a perfectionist, Steve Jobs completely changed the paradigms of product development and design, all while building a cult following of one of the world's most iconic brands. It's a must-read for anyone who wants to make a long-lasting impact their on their industry."

--Gil Becker, CEO of video ad tech company AnyClip

 

24. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose By Tony Hsieh

"In this book, Tony Hsieh--founder and CEO of Zappos--gives invaluable advice to build a stimulating and performance-driven environment for you and your employees while focusing on the main goal of making your customers happy."

--Patrick Andrae, CEO of HomeToGo, a search engine for holiday rentals worldwide

 

25. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

"I've always been interested in human psychology, and relating it to my day-to-day work. [This is] one of my favorite reads [and] traces the development of our species' thinking, and how the individual mindset transformed into a pack mentality. It's been especially beneficial in today's advertising and branding industry. [It] outlines a logical sequential ideology as to why things that happened 10,000 years ago still impact us today. I'd recommend it to anyone seeking a truly thought-provoking read. It questions a lot of answers and answers a lot of questions all at the same time."

--Dominic Joseph, CEO of search intelligence company Captify, which has offices in New York, London, Paris, Hamburg, and Kiev

 

26. Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

"When I turned 13, my father introduced me to a book that changed how I saw grown-up literature. It was [this book] and it taught me about class, satire, and the inspirational power of serious silliness. It definitely contributed to me going into a career that involves the written word."

--Rachel Fishman Fedderman, publisher and CEO of the independent Jewish news organization The Forward

 

27. The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer That Changed the World by Stephen Mansfield

"This book is fascinating because Arthur Guinness built one of the most successful companies in the world by combing his faith, philanthropy, and beer. At a time when benefits were unheard of, Arthur provided an incredible work environment. Guinness' benefits were beyond that of what large tech companies are providing today, simply because Stephen was selfless and wanted the best for his employees and their families. He also had a genius method to ensure quality control of the product: since everyone received two free pints a day, they made sure that facilities remained clean and no contaminants ruined the process. The book offers a refreshing perspective on company cultures of the past where as companies today focus on providing perks to lure talent from their competition."

--Randy Redberg, managing member of Experts Exchange, an online community for IT Professionals

 

28. Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore

"First published in 1991, Crossing the Chasm may be an ancient title when measured in tech years, but it remains one of the most important reads for any entrepreneur. So much of what Moore outlined more than 25 years ago is still applicable, especially his take on approaching consumers across the technology adoption life cycle. The idea that marketers should focus on a one particular target group, who will then serve as the bridge to the next was--and still is--a powerful revelation."

--Dror Ginzberg, cofounder and CEO at video creation platform Wochit

 

29. The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni

"Organizational health has been a priority for us at Chatbooks as we've grown from 5 to 100-plus employees and [this book] has been key in helping us codify and communicate our company culture. While each question in itself might seem simple--'Why do we exist?' 'How do we behave?' 'How will we succeed?'--when you take the time to answer the whole set you have a [clearer] view of who you are as a company and where you are going."

--Vanessa Quigley, cofounder and Chatbooker-in-Chief of Chatbooks, an automatic service that turns digital photos into photo books

 

30. Be Stupid by Renzo Russo

"'Smart sees what there is. Stupid sees what there could be,' Rosso says. It's... his story of launching Diesel Jeans intercut with a theoretical business analysis. It's filled with the most practical advice for an entrepreneur, because none of us really know what we are doing and most of the time we are in way over our heads. As a first-time entrepreneur, we suffer from imposter syndrome. This book reminds me that being naive can be a blessing and to embrace every opportunity following your heart versus what they would tell you to do in business school."

--Milana Rabkin, co-founder and CEO of Stem, a financial platform simplifying payments for musicians and content creators

 

31. Trading Up by Michael J. Silverstein

"While operators and investors recognize that markets and the broader economy move with oscillations in often opposite directions, a fascinating phenomenon continuously exists where consumers will "trade up" to that intersection of luxury and value. It's this dynamic where a new college graduate buys that 3-Series BMW instead of the Toyota Corolla or where that single parent trades up to Chipotle when the bank account says Taco Bell. As Michael clearly portrays it, higher prices don't always lead to lower volumes. The consumer will absolutely reach for premium when that inherent value is understood and appreciated."

--Shaan Sethi, cofounder and CEO of medical apparel company Jaanuu

 

32. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

"The media landscape is constantly evolving. Publishers and platforms are increasingly challenged, having to validate their strategies more frequently than they'd like. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson is a detailed look at historical innovation, but with an understanding that advancements in one industry often impacts progress in another. Being able to draw parallels between past and current advancements helps me think differently about the way I operate. It clarifies how markets fit together and reinforces the need to be both proactive and reactive. Isaacson also reminds readers that regardless of entrepreneurial spirit, the best innovators rarely achieve success independently -- and more importantly that every innovation often leads to another complex set of problems."

--Steven Belser, head of creative strategy at Tribune Media