Business books are notorious for being loaded with MBA lard, trotting out "key takeaways" like "take risks," "build a great team," and "don't be afraid to fail."
But the ones worth reading ditch the platitudes in favor of instructive anecdotes — which is why they so often come from execs who have lived through it.
From the memoir of a former gang member to an analysis of the most efficient hiring methods, here are the best leadership books from people who have led their companies to success.
'The Hard Thing About Hard Things'
What is the hard thing about hard things? That they don't have a formula, says Ben Horowitz.
"Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes," he writes. "They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic. They are hard because you don’t know the answer and you cannot ask for help without showing weakness."
Horowitz, now one of the most sought-after investors in the game, used to be CEO of software management company Opsware before it was acquired by HP for $1.6 billion.
Bonus: Horowitz shows off his ridiculously extensive knowledge of rap lyrics — quoting Kanye West and DMX before the close of the opening chapter.
Disclosure: Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, is an investor in Business Insider.
'My Years with General Motors'
Alfred Sloan was the CEO of General Motors from 1923 to 1946 — when the car company was arguably the most important organization on Earth.
More than your average business memoir, the book is a distillation of Sloan's experiences and thoughts around how to steer a massive organization. It serves as a treatise on decentralization and the structure of the modern corporation.
Coauthored by Jason Fried, the cofounder and CEO of Basecamp, "Rework" is a spare startup manifesto.
While everything in the book might not apply to you — Fried's company has remained at a tiny 37 members while staying profitable — it's useful for the contrarian mirror it provides. After reading it, you'll scrutinize every meeting request that crosses your desk.
'Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman'
Patagonia founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard is rightly known for keeping it real.
"No young kid growing up ever dreams of someday becoming a businessman," the outdoors mogul begins his memoir. "He wants to be a fireman, a sponsored athlete, or a forest ranger. The Lee Iacoccas, Donald Trumps, and Jack Welches of the business world are heroes to no one except other businessmen with similar values. I wanted to be a fur trapper when I grew up."
As an executive, Chouinard kept that adventurous ethos at the core of the company, whether by making sustainable supply chains or encouraging his employees to — yes — go surfing in the middle of the day.
'Winning: The Ultimate Business How-To Book'
Jack Welch ruled General Electric from 1981 to 2001.
Welch shared the history of the experience in his "Jack: Straight From the Gut." But his follow-up book "Winning" makes the list because it reveals Welch's approach to management and careers, from dealing with a bad boss to landing promotions to executive decision making.
Sophia Amoruso founded and grew online fashion retailer Nasty Gal into a $100 million business before moving to an executive chairman role.
In "#GIRLBOSS," Amoruso — who started her business selling clothes on eBay — takes a delightfully flippant view on building a career.
Discussing her life before Nasty Gal, she writes:
What all of these jobs taught me is that you have to be willing to tolerate some shit you don't like — at least for a while. This is what my parents' generation would call 'character building,' but I prefer to call it '#GIRLBOSS training.' I didn't expect to love any of these jobs, but I learned a lot because I worked hard and grew to love things about them.
'Business @ the Speed of Thought: Succeeding in the Digital Economy'
Bill Gates' 1999 book nailed the essence of data-based decision-making before "data science" was even a thing.
"The most meaningful way to differentiate your company from your competition, the best way to put distance between you and the crowd, is to do an outstanding job with information," he writes. "How you gather, manage, and use information will determine whether you win or lose."
The book is also compelling for its historical value. The year the book was published, Gates' company set the record for market capitalization at a cool $618.9 billion.
'Pour Your Heart into It : How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time'
Howard Schultz — now worth $2.9 billion — changed the world with Starbucks, a company that made cafe culture endlessly accessible.
Today, it has 21,000 stores in over 65 countries.
He unpacks he method in his 1999 memoir.
"People want guidance, not rhetoric," Schultz writes. "They need to know what the plan of action is, and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and authority to act on it."
'Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion, And Purpose'
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's "Delivering Happiness" — which has become a brand unto itself — is remarkable for the way it marries airy startup visions with pragmatic business knowhow.
Consider this selection:
My advice is to stop trying to 'network' in the traditional business sense, and instead just try to build up the number and depth of your friendships, where the friendship itself is its own reward. The more diverse your set of friendships are, the more likely you'll derive both personal and business benefits from your friendship later down the road. You won't know exactly what those benefits will be, but if your friendships are genuine, those benefits will magically appear 2-3 years later down the road.
And there are tons more of such nuggets in the book.
'Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar & Co.'
Adventure sports snack brand Clif Bar was nearly sold by founder Gary Erickson, but he instead bought out his company to keep the company private and solely owned.
This put the company into a precarious — but fruitful — position. He writes:
Clif Bar Inc. made itself vulnerable by staying private. I think people appreciate Clif’s vulnerability and that’s why they help us on our journey. People find the best flavors and finest ingredients for us. Others go out of their way to secure the best packaging deals possible. Consumers send us information on sustainability. They know we are not a large entity just trying to make money.
Beyond the usual how-we-did-it narrative, the Clif Bar tale is fantastic for the way it shows how a brand can communicate with its users at a surprisingly personal level, as numerous anecdotes show.
'Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business'
Danny Meyer has been called the "restaurateur of his generation."
As CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, Meyer has made New York his culinary domain, with the classy Union Square Cafe, the legendary Gramercy Tavern, and the perpetually queued Shake Shack all under his stead, among others.
In "Setting the Table," the exec sets out his philosophy of "enlightened hospitality."
"Service is the technical delivery of a product," he writes. "Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel."
'Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business'
In 2013, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey published this business manifesto.
It's as much about management as about philosophy.
This is what we know to be true: business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity.
'The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change'
Adam Braun takes you on his journey from backpacker to consultant to founder of Pencils of Promise, the rapidly growing education nonprofit.
"I realized that I needed to live a life that reflected the themes of the stories I wanted to one day tell," Braun writes, "and when I veered off that path later on, it was time to make a change."
He wants the reader to follow a similarly individual path.
"Your life should be a story you are excited to tell," he writes.
'Smart People Should Build Things'
Venture for America founder Andrew Yang argues that America's highest achievers are being misguided:
Our culture of achievement has grown to emphasize visions of success that are, for the most part, fairly predictable.
The basic plan is to go to Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, or the like, then maybe to a top-ranked business school, then back to banking, consulting, private equity, hedge funds, or a name-brand tech company.
Or maybe go from law school to top firm to partner or in-house at an investment firm, and live in New York, San Francisco, Boston, or Washington, DC.
Instead of following those paths, Yang says, bright young things should be founding companies or joining early-stage startups.
'TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments'
Douglas Conant was CEO and President of the Campbell Soup Company from 2001 to 2011, a period during which he transformed the company's "toxic culture" and spearheaded incredible growth.
Conant, now the chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute, wrote this book with leadership expert Mette Norgaard to redefine the way we think about leadership development. The book shows how individual, seemingly trivial moments (TouchPoints) define a leader's relationship to his team and shape his potential for success.
'Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I Went From Gang Member to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur'
Serial entrepreneur Ryan Blair is now the CEO of ViSalus Sciences, a marketing company — but he was once a member of a Los Angeles gang.
In this book, he outlines the unconventional experiences that led to him founding his first company at age 21 and subsequently becoming a multimillionaire.
It's an inspirational read for anyone questioning whether he's got what it takes to be successful. As Blair writes, "You are stronger than whatever circumstances you're facing. Remember that with the proper mind-set, potential is the one power you always have, and the mind-set that propelled me forward came from having nothing to lose."
'Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen'
As CEO of Yum! Brands until January 2015, David Novak headed up big names like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. This book is an outgrowth of a leadership program he developed that he teaches to thousands of managers across the globe.
Each chapter includes easy-to-follow steps and exercises, like filling out the "People Map Work Sheet," to grow your business and achieve your goals.
'Who: The A Method of Hiring'
In the book, they explain why hiring based on intuition doesn't work, and why companies should instead take a more systematic approach to finding 'A' candidates.
'The Impact Equation: Are You Making Things Happen or Just Making Noise?'
Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, CEOs of Owner Media Group and Breather, want to help you stand out in a sea of voices and opinions online. The Impact Equation (Impact = C x (R + E + A + T + E) refers to the combination of having brilliant ideas and making people listen to them.
As the authors write: "In our world, no idea is rejected, ignored, or forgotten because the audience is too small. In our world, people know how to convince others of the things that really matter. … In our ideal world, everyone has a chance to get heard."