Leadership books that taught, challenged and inspired minds at Bank of America, IBM, Unilever and more

leadership books

CEOs, ambassadors and founders of top NGOS shared the leadership books that shaped them on Meet the Leader.

Linda Lacina
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Leadership?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Leadership is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Listen to the article

  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is a fortnightly podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • This special compilation episode of Meet the Leader collects leadership book recommendations that shaped how top minds from Boston Consulting Group, Bank of America, Unilever, IBM and more think, work and lead.
  • Don't miss the new World Economic Forum Book Club podcast.

It's December, a time for holiday gift shopping and new year prep. You'll see your share of book recommendations to help you with both at this time of year, but few collect books that have shaped how real leaders at top companies and organizations work, think and lead. This special compilation episode takes recommendations on leadership books from CEOs and top execs, NGO founders, and even an ambassador, to present options that will inspire, surprise and change you.

Enjoy this episode of Meet the Leader, and don't miss its brand-new sister-podcast Book Club.


Leadership books that inspire

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, Brian Grazer
Who recommends it?
Brian Moynihan, CEO, Bank of America.
Why he recommends it: You wouldn't expect a bank exec to recommend a book on curiosity but Moynihan understands the key role that curiosity plays in tackling challenges, helping you stay curious about different questions and not presuming you know all the answers.

Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, by Dean Acheson
Who recommends it: Former Ambassador Tom Shannon
Why he recommends it: Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state during the presidency of Harry Truman, played a central role after World war II in building a range of global structures. Acheson said he navigated that time thanks to boundless energy, determination and near complete ignorance of the challenge that he faced. Shannon said that our modern era also brings uncertainty but we sometimes have a better sense for certain challenges before us and these memoirs can be an inspiring take on grappling with difficult times.

Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
Who recommends it: Tariq Al Olaimy, Founder, 3BL Associates
Why he recommends it: The book covers the horrors of the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, but also the trust and goodness that existed. Said Al Olaimy: it "is a remembrance for me of believing in the goodness of human beings".

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche
Who recommends it: Leena Nair, CHRO, Unilever
Why she recommends it: After the tragedies of COVID-19, the book prompted her to think about both life and death but also purpose and meaning.


Leadership books that teach

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant
Who recommends it? Rich Lesser, CEO, Boston Consulting Group
Why he recommends it: Lesser read Give And Take early in his tenure as CEO and found the message of putting others' success first shaping and key to BCG's priorities. He gives this book to every managing director and partner and it even led to a special book club night with his executive committee.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Who recommends it: David Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group
Why he recommends it: This book explores Lincoln's cabinet, a group that included enemies and rivals who became a team of allies thanks to their respect and reverence of the president. "What you get from that is that even though you have enemies, even though you have competitors, if you work together with them, you can achieve some great things," says Rubenstein.

Ten Years to Midnight: Four Urgent Global Crises and Their Strategic Solutions.
Who recommends it: Bob Moritz, PwC Global Chairman
Why he recommends it: This book, written by Blair H. Sheppard, Global Leader for Strategy and Leadership for the PwC network, outlines some of the top challenges gleaned from interviews with a range of people, from global leaders to taxi drivers. The book discovers that regardless of background, interviewees shared concerns over problems such as wealth disparity and technological disruption. The book describes how these problems provoked four major crises, analyzing each and offering sometimes counterintuitive solutions. Moritz says the book helped PwC refine its strategic thinking and find ways to take action. "To me, it was a great opportunity to encapsulate the challenges and then really get to the next steps of what do we do."

The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations out of Poverty, by Clayton M. Christensen
Who recommends it: Lindiwe Matlali, Founder, Africa Teen Geeks
Why she recommends it: As the founder of Africa's largest computer science NGO, Matlali is committed to using tech education to reshape opportunity across the continent and create a pipeline of new developers, engineers, and entrepreneurial. Promoting entrepreneurship is a huge priority for Lindiwe and Christiansen's approach to creating is key, she thinks, to helping people around the world reshape their opportunity.

I Love Capitalism!: An American Story by Ken Langone
Who recommends it: Carmine Di Sibio, EY CEO
Why he recommends it: This book shares the story of how the Long Island native became a world-class philanthropist, a director of the New York Stock Exchange and the co-founder of Home Depot. The book shows the types of opportunities that capitalism can make possible, said Di Sibio. "It's a truly great book."

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't, by Jim Collins
Who recommends it: Carlos Brito, Former CEO of AB InBev
Why he recommends it: The book, based on facts and figures, looks at how businesses built their success through effective company cultures. He notes that only with great people and culture can you tackle big challenges. Said Brito: "The fact that you are attracting talented people is the biggest determinant of whether you're going to be able to build a great enduring company. As they grow, the company, will grow."

Leadership books that challenge ideas

The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future, by Fiona Reynolds
Who recommends it: Polly Courtice, former Founder Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).
Why she recommends it: This book looks at the history of Britain's belief in the importance of landscape beauty, and at the political and economic forces that have shaped the countryside. Courtice said she enjoyed this exploration of the 'tussle' between nature and the economy. She said she was also very moved by the book having grown up in South Africa and having developed a sense 'of the beauty of the world around us.' Readers taking on this book, said Courtice, will understand that some of the battles we're tackling are not new but the scale is more significant and the risks greater "if we don't recognize that we have to live in harmony with the natural world."

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, by Michael Sandel
Who recommends it: Dario Gil, Director, IBM Research
Why he recommends it: This book explores society’s obsession with achievement and how it can serve as the surprising root of divisions and inequities. “It’s an analysis of the dark side of meritocracy,” said Gil. Winners in this system can have an outsized sense of their own importance, while ’losers’ - shut out from certain routes to success, such as degrees and other credentials - can be dismissed and discarded as not ‘deserving’. Said Gil: “It’s a very interesting argument that I encourage everybody to look at.”

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett
Who recommends it: Organizational psychologist John Amaechi
Why he recommends it: This book offers a fresh analysis to show why greater economic equality and not wealth is the mark of the most successful societies. Says Amaechi, "It's brilliant."

Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
Who recommends it: Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer, Morgan Stanley
Why she recommends it: The book, written by Choi's mother, offers a personal family story about her mother's time growing up North Korea during the Japanese occupation during World War II. Being raised in America, Choi says the book also offers incredible perspective on the nature of opportunity and how advancement is increasingly out of reach in areas around the world.

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton
Who recommends it: Debra Whitman, AARP's Chief Public Policy Officer
Why she recommends it: Whitman is writing a book about the second half of life and recently dug into this book uncovering a range of surprising shifts for life expectancy, including the fact that men at the top 1% of income live 15 years longer than men at the bottom. Such facts show how income inequality has paved the way for life inequality, driving gaps in the amount of time certain people can spend on Earth with their families. This "under-the-radar" idea of life-inequality, says Whitman, has impacted our politics and understanding it can help anyone understand how many see their future.


Listen and subscribe:

Find all our podcasts here.
Subscribe: Meet the Leader, Radio Davos, Book Club.
Join the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
LeadershipArts and Culture
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Innovation Prize: Meet the next generation of changemakers

Natalie Pierce and Maria Sol Adaime Gabris

July 11, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum