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December 18, 2020

Top 5 business books of 2020

By Verne Harnish

This year’s top 5 business books, aligned with Scaling Up’s four decisions: People, Strategy, Execution, and Cash (and Personal) –  come in two categories – Crisis Edition and 2020.  

Crisis Top 5

We turned to these timeless books when the crisis unfolded in March – and they remain relevant as we cross into 2021

Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business (People)

Whole Foods CEO and Conscious Capitalism co-founder John Mackey and his co-authors capture the essence of a 21st century leader navigating a complete stakeholder approach to capitalism.  Chapter 2, “Lead with Love,” and Chapter 9, “Continuously Learn and Grow,” (which could have been Chapter 1) are my two favorites.  In fact, read this book from back to front starting with the Appendix “On Cultivating Cultural Intelligence” – and soak up some fresh ideas.

Uncharted: How to Map the Future (Strategy)

Serial entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan advised us at the beginning of the crisis to be ambitious – something many of us took to heart as we plunged into the chaos vs. avoiding it.  And just as the crisis hit, her book came out in the UK with a title that could not have been more prescient as leaders were tasked with mapping the future for their own companies and lives.  Flip right to Chapter 5, “Go Fast, Go Far,” and immerse yourself in the power of scenario planning as you set strategy for 2021 and beyond.  

Right Away and All at Once: 5 Steps to Transform Your Business and Enrich Your Life (Execution)

Greg Brenneman helped turn around Continental Airlines, leading it from worst to first in two months (yes, months, not years) and then proceeded to launch a firm, Turnworks, that has helped dozens more companies.  Greg had sage advice at the beginning of this crisis, suggesting that the role of leaders is to “absorb fear, and exude hope.”  And since it has been suggested it’s going to be chaos this entire decade, you’re likely to be in perpetual turnaround mode for quite some time!  Read the opening chapter “Who Needs a Turnaround?” (hint, we all do!) – then implement his 5-step process, beautifully detailed in his very actionable book.  

Beat the Crisis: 33 Quick Solutions for Your Company (Cash)

The father of pricing and hidden champions, Hermann Simon, chairman of Simon- Kucher & Partners Strategy and Marketing Consultants, wrote this quick read during the 2008 financial crisis – and his solutions are just as applicable today.  Go to chapter 6 first to learn about seven pricing strategies you can immediately utilize to drive cash and profit.  One of our clients, whom we encouraged to work with Simon-Kucher, added $10 million to their bottom line since 2019 just by upping their sophistication in pricing. After you read this book, get Simon’s latest book Confessions of the Pricing Man: How Price Affects Everything.

Man’s Search for Meaning (Personal)

With more than 12 million copies in print, Viktor E. Frankl’s book is one of the greatest memoirs of all time and a must-read each year. First and foremost, it’s a manual on how to endure and survive the most tragic of situations.  Equally important, he reminds us that the greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.  Read the “Foreword”– then don’t stop until the end. It’s worth your time.

2020 Top 5

These books are fresh and foundational–and point us to the future of all how all people and their organizations will thrive this coming year and for decades to come.

Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them (People)

Not only did strategist Gary Hamel write the #1 business book for 2020, but I’ll also go out on a limb and declare it the best business book of the decade (and we’re only a year in!)  As he so brilliantly explains, it’s time to get rid of the word manager – heck, just get rid of managers, period!  No one needs to be managed by people. That’s what our phones are for in the digital age. As the Chinese white goods manufacturer Haier figured out, it’s easier to eliminate 10,000 middle managers than try to “fix” them as we’ve fought to improve engagement scores the last five decades.  

But doing this requires a better-trained workforce and a wider access to information than has been used in the past to maintain power.  “Everyone a leader” needs to become the reality in all organizations – political and business!  Read the Preface and join the revolution.

Fanocracy: Turning Fans into Customers and Customers into Fans (Strategy)

Yes, another “…ocracy” book – this one by famed marketing guru David Meerman Scott.  Co-authored with his daughter Reiko, who keeps him current and grounded, Fanocracy has nailed the essence of word-of-mouth marketing – creating and maintaining a small cluster of raging fans who drive your brand.   

If you believe this, then skip Part I and go right to Part II “Nine Steps to Building Your Fanocracy” and simply follow his formula, complete with real world business and organizational examples.  Like Meerman Scott’s term “newsjacking,” this one is likely going to make the dictionary.  Now that’s thought leadership!

Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say – and What You Don’t (Execution)

L. David Marquet’s first book, Turn the Ship Around , is a classic turnaround story, showing how he took a nuclear submarine from the worst in the Navy to the first in 12 months (without throwing anyone off the craft). His latest book on leadership language is just as great (and easy to read).  It’s the first and only guide I know that gets as specific about how to move from a “wisdom of the loud” to the “wisdom of the crowd” (picking up a theme?).  His six new leadership plays like “Commitment rather than compliance” actually make the job of the leader easier!  That should motivate you to absorb every word. 

No Rules, Rules: NETFLIX and the Culture of Reinvention (Cash)

Netflix made five of Fortune’s big lists in 2020, with founder Reed Hastings named 4th on the Businessperson of the Year list.  And with Netflix at almost a $250 billion market cap at the time of this writing, he’s created a lot of cash value.  How Netflix has achieved these results is detailed in Hastings’ well-written company biography.  Start by scanning the chapter titles and subtitles to get a feel for the 10 keys to scaling a global firm – and creating what he calls a “Culture of Freedom and Responsibility.”  Then pick your favorite(s) and dig into the details.  

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (Personal)

If I had a second vote for book of the decade, it would be James Nestor’s book about breathing.  Notes Dr. Andrew Weil, “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe better.”  It starts with breathing through your nose (especially at night) vs. your mouth – and then builds from there.  Seems we’ve become particularly bad at breathing in the West.  Go right to the Epilogue at the end of the book titled “A Last Gasp.”  Then take a deep breath and decide if you want to read the rest of this hugely important piece of work.  Breathe! 


Nature would have never done to itself what our leaders have imposed on the human race in 2020.  No ant colony or beehive would lock down so insanely (vs. selectively).  I lay the blame on the “experts” – a term I’ve come to despise in 2020.  What many of the books above point to is that the crowd/tribe is so much wiser than any leader/expert.  We know what to do if the leaders would just get off their money/power trips and let us be.  Ok, Verne, just breathe! 

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.