2020 Best Books on Business and Leadership

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Considering the challenges presented by 2020, many of the books business leaders recommend this year aren’t technically business books at all—or from this year, for that matter: John Barry’s 2004 history of an earlier pandemic, The Great Influenza, was cited by both Axel Hefer, managing director of Trivago, and David Solomon, chairman and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, who called it “important to try and help put the pandemic into context.”

Even among books published in the last 12 months, an attempt to find historical analogies to present-day issues runs through the selections. Erik Larson’s epic retelling of Winston Churchill’s handling of the 1940 Blitz, The Splendid and the Vile, was a popular choice. “The book speaks to fearless leadership in the darkest hour,” says Jonathan Gray, president and chief operating officer of Blackstone Group. “A powerful lesson for the challenges of 2020.”

Roger Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of TIAA, recommends The Man Who Ran Washington, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s biography of James Baker III. Although it’s from a more recent time, Ferguson says, you can still “see the seeds of today’s hyper-partisan politics being planted during this period.” 

A year that brought renewed attention to the legacy of racial inequality in the U.S. sent three people on our list to Isabel Wilkerson’s CasteErika James, dean of the Wharton School, says that the most alarming realization from the book is that “other countries modeled their own caste structures on the U.S.,” adding that it was hard to take in, “but I could not put it down.”

Not all the selection are as serious. Larry Gagosian, the blue-chip art gallerist, used Sam Wasson’s history of the movie Chinatown to find new meaning in producer Robert Evans’s famous quote that the path to success was to “bet on talent.” And Mary Mack, CEO of consumer and small business banking at Wells Fargo, described Glennon Doyle’s memoir Untamed as “an authentic and empowering kick in the tail.” Here are the year’s 52 best books.

  • President and COO, Blackstone Group

    This book speaks to fearless leadership in the darkest hour. Imagine 1940: Continental Europe has fallen, the U.S. is reluctant to be drawn into another foreign conflict, and the U.K. is being mercilessly bombed by the German Air Force in anticipation of an invasion. Somehow Winston Churchill retained relentless optimism in the face of these insurmountable odds—a powerful lesson for the challenges of 2020.

    Published on Feb. 25, 2020

  • CEO of GIC, the sovereign wealth fund of Singapore

    It’s certainly a page turner with many provocative ideas. This book sheds light on the dark side of meritocracy, which has been turbo-charged by the market economy and globalization. I was inspired by his suggestions to urgently bring about a system for the common good—through fostering dignity of work, reframing of success and failure, and more public discourse of policy choices.

    Published on Sept. 15, 2020

  • Dean, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

    In this academically researched yet accessible book, Wilkerson shatters our understanding of caste systems in India, Nazi Germany and, yes, the United States. Caste is a poignant examination of how strongly rooted beliefs, self-preservation, and socially constructed narratives of race have been passed down over generations to form hierarchies that continue to separate Americans based on color. That other countries modeled their own caste structures on the U.S. was an alarming realization of how effective and insidious our system is. Caste was hard to take in, but I could not put it down.

    Published on Aug. 4, 2020

  • CEO, Tipping Point Community

    I love historical fiction because it reminds me that the more things change, the more they remain the same … for better or worse. The Cold Millions captures that sentiment perfectly with its ability to bring to life one of the most infamous, yet little known, free speech battles of the early 20th century between union organizers and local leaders in Spokane, Wash. It’s a stark reflection that the system and safety net that was built to “catch us,” was really only built to catch a few—the system is stacked against many, and it always has been. The book’s themes are important, timely, and remind us that we don’t have to uphold the status quo. We can and must create change.

    Published on Oct. 6, 2020

  • Founder, Infosys; Board Member of Ford Foundation and United Nations Foundation

    It’s a fascinating read about the art and science of using economic policy to solve a country’s problems. It describes some inefficient policy choices made in India in the past, and how to create an environment for best policies in the government.

    Published on Dec. 6, 2019

  • President and CEO, PayPal

    This is a book with a universal and inspiring message for anyone who reads it. Each of us has a right to be ambitious, and Shellye delivers her own account of pursuing her ambitions while paving the way for others to follow—unapologetically. It’s a very upfront and personal story of fighting battles and taking charge of your life.

    Published on Oct. 6, 2020

  • Partner, Index Ventures

    From one of the most influential economists of our generation, the one who convinced the world that inequality is worsening, Piketty’s follow-up exposes the beliefs behind our increasingly “hypercapitalist” system. His assertion that the ideology of entrepreneurship itself, manifested in Silicon Valley, drives these economic outcomes hit close to home. It also raised a profound question: Have we, as a global society, developed any compelling alternative systems?

    Published on Sept. 12, 2019

  • Owner and Founder, Gagosian Gallery

    Chinatown is a dark film about politics and corruption both public and personal—relevant subjects for 2020. Wasson tells the story of how Chinatown came to be made, and it’s a love letter to the Hollywood I remember but doesn’t exist anymore: pre-corporate, pre-committee, pre-algorithm moviemaking. A Hollywood full of swagger and staggering talents. And artists: Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Bob Evans. Jane Fonda was originally cast in the Faye Dunaway role but wasn’t available—truly an embarrassment of riches. Evans believed that the path to success was always to “bet on talent.” It’s useful wisdom for everyone who works in the business of art.

    Published on Feb. 4, 2020

  • President and CEO, TIAA

    My favorite books tend to be biographies and histories. I enjoy learning how leaders have dealt with the issues that confronted them. This book depicts the public service career of James Baker, who served under four different presidents during pivotal times at home and abroad. It’s a very thoughtful biography about a time not too long ago in American history when the prevailing ethos was to fight fiercely for electoral victory, graciously accept the will of the people, and attempt to find common ground in governing. At the same time, one can see the seeds of today’s hyper-partisan politics being planted during this period.

    Published on May 12, 2020

  • CEO of Consumer and Small Business Banking, Wells Fargo

    Untamed is an authentic and empowering kick in the tail. Glennon Doyle takes us through her own candid journey of self-discovery in a way that makes you laugh and at the same time really think about who you are, who you can be, and the impact you can have if you so choose.

    Published on March 10, 2020

  • Founder and CEO, Compass

    I believe entrepreneurship is the most powerful force for progress the world has ever known, so I was naturally drawn to The Passion Economy. Adam Davidson’s book was full of inspiring stories about people pursuing their dreams and obsessing about the opportunity to serve their customers in surprising ways. One of the core ideas in the book has always been a driving force in my own life: that you don’t have to choose between earning a living and pursuing your passions—you can do both at the same time. It’s like the “shower test”—if you’re not excited enough about your work to think about it in the shower, you should find a new career.

    Published on Jan. 7, 2020

  • President, Cubist Systematic Strategies at Point72

    I find the perspective of taking quite a few steps back to see the big picture useful. I liked his earlier The Next 100 Years, which applied his geopolitical forecasting to the world; this one focuses on the United States. Historical context can often clarify what seems like a uniquely confusing present. The United States is an invented nation with a great deal of dynamism and flexibility. I share the author’s optimism about our ability to continue reinventing ourselves.

    Published on Feb. 25, 2020

  • Chef and restaurateur, Daniel

    A book that enabled me to see my hometown and culinary craft in a different light. His portrayal of being a chef in French was heartwarming, upsetting at times, and uplifting, but I must say that his observations were truthful. It took real guts for Bill to step into a French kitchen and be an apprentice. The harsh lesson for him was challenging, but very nourishing. Nobody has written about cooking in a French kitchen like Bill did, and it brought back a lot of memories of my youth as a young chef in France.

    Published on May 5, 2020

  • Dean, Yale School of the Environment

    I found this book to be like a walk in the northeastern woods with an observant naturalist and scientist. These forests are case studies for the myriad of environmental changes facing all our global ecosystems: invasive species, disease, air pollution, climate change, and the ever-present human impacts. Canham provides both objective and optimistic views of the present and future of these resilient systems.

    Published on Feb. 18, 2020

  • CEO, Forbes Family Trust

    When people think of what makes a leader successful, we think of a person who makes fast, intelligent decisions, gives good speeches, and is able to control and direct colleagues to execute and deliver on a business plan. In this book, former Navy submarine Captain David Marquet explains that traditional leadership skills are less effective in the technology-information age we currently live in. Marquet suggests, based on his own experience as a submarine captain, that this is no longer the best way to lead. Encouraging colleagues to speak up when they see something and leaning toward collaboration instead of intimidation or giving orders benefits the business and enables a leader to succeed more. His or her people feel ownership in the success.

    Published on Feb. 4, 2020

  • CTO, Goop

    Released amidst the worldwide onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the book begins by describing how collisions of scale and data can be daunting and continues by applying advanced principles to handling such collisions under any circumstance. While not every company is an “AI firm,” it is becoming harder to imagine an industry where machine learning does not serve as the impending disruptor. Both authors do well in covering both the strategic and ethical leadership implications of such disruption.

    Published on Jan. 7, 2020

  • Founder and CEO, Robasciotti & Philipson

    This has truly been my favorite book of the year. Bringing a feminist approach to Buddhism, A Bigger Sky is beautifully crafted and illustrates for the reader how mindfulness and spiritual practice can be integrated into all aspects of daily life. Its invitation to dive deeply and vulnerably into community has been a nourishing tonic for 2020. This is the perfect read for a year where we are in need of feeling a greater sense of connection to the people and the world around us.

    Published on July 14, 2020

  • CEO, WW International

    Jacqueline galvanizes us with a call to action and provides answers and a new approach to both economic and human capital development. The leadership lessons create a path for us to make the world a better place and change the lives of millions.

    Published on May 5, 2020

  • Global Brand and Marketing Officer, Marriott International

    This challenging year offered plenty of time and occasion to reflect and re-evaluate priorities. Inequality has unfortunately long been part of our social and political fabric—then and now, here and abroad. This book stood out to me because the lead is a strong female protagonist, and while I was raised in India, a very male-dominated society, I grew up with a very entrepreneurial mother. She proved to be an immense role model in my life and encouraged me to dream and dare. The storytelling was rich, vivid, and beautiful. More than the characters, the overarching theme made me think of myself and my daughter’s future, which is that with hard work, courage, and fortitude, one can make a great life outside of cultural boundaries.

    Published on March 3, 2020

  • Co-founder and former CEO, Chewy

    This book insightfully articulates how disruptive technologies like AI, VR, robotics, digital biology, and blockchain will converge in response to the next decade of innovation. Every facet of our lives will be transformed, from the way we raise our kids to how we care for our planet.

    Published on Jan. 28, 2020

  • Managing Director, Early Stage and Group Partner, Y Combinator

    As America’s national politics becomes more and more polarized, the federal government will continue to face gridlock. As a result, citizens will look to their state and local governments for solutions. I believe this is a counterintuitively positive trend and Rahm Emanuel’s book provides great examples of how state and local elected officials from both political parties are stepping up to the challenge and delivering results for their constituents.

    Published on Feb. 25, 2020

  • CEO, Graphcore

    Fascinating history of China, spanning 4,000 years from the Zhou and the Song through to modern China. The book reinforces the deep roots that run through China’s history from when it was the world’s largest and most advanced economy in the Middle Ages through to the 17th Century and shows how this still influences modern China today.

    Published on Nov. 17, 2020

  • Chairman, TeamLease Services; director on the board of Reserve Bank of India

    Most people think India’s software and pharmaceutical industries were an accident. This wonderful book tracks the policy and political foundations of India’s two globally competitive industries.

    Published on Dec. 6, 2019

  • President and CEO, Saks Fifth Avenue

    A must-read for any leader—especially during this time. Through the lens of a pivoting startup, former Netflix CEO Marc Randolph shares that we as leaders must empower our teams to make bold decisions and take risks, freely and confidently. This really resonated with me, particularly as I encourage my own team to rethink and disrupt the way we work and operate in the luxury retail space. In fact, given how much I learned from this book, I purchased copies for my entire leadership team. Regardless of what industry you’re in, we must never lose sight of the power of confidence in both your ideas and yourself to take a leap of faith.

    Published on Sept. 17, 2019

  • Founding member, SoftBank Opportunity Fund

    It’s intense but I believe required reading for anyone seeking to understand systemic racism and what we can begin to do to create change.

    Published on Aug. 4, 2020

  • CEO, Mahindra Agriculture North America

    A collection of short stories from around the world that showcases creativity in real-life situations. The book opened my eyes to simple yet creative endeavors of people to address challenges often taken for granted. It brought to light the number of solutions that are a result of intentional creative input. Though all the stories are heartwarming and positive, if I had to pick one that stands out, it would be the story of the trick-or-treating boys. If you are short on time, the little nuggets that the author ends each story with are worth reading even on their own.

    Published on Feb. 4, 2019

  • Chef, restaurateur and founder, World Central Kitchen

    Enric Sala brings a lifetime of exploring, learning, and studying to understand that everything in the great web of life is connected—and with some work, the natural world can be healed. To me, this lesson is as important for the natural world as the human one: Though we may sometimes be divided, diversity is what makes us stronger. Where some people see only crisis, Enric sees optimism for the future: That by protecting and preserving the natural world, we are ensuring and improving our own place in it for many generations to come.

    Published on Aug. 25, 2020

  • Senior Executive Vice President, Head of Strategy, Digital Platforms and Innovation, Wells Fargo

    Connected Strategy really challenged my thinking about how to address the potential disruptive impact of technology on banks. By focusing on meeting the customer where they are; providing value added services and capabilities as their needs arise, or leveraging intimate knowledge of their behaviors to anticipate an emerging need, we can form a deeper, more connected and relevant relationship. This was one of the business books that I read all the way though in one sitting and will be on the holiday reading list for my leadership team.

    Published on May 21, 2019

  • Senior Vice President for Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, Google

    As we all wearily await the end of 2020, it’s worth taking stock of the year’s painful lessons. The Wake Up Call, refreshingly concise and eminently readable, highlights how the modern crisis of governance compounded the challenges of the pandemic. Micklethwait and Wooldridge cogently outline ways we can recover a sense of shared purpose and restore confidence in the ability of governments to promote inclusive progress. (Micklethwait is the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.)

    Published on Sept. 15, 2020

  • Chairman and CEO, Take-Two Interactive

    History that reads like a thriller. And a demonstration of what leadership, optimism, hard work, and cooperation can achieve, even with long odds against success.

    Published on Feb. 25, 2020

  • Creator, Everybody Loves Raymond; host, Somebody Feed Phil

    It’s fascinating, it’s his side of the story, and best of all, it’s Woody Allen, really funny, in the way that first made me a fan.

    Published on March 23, 2020

  • President and CEO, Beam Suntory

    A jolting wake-up call for all of us who want to leave a positive legacy on this Earth. As we enter a decade when exponential changes will happen, John Elkington makes a compelling case for a new model of sustainability and capitalism where green swan breakthroughs outshine black swan breakdowns. It’s a model in which we expand our ambition from doing less harm to the planet to regenerating and restoring what we have lost, and in which financial systems measure and reward positive environment impact. For the human race to endure, we all hope that green swans will quickly and loudly resonate in societies and board rooms around the globe.

    Published on April 7, 2020

  • Co-founder and CEO, Peloton

    Engaging, entertaining, interesting, and inspiring. Bob Iger is one of the few leaders whom I truly look up to, and this book highlights why. High-integrity, low-ego, truly caring, and hard-working. If you’re an aspiring business leader or just someone who loves Disney, this book will not disappoint.

    Published on Sept. 23, 2019

  • Spokeswoman, Goldman Sachs

    This is a collection of short stories that have a feminist element to them, which is something I am currently focused on. Additionally, the stories pair the realities of modern day Japan with supernatural strands, which is a particular genre in Japanese literature I like.

    Published on Oct. 20, 2020

  • COO, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group

    David Attenborough’s latest book is a poignant reflection on an extraordinary life. I very much enjoyed his presentation of passionate personal beliefs alongside the science to back these up. David gives hope and helps cut through the noise in this book, reminding us all of the importance of individuals driving global solutions for the challenges our natural world faces today.

    Published on Oct. 6, 2020

  • Chief Program Officer, National Park Foundation

    In 2020, racial inequality was brought to the forefront of conversations for many. This book specifically describes the physical and psychological impact of Black fatigue on the Black community and explores how society can collectively work together to make our systems more equitable. This book has helped as I advance one of the National Park Foundation’s goals to tell a broader story of our nation’s history and raise awareness of African American history in partnership with the National Park Service.

    Published on Sept. 15, 2020

  • President, University of Minnesota

    Winn and her husband lose everything and, in the process, find out what they truly value. As we go through this crazy time—when so many of us are missing things we thought were essential—this book challenged me to think about what’s actually important.

    Published on March 5, 2019

  • Co-founder, KKR & Co.

    It’s unvarnished history of America—with the good and the bad. Not what you learn in high school.

    Published on Sept. 18, 2018

  • Chef and restaurateur, Red Rooster

    I might be slightly biased since he’s Swedish, but Jonas has an incredible way of telling stories. His latest novel demonstrates the complexities of family dynamics and parenting. It’s deeply relatable and heartfelt.

    Published on Aug. 16, 2018

  • Chairman and CEO, Pernod Ricard

    Fascinating read, especially in the context of a pandemic. Through four personal stories, you discover the captivating complexity of our immune system, written in such a way that it’s an easy read for the layman. I can highly recommend it!

    Published on March 12, 2019

  • Founder and CEO, Walker & Co. Brands

    The author defines “caste” as the “the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” As I was launching Walker and Co., I saw this manifested all the time and I know countless other Black entrepreneurs do as well.

    Published on Aug. 4, 2020

  • Founder, Room to Read; Asia Partner, Concentric Equity Partners

    There is nothing I love more than travel, and when it can’t be real it’s often virtual through the power of books. I’ve never been to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula but was instantly transported there as two young sisters are kidnapped during an after-school trip to the beach and as the search introduces us to various characters and geographies in this unique corner of our world.

    Published on May 14, 2019

  • Chief Marketing Officer, Dell Technologies

    This year has been the leadership challenge of a lifetime, and I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about how I can best show up for my team, my family, and myself. Glennon’s honesty and willingness to make bold moves in her personal and professional life inspired me. Also, I confess that in the early days of Covid-19, I didn’t have my normal depth of concentration and found myself reading and re-reading the same page of many books. One of the era-specific benefits of Untamed was its short vignette format; they let me focus and absorb the narrative.

    Published on March 10, 2020

  • Indra K. Nooyi Dean, Yale School of Management

    As is true for most Black intellectuals, I have long been familiar with key features of Douglass’s life story. What I did not know, and what the book captures brilliantly, is how events, experiences, and disappointments shaped the evolution of his beliefs and recommendations about what the country could and should do to address the issue of race.

    Published on Oct. 16, 2018

  • Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Charles Schwab

    This year has been one of struggles, but one that has sparked a moment of reflection in how we live our lives. The Road to Character challenges us to focus on the eulogy, not the resume, and nurture deeper inner values—like humility, kindness, bravery—to guide us along the way. Particularly relevant today, this book is essential for anyone in the midst of soul searching, and aren’t we all? Author David Brooks explores the real-life experiences of some inspirational leaders who developed strong inner character after overcoming personal struggles.

    Published on April 21, 2015

  • Board Member, Deutsche Bundesbank

    Central bankers like me and other financial protagonists should be conscious of the silent transformation of money. The book challenges the traditional functions served by money for a number of reasons: digitalization, persistently low interest rates, causes and consequences of ultra-loose monetary policy. “Beware the changes of fundamentals of the industry when planning for the future” is the author’s message, which I fully echo.

    Published on September 17, 2020

  • Founder and CEO, Crayon Data

    The one relevant book for a post-Covid world where billionaires have added $1 trillion of wealth in just 6 months, and markets have grown even more concentrated. From the “industrial eugenics” and “social Darwinism” of the early 20th century, to the idea that “you are not free if you are economically dependent on the arbitrary will of another,” Tim Wu shows us how we are rapidly going down the slippery road to serfdom, albeit a distinctly non-Hayekian one. And provides a self-described middle-path solution on how to update antitrust law to deal with the tech giants, whose frictionless growth is creating a new permanent under-class characterised by inequality of opportunity.

    Published on Nov. 13, 2018

  • President and COO, Mattel

    Through sharing stories of recent and historical events of miscommunication and assumptions, Malcom Gladwell explores how a lack of understanding each other can sometimes lead to disastrous outcomes. Given current challenges that we all are facing, showing empathy toward others is key to creating a better, more understanding world.

    Published on Sept. 10, 2019

  • Chief Marketing Officer, Lamborghini

    I loved it because it is an interesting and brilliant introspective into the future of technology, but also a clear explanation of how everything is going to change not in a million years, but in this decade.

    Published on Jan. 28, 2020

  • SVP, General Manager and Global Head of Print at HP Inc.

    As I picked up this book again this year, I couldn’t help but be reminded that true leadership principles stand the test of time. Whether through narratives of Abraham Lincoln moving between both transformational and transactional leadership moments, or stories of Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to contingency planning during a crisis, Goodwin’s skill for sharing leadership lessons through a historical lens is captivating and unrivaled. As I look at the challenges the world has faced through 2020 and the parallels over the last decades and centuries, this book provided me a renewed aspiration to make a more sustainable impact on those around me as we move forward.

    Published on Sept. 18, 2018

  • Co-founder, Flipkart Online Services Pvt

    It’s a thrilling tour of the history of physics, my favorite subject, in the first half. And the second half distills the latest thinking in physics in a manner that couldn’t be any simpler.

    Published on Jan. 24, 2017

  • Chief Investment Officer, UBS Global Wealth Management

    Real interest rates are negative and countries have been voluntarily shutting down their economies … We are in a new world. To understand it,  step away from the economic textbook and pick up Geopolitical Alpha.

    Published on Oct. 13, 2020

—Assists from Max Abelson, Mark Bergen, Paul Brennan, Austin Carr, Katherine Chiglinsky, Nicholas Comfort, Nikki Ekstein, Hannah Elliott, Amanda Gordon, Nico Grant, Jason Kelly, Kate Krader, Justina Lee, Hannah Levitt, Yoolim Li, Janet Lorin, Sarah McBride, Anders Melin, Chris Nagi, Sridhar Natarajan, Lananh Nguyen, Janet Paskin, Michael Patterson, Saritha Rai, Michael Regan, James Tarmy

(Updates title of Marc Metrick. An earlier version corrected spelling of Susan Glasser and Tina Edmundson.)