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Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I lost a close friend.

Learning that Joe Pilkerton had passed away was the worst day of my life.

He has been my co-founder twice, and we’d worked together for over 20-years.

A few weeks into my mourning period, I started having these vivid dreams. They included scenes where I’d be in deep conversations with Joe. Or he would be a character in one of the myriad movies our brains play for us during the evening slumber.

Usually, I’d think Joe was speaking to me from the other side.  

But, this time it was different.

I had just finished a book called “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.  

I highly recommend it.  

Because it offers mind-blowing insights into what happens during sleep, you should get as much sleep as possible (7-8hrs plus every night)–no matter what anyone says.  

In the section on dreams, Walker explains that dreaming has two central roles; one of them is a sort of overnight therapy. So, dreaming is the mechanism for processing past trauma.    

The mind pulls images from your long-term memory and combines it with recent imagery to replay the trauma like a movie–stripping it of the negative emotions and pain that comes with it. During this process, it bathes your brain in a neurochemical bath that dulls (or mollifies really) painful memories.  

So, my body was probably working on its batch therapy process for Joe–provided, of course, I got enough sleep. :)

As Mathew Walker puts it, “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day—Mother Nature’s best effort yet at contra-death.”

This book is a must-read. 

Every leader needs to unlock the secret of sleep in driving performance, energy, health. 

During the summer of 2020, it was hard to sleep with all the challenges facing our world. Instead, I curled up with some books to explore everything from the power of sleep to leadership in crisis.

Here are the books I read last summer:

Why We Sleep: The Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Suppose I told you I have a supplement that could: improve your memory, increase your athleticism, improve your overall health, protect you from disease, and make you a better CEO. Would you be interested?  

In his fascinating book, Matthew introduces us to this ubiquitous elixir. It’s called sleep. Why we sleep is an encyclopedia full of deep understanding of the power of sleep. He shares its role, its mechanics, and the reasons we should desperately get more of it. If you are wondering how to get through that tough challenge at work? Cuddle up with this book and sleep on it. 

(Here is what Bill Gates thought of it.)

Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord

What do you do when you realize that you are fundamentally pivoting into a completely new business and you need to change your entire team to be successful?

The answer: be honest with them. 

That is what Netflix realized in 2007 as they were winning the battle against Blockbuster

The woman who helped lead this transformation was Patty McCord.  She is a no-nonsense head of people that launched the trend of documenting a company’s culture. That simple document has over 19.6 million views. 

In her book, Patty recounts her journey helping to build Netflix into the powerhouse it is today and the tough people-related questions she had to answer. Here you will find a wealth of practical advice on how to find people, grow people, keep people, and how to go about asking them to leave when the time comes. 

What It Takes by Steve Schwartzman

“It’s as easy to do something big as it is to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate to your effort,” explains Steven Schwartzman in this book full of his lessons for life and work. 

The book is about how Steve built one of the largest and most successful private equity firms globally. It’s full of gritty stories about starting from the bottom as an analyst and working his way up to partner at Lehman Brothers (way before they were too big to fail) and his decision to set out and build a firm from scratch. With all the success that his firm, Blackstone, has put on the blackboard, this book artfully shares a glimpse of what it took. 

And, it was by no means easy. 

Steve takes us along for the ride in an almost “Forrest Gump” style and shares his boxes of chocolate full of lessons.

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti (istockphoto)

What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture  by Ben Horowitz

What does the revolution liberator if Haiti and the head of a prison gang have in common?  

They both understand the power of exemplifying your culture code. 

In his sequel to The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz, of A16z, shares what it takes to develop a magnetic culture. He explains why culture does not come from a bunch of words on a wall. It comes from the leadership of a company. It comes from the CEO, who has to walk the walk, not just talk to talk. 

Ben uses examples from the only successful slave revolution in history, the teachings of Bushido, and prison gangs to make his point.  

His unorthodox approach makes this point: “your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking. If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.”

The statue of Sir Winston Churchill gazes across Parliament Square towards Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. (istockphoto)

The Splendid and The Vile by Erik Larson

The 2020 Coronavirus outbreak in NYC felt like a faceless enemy dropped a giant bomb from the sky. The last time I experienced anything like it was during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The summer during the pandemic, I was compelled to read more biographies and history. This war we were fighting with COVID was brutal for me. It made me think about what the world was going through in 1918 and later during World War II.  

Erik had a similar experience when he visited NYC right after 9/11. The destruction, the pain, and the sheer fear in people’s eyes made him wonder what it was like to live in a city bombed daily during world war II.

(I read anything Erik writes. His book The Devil in the White City was my introduction to his masterful work in writing historical fiction. It’s a page-turner.)

This book is not fiction. It is a rare glimpse into the world during global unrest by observing one of its most outstanding leaders–Winston Churchill–told directly through journals of people there. It is a gripping account of a time when evil seemed to be winning. CEOs can learn a lot from this one.  

During crisis: How do you marshal the courage of your people? How do you structure your team? How do you win when winning is very uncertain? How do you find partners to help you?  

Trust me; you won’t be able to put it down.

(Here is what Corey Thomas, CEO of Rapid7 thought of the book.)

[For more on Churchill, read our Leadership in Crisis series now.]

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

I lost a dear friend in 2020. He was my co-founder, my partner in crime, and my brother. His unexpected death led me down a dark spiral for a bit. It had me ask myself some existential questions, searching for meaning. I was having a tough time with it.  

In this beautifully written book, I found the answer: 

“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” 

It will surely be a serial reread for me.

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Bob Iger

Being a CEO is hard to describe. You have to master a set of skills–attention to detail, building teams, developing and teaching core principles, navigating crises, learning from your mistakes, managing your board, your customers, investors, and knowing how to make bold moves, to name a few. 

Bob Iger takes us on a very intimate ride on how he masters the role of CEO. He starts with an unlikely entree to ABC that takes him on a rocket of a career as he ascends to the helm of Walt Disney’s legacy. He shares all his learning as he transforms it into the incredible content enterprise it is today. 

If you want to be a great CEO, this is a must-read. Disney World and Mandalorian are just the beginning. The vivid stories are as captivating as the blockbuster movies Disney has gifted us during his tenure.

[Read: 9 Things CEOs Can Learn From a Trip to Disney World.]

Meditations By Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor, a stoic philosopher, and a remarkable writer.  

I picked up his life journal, Meditations, this summer, and I have been reading it slowly. Earlier this year, I started writing my daily journal. Each morning I write down what went well and what I am grateful for (rose), what didn’t go so well or what worries me (thorn), and what I am encouraged by and hopeful about (bud). 

The great emperor’s journal is full of rose-thorn-buds as well. It is full of visionary insights on the nature of life and living. He beautifully explains the importance of being present. And he shares how he deals with his demons. I recommend this book to anyone looking to learn self-management and how its mastery fits into the cosmos. 

Here is one passage I love: “The present is all that [you] can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.”

More booklists can be found here.

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About the Author: John Belizaire

John is a versatile CEO and serial entrepreneur who has successfully founded, scaled multiple technology companies over a 20-year career. He is currently the CEO of Soluna, a company helping to shape the future of renewable energy and computing. Before Soluna, John was the founder and CEO of FirstBest, a transformative insurance software company acquired by Guidewire Software and Theory Center, an e-commerce software company acquired by BEA Systems. Before becoming an entrepreneur, John was the lead architect for Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group. John is on the advisory board of several software-as-a-service, data analytics, and insurtech startups. He is the Managing Editor of CEOPLAYBOOK Media LLC, an online publication full of sage advice for first-time founder CEOs. John is also a trustee of Harlem Academy, an independent school in New York.