It’s common knowledge by this point: all CEOs need to read — often.
But with that being said, not all books are created equal. They don’t all provide us with the same sort of actionable wisdom, training, or insight. Moreover, certain books will resonate more meaningfully with some people than they will with others.
In this sense, identifying one’s most critical literary influences is a subjective task — but there’s value, too, in reflection, and in sharing the books that have shaped you. We can all learn from each other.
With that in mind, here are the three books that have each helped make me a better CEO at my company, BookBaby.
“Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell’s debut book changed the way I think about marketing.
In “Tipping Point,” Gladwell explains how ideas spread like epidemics. He describes the “tipping point” as the moment of critical mass, where an idea goes from interesting to a few people, to necessary for everyone. He examines the key elements required of reaching critical mass — where its viral effect becomes unstoppable.
According to Gladwell, there are three kinds of people who can help push an idea to this point.
First, there are “connectors” — people with massive social networks. Then there are “salesmen” — people who boast about ideas they love with contagious positive energy. Finally, there are “mavens” — people who collect information in order to be an authoritative source of insight for their network.
But there’s even more to do it than that. Without “stickiness,” for example — a concept Gladwell defines as something about an idea that makes it memorable — no idea will ever reach critical mass.
Marketers lapped it up, thinking they now had a blueprint with which to better promote ideas.
But how I interpreted Gladwell’s premise was different. I didn’t see a simple cause-and-effect relationship. Instead, Gladwell impressed upon me the idea that if you want something to go viral, you should focus on making something so great that people who see it will need to share it. Or, in other words, Gladwell taught me to focus on making great content with an eye only for making something great, as opposed to making something popular.
A product, idea, or story that’s authentically great is inherently stickier than some SEO-focused ploy concocted by a marketing department in New York.
“Great People Decisions: Why They Matter So Much, Why They Are So Hard, and How You Can Master Them” by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz
An organization is only as good — or as flawed — as its people. The ability to hire, manage, and retain great people is one of the most important skills executives can have.
This was one of the chief lessons I took from Claudio Fernandez-Araoz’s book “Great People Decisions” — a comprehensive resource for leaders who want to improve at finding and growing great employees.
Fernandes-Araoz’s argument is this: the majority of us are not equipped with the right tools to make great people decisions.
Executives receive little formal training in making such choices, often because of the false belief that this skill is not learnable. But this is a misnomer. Executives should dedicate energy every day to helping their employees achieve their true potential.
According to Fernandez-Araoz, hours spent in this pursuit are an important investment. The potential to grow, lead, and flourish is what truly attracts the best people — especially of today’s generation. If you’re not offering that, other companies will.
Internalizing this truth was eye-opening for me, to say the least. Archaic approaches to people management simply no longer suffice.
“Noble House” by James Clavell
James Clavell was a prolific writer from Sydney, Australia. He penned screenplays for a number of acclaimed films, including The Fly, The Great Escape, and To Sir With Love. But it was his Asian saga of novels — including the blockbusters “Sho Gun” and “Tai Pan” — that brought him literary fame.
“Noble House” was the climatic fifth book of the series. It’s set in Hong Kong in 1963. The action spans scarcely more than a week, but these are days of high adventure: from kidnapping and murder to financial double-dealing and natural catastrophes. It also details the intense and traumatic decisions one fictional CEO needs to make as part of his career — the deals, transactions, and tough choices that emerge daily in his work.
Besides being a breathtaking read, “Noble House” proved instrumental to me because it inspired me to start a company when I was very young. I knew that the work of executives was probably not as thrilling as it’s depicted in “Noble House,” but the problems the characters face seemed so fascinating and nuanced. The work seemed exciting.
More importantly, perhaps, the book introduced me to an important mindset that has helped shape my philosophy about business. I call it “The Culture of the Long View.”
It’s epitomized by the audacity and purpose with which Asian cultures depicted in Clavell’s novel approach large life challenges. Essentially, they make tremendously ambitious plans, and they march toward them, one step at a time.
This far-forward way of thinking influenced how I now approach big problems. It taught me to nurture long-term plans even in the face of short-term obstacles.
Now, this last choice might strike some as unusual. But many legendary CEOs find wisdom in fiction books. Jeff Bezos, for example, says he learns more from novels than nonfiction.
At the end of the day, though, the truly important thing for executives to internalize is this: you need to read. Yes, you might be busy. But your outputs will only ever be as effective or as intelligent as your inputs.
Without quality inputs, you’re limiting yourself unnecessarily.