Sci-fi and Genghis Khan: Here’s what tech CEOs read in 2021

We asked dozens of tech CEOs which books they loved reading this year. Here’s your holiday reading assignment.

Books

Science fiction, leadership bestsellers and Michael Lewis’ “The Premonition” were among tech CEOs’ top picks.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

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Didn’t make a dent in your bedside table book pile this year? You’ve got no excuse, since even the busiest people in the tech industry found time this year to dive into a good book. But what did they read, we wondered? Over the last couple of weeks, we asked dozens of CEOs what books they loved in the last 12 months.

Sure, it’s no surprise that CEOs got into Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead,” Adam Grant’s “Think Again” and Stephen M. R. Covey's “The Speed of Trust” in 2021, but some of the more offbeat reads caught our eye. Biographies were popular — not just of CEOs like Michael Dell, Disney’s Bob Iger and Ford’s Alan Mulally, but also Genghis Khan and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Other picks included “The Premonition: A Pandemic Story,” sci-fi titles like “There Is No Antimemetics Division” and magical realism like “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which sunday co-founder Christine de Wendel said was “steamy, funny, colorful, [and] exotic” enough to inspire a New Year’s trip to Cartagena. One, we’re jealous, and two, we hope she — and the rest of us — finds a new vacation read on this list.

SAP CEO Christian Klein

“Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them” by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini

“I believe people are curious by nature, but ‘Humanocracy’ suggests that their creativity, initiative and motivation are oftentimes hindered by environments that rely on hierarchies, positions and top-down control. I appreciated the book because it makes the case for fostering organizations that rely on people, their energy and ideas instead of bureaucracy and rigid rules, allowing them to unleash innovation and giving them a competitive advantage.”

Twitch CEO Emmett Shear

“There Is No Antimemetics Division” by qntm

"I liked it because I like fiction-of-ideas. It's a unique spin on a new kind of horror — monsters you can't remember exist, which eat your memories of themselves — and maybe other stuff too. It was just a fun adventure that made me wonder about what things might be out there in the world that are right in front of our faces, yet we aren't seeing."

TIBCO CEO Dan Streetman and Headspace Health CEO Russell Glass

“The Premonition: A Pandemic Story” by Michael Lewis

“I’m a huge fan of Michael’s work. His inspiration for 'Moneyball' was a great lesson on the importance of analytics in sports. His newest book ‘The Premonition’ is not only a powerful account of the early stages of the pandemic, but also a great analysis of how real-time data, combined with courage, can be applied to solve complex problems — including a global health crisis. On the business side, it’s also an important lesson on how internal structure and culture can determine an organization's ability to act quickly.” —D.S.

The best book of the year was ‘The Premonition’ by Michael Lewis. [It's an] incredible and non-political inside look at the government response to the pandemic, what is broken about our health care system and the people who are fighting to save our lives.” —R.G.

HackerOne CEO Mårten Mickos

"This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race" by Nicole Perlroth

“First it feels like a horror story. Then you start realizing there are ways to make sure the world doesn't end. You come out of it more confident."

"When Life Hands You Cactuses, Make Margaritas" by Adiba Barney

"The true and touching story of a female Silicon Valley executive who gets diagnosed with cancer. She does not give up. She writes a book. Highly inspirational."

"Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl and "Lessons from Little Rock" by Terrence Roberts

"I realize the best books I read this year were about hardship. Perhaps when the world undergoes drastic change, it is helpful to read how others managed through tough times. I read the books and they inspired me. They made me less inwardly focused. And happier."

Wind River CEO Kevin Dallas

“AI Superpowers” by Kai-Fu Lee

“Lee’s insights are extremely relevant and top of mind for me as a technology CEO navigating and advancing the AI-first world, and also provide a reality check on the nations and companies that are truly leading the AI revolution.”

Five9 CEO Rowan Trollope

“Consider Phlebas” by Iain Banks

"It's a great sci-fi novel. I've been trying to read more fiction this year, and this was a good read.”

Arctic Wolf president and CEO Nick Schneider

“The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything” by Stephen M. R. Covey with Rebecca R. Merrill

“Trust is at the center of strong leadership. Without it you are almost certain to fail, or at minimum, you will not reach the heights you could have otherwise achieved with high trust. I find this quote from the book particularly interesting on the importance of trust: ‘Trust is equal parts character and competence … You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always a failure of one or the other.’”

Intercom CEO Karen Peacock

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers

“'The Overstory' had a big impact on me — as a leader, the book highlights the importance of true long-term thinking, sustainability, connectedness and the power of storytelling to influence how people from all different backgrounds can and must come together to approach an enormous problem.”

Malwarebytes CEO Marcin Kleczynski

“American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company” by Bryce G. Hoffman

"A fantastic turnaround story of Ford [featuring] Alan Mulally. I love how Alan built unity at Ford and accountability to the metrics. It struck me that he even went as far as walking around and handing out cards with the Ford values."

Integral Ad Science CEO Lisa Utzschneider

“Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.” by Brené Brown

“I highly recommend 'Dare to Lead' by Brené Brown for those interested in understanding what it means to build a business and lead in our digital-first world. Lately, I’ve also been tuning into this podcast as well, especially on my daily walks. I enjoy the creative storytelling, plus it’s an inspiring listen while I get in my steps and adds balance to my work schedule. I'm fascinated by the stories of change-makers and those who aspire to lead with purpose.”

Orange Business Services CEO Helmut Reisinger

“The Lost Boys: A Family Ripped Apart By War” by Catherine Bailey

"This book describes how human touch, tenacity and positive attitude can win over the worst tragedies in wartime."

Uniphore co-founder and CEO Umesh Sachdev

“Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey From Founder to Leader” by James Kaplan and Michael S. Dell

“I loved this book because I could relate to much of it myself as the co-founder and CEO of my own company. Michael’s path is one many of us have encountered: It’s not just dreaming and launching the company, but building upon it to keep it viable and then continually transforming it in a rapidly and constantly changing tech industry. His advice from founder to leader is good advice for any current or prospective leader.”

Virtustream president and CEO Todd Pavone

"Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know" by Adam Grant

"The book is a great reminder to always be willing to unlearn in order to learn new ideas and perspectives. The author also inspires his readers to always strive to better understand the things that you don’t know. To quote: 'The brighter we are, the blinder to our own limitations we can become.'"

Sendoso co-founder and CEO Kris Rudeegraap

“No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention” by Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings

“I was always fascinated with Netflix's culture, and this gave me an inside look.”

Copado CEO Ted Elliott

“The Silicon Valley Way: Discover the Secret of America's Fastest Growing Companies” by Elton Sherwin

"I reread 'The Silicon Valley Way' by Elton Sherwin this year after a decade, and found that the rules and guides still apply to startups today. This book helps me prioritize my decisions."

Illumio founder and CEO Andrew Rubin

“My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future” by Indra Nooyi

“Not only is this an incredible personal story, but also a remarkable leadership story as well. This book has exceptional lessons for any individual or entrepreneur eager to keep learning."

BlueStacks CEO Rosen Sharma

“Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky

“‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’ was an insightful read on stress, its effect on the body and how we can counteract those effects. Stress isn’t a brand-new concept, but it’s something we all need less of in our lives. With so much uncertainty going on right now, I’ve used this book as a guide to reframe how I approach stressful situations to maintain better mental health. ”

Sift president and CEO Marc Olesen

“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson

“I deeply valued the increased awareness of slavery in the U.S. and the ongoing impact it has on racism in our society. The book also helped me contextualize slavery with Isabel’s comparisons to Nazi Germany and the caste system in India. After reading the book, I feel inspired to contribute to a world that treats everyone fairly.”

Contentstack founder and CEO Neha Sampat

“High Growth Handbook: Scaling Startups From 10 to 10,000 People” by Elad Gil

“I received a copy as a gift when we closed our series B, and I love all of the real-world stories and examples from successful CEOs that have lived through what I’m going through. I bought a copy for my whole leadership team."

Envoy founder and CEO Larry Gadea

“The Cold Start Problem: How to Start and Scale Network Effects” by Andrew Chen

“It just came out this [month]. It's about network effects and virality, and it just makes sense to me as a CEO of a startup. Highly recommended for anyone looking to grow their business or those interested in learning what keeps CEOs like me up at night.”

Sunday co-founder and U.S. CEO Christine de Wendel

“Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez

“I traveled to a different place and a different time. It was steamy, funny, colorful, exotic … I liked it so much, I am heading to Cartagena with my husband for New Year’s."

Netlify CEO and co-founder Matt Biilmann

“The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson

“Kim Stanley Robinson is generally one of the rare utopian science-fiction authors today, and that's also the case for his most recent work, ‘The Ministry for the Future.’ It tackles a much nearer future by starting just a few years from now, and presents a positive vision for humanity getting through the challenge of climate change. It's not a work without flaws, and sometimes even the utopian elements seem slightly dystopic to me, but it's an amazing, thought-provoking work that both succeeds in giving a sense of the immense challenges we are all in front of and yet presenting a positive story of overcoming them.”

Hired CEO Josh Brenner

“The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO” by Robert Iger

“I started getting a lot more into audiobooks this year, and was able to ‘read’ more books than ever before. My favorite book that I read this year was ‘The Ride of a Lifetime’ by Robert Iger. It was fascinating to learn about the massive transformation that Iger led Disney through during this tenure. The main takeaways for me were all the examples and stories of how he led with innovation, empathy and courage.”

vArmour CEO Tim Eades

“Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

“It's not a new book, but it’s consistently relevant to business and politics. This book reinforced for me the necessity of open communication, shared knowledge, independent thinking and commitment to the vision of a global, united world.”

Paceline founder and CEO Joel Lieginger

“American Caesar” by William Manchester

“It’s about the life and times of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. As one of America’s great wartime leaders, MacArthur is the epitome of a flawed leader whose many military and political strengths were balanced by his many personal and character weaknesses. Ultimately, great leaders are mere humans and susceptible to their vulnerabilities, and in many cases sacrifice themselves for a greater good. He was there in a time when the world needed him most. He also wrote one of the greatest odes to parenting that I have ever read, and one I try to follow and live up to myself every day.”

BeyondHQ founder and CEO Madhu Chamarty

“We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast” by Jonathan Safran Foer

“Captivating recapitulation of the global climate impact of factory-scale animal farming and something as simple as our daily diets can in aggregate help alleviate/address climate change. I am a fan of the data-driven (and elegantly written) plea toward individual and societal decision-making, especially regarding our relationship to our fragile planet.”

“The Best American Essays of the Century,” edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan

“A collection of essays from the 20th century, written by luminaries across genres; from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to James Baldwin, from Gretel Ehrlich to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many more. Each essay is a window, not only into the author's mind but also their milieu in their time. The book is a rich and diverse buffet of 100 years of perspectives (past, present and future) and topics worldwide. Francis Bacon said, ‘Writing maketh an exact man,’ and this book helped me understand what precisely these powerful women and men were made of. You get to decipher the underlying 'why' that drove each of them, and it is the same 'why' I often ask myself in everything I pursue.”

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