What Books are CEO's Reading?

Their reading lists might surprise (and benefit) you.

By Charles Waldo

“A person who will not read has no advantage over a person who cannot read.”  ( Author Mark Twain) 

“What book(s), both fiction and non-fiction,  are you reading these days?” is the simple question the highly respected,  management consulting giant McKinsey& Company asks a few CEO’s of both U.S. and non-U.S. organizations from time to time.  The results are then shared via e-journals with clients, possible future clients, and other interested persons. These quarterly publications also have several articles on cutting edge topics from leading academics, consultants,  executives, and political figures.  It is of Harvard Business Review quality, in my opinion.   (To no-cost subscribe go to www.mckinsey.org and follow the prompts.) 

Here are the books, both NON-fiction and fiction, that TEN United States CEO’s, from a variety of types and sizes of organizations,  reported reading during mid-2017. Lack of space prevents listing the NON-U.S. executives’ choices but we’ll overview them shortly.  

Note that there are thousands of persons in the U.S. wearing the title “CEO” or something similar. Hearing from just ten does not provide a reliable picture of all, but their choices out of the thousands of titles available can suggest good resources for your professional and personal development. 


Books being read by ten U.S. CEO’s in mid-2017

  • Sapiens:  A Brief History Of Humankind (2015)
  • The 7th Sense: Power, Fortune, And Survival In The Age of Networks (2016) 

These two books were chosen three times each by the twenty executives from both groups and were the only ones to get more than one “vote” from both groups.

The other NON-fiction books being read were:   

Sam Walton: Made In America (1993) *   The Distracted Mind:  Ancient Brains In A High-Tech World  (2016)  *  Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (2005)  *  Lab Girl (2017)  *  The Boys In The Boat:  9 Americans And Their Epic Quest For Gold In The 1936 Berlin  Olympics (2014)  *  Thrive:  The Third Metric (2015)  * The  Emerald Mile:  The Epic Story Of The Fastest Ride In History (2016)  *  Fundamentals of Press Brake Tooling  (2010)  *  The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night At A Time (2016)  *  The Long Walk To Freedom:  The Autobiography Of Nelson Mandela (1995)  *  The Politicians And The Egalitarians:  The Hidden History Of American Politics  (2016)   *  Tattoos On The Heart:  The Power Of Boundless Compassion (2011) *   5 Presidents:  My Extraordinary Journey With Eisenhower, Kennedy,  Johnson,  Nixon, And Ford (2016)  * Shoe Dog: A Memoir By The Creator Of Nike (2016)   *  Sigmund Freud (2014) *  The Inner Lives Of Markets:  How People Shape Them And They Shape Us  (2016)  *  More Human:  Designing A World Where People Come First (2015)  *  The True Believers:  Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements (2016)  *  This Brave New World:  India,  China, And  The U.S. (2016)  *  The Gene: An Intimate History (2016)  *  The Conservative Heart: How To Build A Fairer, Happier, And More Prosperous America (2015)  *  Ronald Reagan (2016)

Fiction books being read by the  U.S. CEOs:

Pachinko (2017)  *   The Sympathizer (2016)  *  The Quantum Spy (2017)  *  Exit West (2017) * Ordinary Grace (2014)   *  Outstanding Homes  (2008) 

Some observations about the NON-fiction books chosen:

  • 24 titles are listed above, an average of 2.4 books per executive being read during the survey period, with a range of one – six books.  These are full-scale, 300 – 600 pages books, not magazines or trade journals.  Assuming these execs are fast readers and take about a month to read a book, for eleven months (time off for the December holidays)  the “average”  executive will read roughly 20 – 30 books a year. This range is well within the number quoted in other studies of executive reading habits.
  • The NON-U.S. CEO’s reported reading 36 non-fiction books, an average of 3.6 books per person, about 50% more than their American counterparts.  
  • The majority of books cited by both executive groups have come out in the last five years. They are reading current stuff.
  • How many of the above listed books have you heard of or read? Both groups had a wide range of titles  and topics, from “Great Men” biographies, to historical,  political,  cultural,  sociology, ethics, and so on with few “business” or “management” type titles. Almost a reading list for a “Liberal Arts for the Senior Executive” course. “Big Picture,” “Big Ideas,” and “Mind Broadening” resources.
  • Why were there so relatively few Fiction titles? What happened to such “beach read” authors as John Grisham,  James  Patterson,  Stephan King, et al?    Mike Branson, Executive VP of the Rheem Corporation and a Fishers resident, commented: “As I have gotten older, I am careful to select reading that will have content I may value.   I appreciate non-fiction much more than fiction and, when I do select fiction, it is almost always a “classic” or other book that has a moral to explore. There is much to learn from others and life is too short to spend time on nonsense.”   What do you think?
  • These are busy, high-level executives. Where do they find time to handle 20 – 30 books a year? Perhaps:

(A) They find reading  so important and pleasurable that they keep a book with them at all times, especially when traveling, and dig in whenever “free time” opens;  B)  They budget in a certain amount of time each day or week for reading and religiously stick to that budget;   C)  They are expert “skimmers” who quickly move through a book looking for key sections or topics of special interest, not attempting to read every word;  D)  Maybe they took a speed reading course; or E)  They listen to the books on CD while driving

Note also that these busy CEO’s also have tons of other reading to do during the course of a normal day or week:  Company correspondence and reports of all types; trade or industry journals and newspapers; publications for their function – example: The Harvard Business Review, CEO, etc.; and “general purpose” pubs such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Hamilton County Business Magazine.

Whatever their secrets, their 20 – 30 books a year FAR exceeds that of the roughly 24% of Americans in 2014 who read NO books of any kind and the 31% who read 1 – 5 books. Only 28% of the U.S. population read 11 or more books in 2014; unfortunately, down from 35% in 2000 and 46% in 1978. 

So what?

While these ten CEO’s are only a minute sample, from informal conversations, teaching and consulting assignments,  I think most upper-level executives, especially  the more successful ones,  are active readers, constantly  looking for inspiration, information, and new ideas.   Regardless of whether or not you are already at the top, want to get there, want to be a larger contributor, or just want to be better informed, it can pay to become an active, broad-gauged reader.And, with that little piece of plastic called a Public Library Card,  reading can be free with the world  just a swipe away.

What are you reading?

HCBM readers would love to hear about a book you are currently reading or have just finished and highly recommend.   Fiction or non-fiction.   If you would share for a future article,  please email me, giving your name, organization,  position, the title and author of the book, whether it’s Non-fiction or fiction, and what you especially like about it.   Would you be interested in a “book of the month” reading and discussion group?

Thanks so much, good reading, and remember……“Reading is so important, because if you can read, you can learn\anything about everything and everything about anything.”  (Writer Tomie DePaola)   “Be awesome.  Be a book nut.”  (Dr. Seuss)

Charles Waldo, Ph.D., is Professor of Marketing (ret.) at Anderson University’s Falls School of Business.   Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..