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4 Reading Topics That Make You a More Successful CEO

Joel Trammell

Posted by Joel Trammell
May 15, 2015



The best leaders are usually readers—even when they’re dealing with the heavy demands of the CEO role. If you can resist the pull of tactical issues and set aside time to expand your mind on topics relevant to your business (directly or indirectly), you’ll gain a significant edge over most CEOs.

Need convincing that reading is a worthy investment of chief-executive time? For one, Warren Buffett has said that he “reads and reads and reads. I probably read five to six hours a day.”

Mark Zuckerberg, too, has prioritized reading, declaring 2015 the “year of books,” and encouraging others to read along with him.

I read many business books, and come away from nearly every one with a couple of key ideas that I can put to work in my business. But I also encourage CEOs (and those aspiring to be in the role of the CEO) to expand their reading lists to other areas of study.

Here are four disciplines that represent especially fertile ground for helping CEOs run their businesses more effectively.

1. Game theory. In the book Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict, Roger B. Myerson defines game theory as “the area of mathematics that studies conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision makers.” Obviously, this field is applicable to business and can help you make better decisions. It often involves analyzing how to make the best possible decision with incomplete information.
An excellent application of this is Colin Powell’s 40/70 rule. He said that a leader should make a decision with no less than 40 percent and no more than 70 percent of the information available. If they make the decision with less than 40 percent of the information, they are merely guessing. However, those who are afraid of making a decision and wait for more than 70 percent of the data delay the decision needlessly. For important decisions, this can grind the organization to a halt. Game theory can help you capitalize on that 70 percent.
2. History and biography. Harry Truman said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Great leaders know the histories of their industries and lots of others. They read business-related histories and biographies to understand how different industries developed and draw parallels to today.
Knowing your history will make you better able to deal with rapid changes as they occur in your industry and discipline—and give you some great ideas in the process. And understanding the successes and failures of the leaders who came before you gives you a more sophisticated understanding of how best to react to the challenges you face. For example, I found Plain Speaking, the oral biography of Truman himself, to be not only fascinating but instructive to anyone in a leadership role.
3. Organizational development and team building. Isn’t it ironic that in school and during our early careers we are judged almost exclusively on our individual work abilities, yet our success as a manager depends almost solely upon our ability to build and manage a team? For a CEO, the composition and quality of the executive team is the most important decision he or she makes. This is true of many team/department heads. While you may not always get to choose everyone on your team, you will benefit from studying how to effectively lead teams of differing personalities and motivations.
4. Communication and emotional intelligence. With my engineering background, I used to think all organizational problems could be solved analytically. But I’ve come to realize that 90 percent of running a business is the hazier, more subjective people stuff. (As they say, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff.”) Learning to understand the people around you and let that understanding guide your interactions with them is a key skill of any successful CEO. While people skills can’t be learned purely from the pages of a book, mining the rich vein of knowledge that followed the 1995 publication of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence gives you a solid foundation to work from.


Ultimately, reading about the topics that fascinate you can often lead to flashes of insight that change the way you think about your business. Pursue knowledge in all its forms. If you pay attention, you’ll make surprising new connections that push you to a new level of leadership.

Check out Joel's published book The CEO Tightrope.

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell is the founder and chairman of Khorus Software. He currently serves as CEO of Black Box Network Services. His book, The CEO Tightrope, is a guide to the chief-executive role.

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