Every successful CEO began their career out of the spotlight. As their empires grew, they were influenced by the places they lived, the people they interacted with, the problems they faced, and the books they read. A person’s favorite book can be a key to understanding the choices they make, the standards they uphold, and the beliefs they champion. There is no sure bet to becoming successful, but reading the favorite texts of individuals can help you see the world through their eyes.
The Airspace has researched the favorite books of CEOs like Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs so you can look into the minds of the business people who have changed the world.
Click any of the links in “The Short List” sections to find the book on Amazon. With a little reading and a lot of work, maybe you can be a billionaire too.
Bill Gates — Former CEO Microsoft
Former CEO of Microsoft and multi-billionaire Bill Gates has changed his literary preferences over the years. He once claimed The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger to be his favorite, citing its themes of rebellion, alienation, angst, and confusion as important pieces in growing up. “It’s very clever. It acknowledges that young people are a little confused, but can be smart about things and see things that adults don’t really see. So I’ve always loved it,” Gates told Achievement.
But in a recent Reddit Ask Me Anything, Gates changed his top choice to a pick from the last decade: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
“It’s a long but profound look at the reduction in violence and discrimination over time,” Gates wrote in the AMA.
It seems as his work has turned from Microsoft to philanthropy through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, so have his reading interests.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.
Richard Branson — Virgin Group Chairman
Richard Branson started his first business, a magazine called The Student, in the crypt of a church at age 16. Since then his empire has grown to the edges of space, along with his taste in literature. Branson lists Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome as his favorite children’s book, calling it “a lovely kids’ adventure book.” But also enjoys Stalingrad by Antony Beevor, about the turning point of WWII, and Wild Swans by Jung Chang, about three generations of women in a family faced with political turmoil in 20th century China.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Mark Zuckerberg — Facebook CEO
Seeing as Mark Zuckerberg is the founder of a platform used to research information about strangers, it seemed natural to look at his Facebook profile to find his favorite book. Despite numerous other interests, only one book is listed: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Which makes sense as the book is about a precocious, hyper-intelligent child who saves the world. But in an interview with the New Yorker in 2010, Zuckerberg said his favorite book is the epic poem The Aeneid by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. It appears he’s putting that Harvard education to use after all.
Michael Bloomberg — New York City Mayor, Bloomberg L.P. Founder
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a weakness for spy novels. Particularly those by British author John le Carré. Le Carré, a pseudonym for David John Moore Cornwell, previously worked for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, which gave his books a level of authenticity and intrigue his contemporaries couldn’t match. In particular, Bloomber mentions affinity for The Honourable Schoolboy by Le Carré, saying “It’s 600 pages, it’s mostly description, there is almost nothing that happens. But it’s fascinating.”
The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
Oprah Winfrey — Oprah Winfrey Network CEO
Oprah Winfrey hosts her own book club where she regularly praises the work of writers around the world, but her all-time personal favorite book is the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. “I remember reading this book and then going to class and not being able to shut up about it,” Winfrey told the Baltimore Sun. “I read it in eighth or ninth grade, and I was trying to push the book off on other kids. So it makes sense to me that now I have a book club, because I have been doing that since probably this book.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Muhtar Kent — Coca Cola CEO
Muhtar Kent likes economic observations and believes his favorite book “is one of the best.” The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson looks at the “human story behind the evolution of finance.” The text traces the origination of money in Mesopotamia and looks at how it has morphed into different roles over the centuries.
Elon Musk — SpaceX CEO, Tesla Motors CEO
Elon Musk has read “thousands and thousands” of books. He greatly enjoyed the Lord of the Rings as a teen, but didn’t have a taste for the great philosophers. “Most of the philosophers, really they’re awful,” Musk told NPR. “So depressing. Some of the things they say are good ideas, but it’s interspersed with so much rubbish.”
While the works of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer didn’t speak to him, an unlikely philosopher did. “Douglas Adams is awesome,” says Musk. And Adams’s famous book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is incontestably his favorite.
From reading Adams, Musk came to understand the question is often more difficult than the answer.
“When we ask questions they come along with our biases. You should really ask, ‘Is this the right question?’ And that’s hard to figure out,” says Musk.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Jeff Bezos — Amazon CEO
Though it has grown on a colossal scale in many directions, Amazon started as a marketplace for books. It’s not too much of a leap to hear that Bezos reads around 10 books a month. But his favorites are Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Built to Last discusses how to break free from business myths and how to find new thoughts and ideas. It seems Remains of The Day holds a special place in his heart. Bezos told Newsweek “If you read The Remains of the Day, you can’t help but come away and think, I just spent 10 hours living an alternate life and I learned something about life and about regret.”
Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Steve Jobs — Former CEO Apple
Steve Jobs is regarded as the impetus for popularizing discussion on how the liberal arts and technology intersect. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs listed a number of books that influenced the co-founder of Apple, and the titles represent this intersection perfectly.
Jobs’s favorite texts include: King Lear by William Shakespeare, the works of Plato, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, and Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.
King Lear by William Shakespeare
The Republic of Plato
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
Larry Ellison — Oracle CEO
Larry Ellison is an avid reader but has a particular fondness for Napoleon by Vincent Cronin. The book is considered to be the best biography written on the French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The Oracle CEO finds two main themes from the text of particular interest. “It’s interesting to read about him for a couple of reasons: to see what one man of modest birth can do with his life, and to see how history can distort the truth entirely,” he told Achievement. “It’s illuminating to understand that even history is based on fashion. Even morality—popular morality—is based on fashion. Real morality is based on reason, and never make the mistake between the two.”
Napoleon by Vincent Cronin
Warren Buffet — Berkshire Hathaway CEO
In 2003, Warren Buffet used Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report to recommend some books to his shareholders. The list included Bull! by Maggie Mahar (about the Bull market of 1982-1999), The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, and In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington by Robert Rubin and Jacob Weisberg (about the 70th US Secretary of the Treasury).
Bull! by Maggie Mahar
The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind
In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington by Robert Rubin and Jacob Weisberg
Tim Cook — Apple CEO
Before taking over for Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple, Tim Cook (then COO) was known for being a supply chain wizard. His strategy was largely responsible for Apple’s massive profit margins and quality of product. His favorite book Competing Against Time by George Stalk Jr. and Thomas M. Hout, is focused around the supply chain and time’s importance in product development. The book is the result of 10 years research and focuses on managing time for development, production, sales, and distribution. Cook finds the book important enough to regularly give out copies to colleagues.
Tony Hsieh — Zappos CEO
Tony Hsieh believe deeply in the importance of culture in business. So much so that he invested $350 million to make Las Vegas, Nevada an entrepreneur’s Disneyland. His favorite books include Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. He told USA Today “Tribal Leadership codifies a lot of what we’ve been doing instinctually and provides a great framework for all companies to bring company culture to the next level.”
Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright
Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow by Chip Conley
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
Jack Dorsey — Twitter Creator, Square CEO
Jack Dorsey’s favorite book is so important he gives it to every new employee at Square in a welcome package. The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right by Atul Gawande has a simple premise: using a checklist can help people manage complex situations. Gawande finds examples in medicine, technology, and disaster relief to demonstrate the power of a checklist.