From executives at Netflix and Pixar to gallery directors and sports coaches: we asked leaders to share their favourite book – and the lesson that changed the way they do business.
Powerful by Patty McCord and Unlearn by Barry O'Reilly
Work futurist, Atlassian
“I generally detest business books because they’re so contrived and generic. I spend more time reading fiction, to allow my brain to relax and be curious and creative. That said, there are a few great business books that have slipped through the filter. One is Powerful by Patty McCord, who is the ex-chief talent officer from Netflix and co-author of the Netflix Culture Deck. The book is an amazing read – an authentic, pragmatic set of experiences and stories. They’re things that actually happened and actions you can try. McCord has an honest tone and shares insights from her experience scaling Netflix, as well as culture, hiring, firing and the myths that we carry about people. The takeaway for me was the reframe of how we have it wrong; retention is a poor measure of success in HR. ‘Why are we talking about empowerment? Just give people the power that you took from them!’ It’s a confronting and exciting read for any leader.
Unlearn has been useful for me as I’ve become a leader. Instead of adding ‘more’, it challenges people to think about the habits they can stop before they introduce things. At first it seemed illogical and then I had an ‘Oh!’ moment, where I saw that I was sprinkling in new ideas but not giving them much attention as I was spread too thin. It’s another insightful and practical read on how to keep yourself effective and relevant as a leader.”
The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes
Director, National Gallery of Australia
“There are a number of art books that have shaped my business thinking. Published in 1980, The Shock of the New startlingly defines the creative progress of the 20th century and has inspired me to embrace the different, the unconventional and the edgy. It’s not just an art book; it’s a story of how technology, history and creativity continuously come together and chart a new path. I got my first copy when I was 17 and still have it, dog-eared, taped at the spine and endlessly annotated. It always reminds me that to actively contribute to the future, we need to re-evaluate all we know about the past. Knowledge is the key to being innovative.”
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
CEO, Stronger Smarter Institute
“The Art of War has been an important book on my career journey in Indigenous education as it’s a cultural take on the importance of strategy. It’s another culture – other than Western – providing analysis and learnings from their story, their footprints. I’ve taken a lot out of the teachings of Sun Tzu. A key concept is the notion that strategy in response to war also applies to the business world: you must respond to the conditions that are in front of you. You have to read what’s on the horizon, take a look back, consider where your personnel are and be mindful of your steps.”
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson
CEO, Tennis Australia, tournament director of the Australian Open
“I read this when I was getting into business, at a time when change wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. It’s been a great foundation. I even remember the four characters: Sniff and Scurry are mice, Hem and Haw are Littlepeople. The whole concept was about change: it will happen, you must anticipate it, adapt to it, enjoy it, know it’s part of life – it’s the one constant in business. When the book was written [in 1998], it was anticipating change and how to respond as a leader; now you have speed. If Spencer Johnson wrote that book today, he’d be talking about how the biggest driver of change is its speed: Who Moved My Cheese – So Fast?”
The Courage To Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga
Coach of tennis champion Ashleigh Barty
“This is the book that has most influenced me in my working life and life in general. I’ve taken several things from it that have helped me:
1. The environment you exist in is ultimately what you make it.
2. Don’t expect things to happen if you’re sitting around doing nothing about it.
4. If you’re seeking recognition, you have lost sight of the task.”
The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson and Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Company director, public speaker and author
“It’s imperative that leaders enable cultures where everyone feels able to speak up and there’s a sense of psychological safety so they know their concerns will be heard and they won’t be judged, penalised or silenced. Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, has written a practical book filled with examples of organisations that have failed to create such environments. Invariably, those businesses have failed or faced significant decline. The book also has useful examples of how leaders can turn their workplace into one where everyone knows their opinions are valued and concerns can be raised, which is essential when it comes to building trust and a mutually respectful culture.
A conversation with a United States Marine Corps general inspired the title of Simon Sinek’s book. He learnt that senior military officers always let more junior ranks eat before them in the mess hall. This is a lesson I distinctly remember being taught as a young military officer in training at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the start of my career and it epitomises the idea of leaders forgoing their own comfort for the good of those they lead. Using practical examples, Sinek challenges the view that workplaces must be driven by cynicism, paranoia and self-interest and instead shows that successful organisations – led by those prepared to put others first – create environments where people naturally work together to achieve remarkable things.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Head coach of the Australian Diamonds national netball team
“It’s been my compass for my whole career, as a teacher and a coach. The biggest takeaway is that if we’re not driven by our own compass, we fly around in the wind. When I talk about leadership it’s one of the books I recommend people work through. It’s a course with workbooks and is still relevant today. It’s a practical, helpful book that teaches people to navigate their own lives because if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey and Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
CEO, Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering
“Some of the lessons of The 7 Habits really stuck with me during my early years at work, particularly around first seeking to understand and then to be understood yourself, to listen actively and value the experience, ideas and opinions of the people around you. I’ve tried to incorporate that into my leadership style.
Bruce Pascoe’s book is not something that most people would think of as a business book but it is utterly disruptive in the most positive and productive way imaginable. It asks us to seriously examine, as Australians, where we come from, our beliefs, our mindset, the history that we were taught and what we grew up believing about ourselves. It has some really valuable lessons for us as we’re facing a climate crisis, a crisis of disconnection from the land, water systems and weather systems. It provides a path back towards connection, back towards sustainability and back towards respect and integration. It’s the kind of book that once you’ve read it, you can never forget it – it will change the way you think.”
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Founder, Mona (Museum of Old and New Art)
“There are people – probably lots of people – who are good at business. Some of those people are successful. Most are not. The trick is not inevitably succeeding but corralling failure. If a scheme has an unbounded upside but the potential downside is limited and if risk isn’t transferred to others or to the environment then that scheme is worth trying, however unlikely it is to succeed. Business plans try to make every scheme a winner but that’s a bad idea. A good idea might be to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness. A better idea may be to stay away from business books and business schools and go to more parties (particularly if you don’t like going to parties). At a party you might meet new mates, or even a mate, and you might meet the idea that changes your life. And the downside is limited to waking up the next day with a headache.”
The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab
CEO and managing partner, MinterEllison
“This has been my favourite business book for the past few years and I keep going back to it. It was essentially a manuscript put together by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, and one of the mandatory pre-reads for everybody attending the forum in Davos [Switzerland] in 2016. This book had a substantial impact on me, not so much because of the information on technology but because it goes much further than just a discussion on this topic. Yes, it talks about implantables, bitcoin, blockchain, the Internet of Things and 3D printing but what it really focuses on is how the accelerated rate of digital advancement is putting humankind on the brink of profound shifts in who we are and how we work and relate to one another, even questioning the role of humans.
The book talks about the impacts of these things – on the economy, employment, the nature of work itself, the future of business, the national and global impacts for government and countries and society and individuals. It prompted me to start thinking about my role as a leader, which is why I keep going back to it. I think that, increasingly, leadership is not just about helping others to navigate or cope with change. It’s about how you help your organisation, the people in it and the stakeholders to thrive in this environment of continuous disruption.”
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Founder and CEO, Food Frontier
“There’s so much that we struggle to understand about the workings and intelligence of our bodies, our minds and the world around us. What Blink illustrated for me is that intuition can produce better judgements than detailed analysis. We need to get better at trusting our own gut – it can be superior. At the same time, we know we must not allow prejudice and unconscious bias to influence our decision-making, which can be addressed by exposing ourselves to a diverse range of people and experiences. If we bring ourselves into the present moment, in tune with our own bodies – rather than allowing our noisy minds and thought processes to dominate our decision-making – I believe we can access wisdom to make snap decisions that are right. That brings in ideas from a few different books and other learnings but it speaks to Blink and its message about the importance of our intuition, rather than over-analysis.”
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
General manager, Carl Zeiss Vision
“Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and this is one of the most practical and insightful books I’ve read about innovation and organisational culture – how to keep developing a business culture through tough times, how to avoid the blind spots when things go well and how to inspire individuals and managers in an environment that fosters creativity and problem-solving. I come from a science and technology background so I find learning how to motivate, build and manage creative talents fascinating. One of the biggest lessons for me: people matter more than great ideas. A great idea with a mediocre team will fail but a great team with a mediocre idea will turn it into something better.”
The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Co-founder, chief strategy and innovation officer and board director, Xinja Bank
“It’s a playbook for creating defining moments that are memorable and meaningful. Great service experiences are mostly forgettable so it was interesting to learn that what we remember about experiences are the peaks, high or low, and the ends. So these are the areas to focus on to create meaningful and memorable experiences. The biggest lesson is to give attention to taking something that’s pretty good and lifting it to extraordinary, rather than fixing something painful and broken. Trying to minimise your lowest customer-satisfaction score is not the best approach. The real value is in taking good experiences and making them remarkable and memorable.”