Business books are notorious for being loaded with MBA lard, trotting out “key takeaways” like “take risks,” “build a great team,” and “don’t be afraid to fail.”
But the ones worth reading ditch the platitudes in favor of instructive anecdotes — which is why they so often come from execs who have lived through it.
From fashion startups to automotive empires, here are the best leadership books from people who have led their companies to success.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
What is the hard thing about hard things? That they don’t have a formula, says Ben Horowitz.
“Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes,” he writes. “They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic. They are hard because you don’t know the answer and you cannot ask for help without showing weakness.”
Horowitz, now one of the most sought-after investors in the game, used to be CEO of software management company Opsware before it was acquired by HP for $1.6 billion.
Bonus: Horowitz shows off his ridiculously extensive knowledge of rap lyrics — quoting Kanye West and DMX before the close of the opening chapter.
Disclosure: Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, is an investor in Business Insider
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My Years with General Motors
Alfred Sloan was the CEO of General Motors from 1923 to 1946 — when the car company was arguably the most important organization on Earth.
More than your average business memoir, the book is a distillation of Sloan’s experiences and thoughts around how to steer a massive organization. It serves as a treatise on decentralization and the structure of the modern corporation.
Coauthored by Jason Fried, the cofounder and CEO of Basecamp, Rework is a spare startup manifesto.
While everything in the book might not apply to you — Fried’s company has remained at a tiny 37 members while staying profitable — it’s useful for the contrarian mirror it provides. After reading it, you’ll scrutinize every meeting request that crosses your desk.
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
Patagonia founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard is rightly known for keeping it real.
“No young kid growing up ever dreams of someday becoming a businessman,” the outdoors mogul begins his memoir. “He wants to be a fireman, a sponsored athlete, or a forest ranger. The Lee Iacoccas, Donald Trumps, and Jack Welches of the business world are heroes to no one except other businessmen with similar values. I wanted to be a fur trapper when I grew up.”
As an executive, Chouinard kept that adventurous ethos at the core of the company, whether by making sustainable supply chains or encouraging his employees to — yes — go surfing in the middle of the day.
Winning: The Ultimate Business How-To Book
Jack Welch ruled General Electric from 1981 to 2001.
Welch shared the history of the experience in his Jack: Straight From the Gut. But his follow-up book Winning makes the list because it reveals Welch’s approach to management and careers, from dealing with a bad boss to landing promotions to executive decision making.
Sophia Amoruso founded and grew online fashion retailer Nasty Gal into a $100 million business before moving to an executive chairman role.
In #GIRLBOSS, Amoruso — who started her business selling clothes on eBay — takes a delightfully flippant view on building a career.
Discussing her life before Nasty Gal, she writes:
What all of these jobs taught me is that you have to be willing to tolerate some s— you don’t like — at least for a while. This is what my parents’ generation would call ‘character building,’ but I prefer to call it ‘#GIRLBOSS training.’ I didn’t expect to love any of these jobs, but I learned a lot because I worked hard and grew to love things about them.
Business @ the Speed of Thought: Succeeding in the Digital Economy
Bill Gates’ 1999 book nailed the essence of data-based decision-making before “data science” was even a thing.
“The most meaningful way to differentiate your company from your competition, the best way to put distance between you and the crowd, is to do an outstanding job with information,” he writes. “How you gather, manage, and use information will determine whether you win or lose.”
The book is also compelling for its historical value. The year the book was published, Gates’ company set the record for market capitalization at a cool $618.9 billion.
Pour Your Heart into It : How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time
Howard Schultz — now worth $2.2 billion — changed the world with Starbucks, a company that made cafe culture endlessly accessible.
He unpacks he method in his 1999 memoir.
“People want guidance, not rhetoric,”Schultz writes. “They need to know what the plan of action is, and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and authority to act on it.”
Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion, And Purpose
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness — which has become a brand unto itself — is remarkable for the way it marries airy startup visions with pragmatic business knowhow.
Consider this selection:
My advice is to stop trying to ‘network’ in the traditional business sense, and instead just try to build up the number and depth of your friendships, where the friendship itself is its own reward. The more diverse your set of friendships are, the more likely you’ll derive both personal and business benefits from your friendship later down the road. You won’t know exactly what those benefits will be, but if your friendships are genuine, those benefits will magically appear 2-3 years later down the road.
And there are tons more of such nuggets in the book.
Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar & Co.
Adventure sports snack brand Clif Bar was nearly sold by founder Gary Erickson, but he instead bought out his company to keep the company private and solely owned.
This put the company into a precarious — but fruitful — position. He writes:
Clif Bar Inc. made itself vulnerable by staying private. I think people appreciate Clif’s vulnerability and that’s why they help us on our journey. People find the best flavors and finest ingredients for us. Others go out of their way to secure the best packaging deals possible. Consumers send us information on sustainability. They know we are not a large entity just trying to make money.
Beyond the usual how-we-did-it narrative, the Clif Bar tale is fantastic for the way it shows how a brand can communicate with its users at a surprisingly personal level, as numerous anecdotes show.
Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
Danny Meyer has been called the “restaurateur of his generation.”
As CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, Meyer has made New York his culinary domain, with the classy Union Square Cafe, the legendary Gramercy Tavern, and the perpetually queued Shake Shack all under his stead, among others.
In Setting the Table, the exec sets out his philosophy of “enlightened hospitality.”
“Service is the technical delivery of a product,” he writes. “Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.”