CEO Reading List: Five Books for 2023

CEO Reading List: Five Books for 2023

Reading broadly, beyond business bestsellers, will help leaders navigate a turbulent world.

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CEO Reading List: Five Books for 2023

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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reportedly said that of the “many little ways” to enlarge one’s world, “Love of books is the best of all.” Those words are as prescient now as they were decades ago, and perhaps even more needed.

Beyond the obvious general positives that accrue from reading, there are valuable benefits for leaders, especially in today’s world of nonstop change, geopolitical tensions, and economic volatility. Today business leaders are expected to understand, and engage in, a much broader set of global issues than they once were, from climate change to diversity and inclusion to social movements. Today, enlarging one’s world calls for broadening beyond traditional business literature to a range of genres.

Here are five books sure to enlarge any leader’s world view.

  1. Leadership In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. To better understand the present, draw first on the wisdom of history. Goodwin is one of the great presidential historians of our time. In this book, she tells the captivating stories of four U.S. Presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—and how they not only overcame adversity, but how it shaped them as leaders. Would Lincoln have developed the perseverance needed to see the Civil War through had he not overcome the challenges of his childhood, including less than one year of formal schooling and having to walk 20 miles to Springfield, Illinois, just to borrow books to read? Would Franklin Roosevelt have developed the empathy and strength to lead the world through the horrors of World War II had he not been forged by the refiner’s fire of polio? Everyone faces adversity, but it’s how you respond that matters. There are many leadership lessons embedded in Goodwin’s carefully researched biographies of these remarkable men, all highly relevant to us today.
  2. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, and How to Prevent the Next Pandemic by Bill Gates. Okay, that’s two, but these are topics—climate change and global pandemics—that every executive, indeed every global citizen, should be knowledgeable about. Gates addresses them with a refreshing tone, factually and practically. You won’t find any politics, polemical language, or preaching. Instead, he approaches the issues as an engineer, with a roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism about how to harness human creativity, ingenuity, and innovation to find practical solutions to real challenges. The relevance is obvious to policy makers and business leaders, both responsible for leading into the future. This is no armchair analysis. There’s plenty of surprising detail in these books. Did you know, for example, that the workhorse of antibody production over the past 25 years (including recently for Covid) comes from Chinese hamster ovary cells? 
  3. The Three-Body Problem series by Liu Cixin. Chinese science fiction? Really? Yes! Lui Cixin is the Isaac Asimov or J.R.R. Tolkien of China, and The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating read for anyone, including business leaders. Studies have found that reading fiction expands empathy, increases creativity, and stimulates the mind’s critical thinking. Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, suggested in a speech in Zurich, Switzerland, several years ago that one of the things that would most help geopolitical tensions around the world is reading more fiction to develop a greater understanding of and empathy for other peoples and cultures. This series adds science fiction on top for an extra stretch of creativity and imagination, and offers all from the perspective of China, not the West. Fascinating.
  4. Factfulness by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. In this strange era of “fake news,” Rosling reminds us that facts matter, and that, in fact, most of us aren’t very good at focusing on them. A statistician and medical physician by training, he takes a global view to produce what he describes in the book’s subtitle as “ten reasons we’re wrong about the world—and why things are better than you think.” It’s foundational knowledge for every leader, indeed every responsible citizen, about the world and how to think about it. Bill Gates thought this book so important he offered free copies to all U.S. college and university graduates in 2018. Test yourself with any number of questions Rosling poses at the beginning of the book and see how you do. For instance, how many of the world’s one-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? 20%, 50%, or 80%? It may be more (or less) than you think.  Have the number of deaths per year from natural disasters increased, dropped, or remained the same over the last one hundred years? Read the book to find out.
  5. Play Nice But Win by Michael Dell and James Kaplan. Anchored by the captivating events of the privatization of Dell in 2013, Play Nice But Win is an inspiring and refreshing reminder of the human elements of big business. It’s not just the story of the company Dell, but the man himself. Spanning more than three decades, it chronicles Michael’s journey from selling PCs out of his college dorm room to running and transforming a global multibillion-dollar organization. It’s an honest and instructive portrait of a young man navigating the complexities of business and life and maturing as a leader. You’ll gain a new appreciation of what it takes to transform a large organization.

As you look ahead to the unknown of 2023 and to a landscape of increasing change, consider enlarging your world by enlarging your reading repertoire: history for wisdom, current events for insights into how the world is changing, science fiction to stimulate creativity, and autobiography for reflections on the very human and personal elements of leadership. The former first lady and longtime book editor would have approved.


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