The thoughtful practitioner is always on the prowl for good ideas. Periodicals can give a quick introduction to an idea, but nothing beats a book for immersing you in sufficient detail to afford something closer to mastery. Unfortunately there is quite a lot of dross—a quick search on for titles in the area of “business” yields about 900,000 titles. I’m regularly asked for tips to good books and usually respond in relation to the needs of the person who asks. And then there is the question of what defines a “good” book—well known? Influential? Best-seller? Well-written? Practical? Easy to read? There are actually books about the best business books, and even those offer no killer definition of “best.” Let me offer some suggestions based on a different criterion, the “Aha!” factor—these books are likely to surprise and inspire you in unexpected ways:

* Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. At times maddeningly arrogant, this writer lends an exceptionally important cautionary reminder to investors and managers: perhaps what you’ve achieved is due to luck rather than skill or intelligence. Of course, you can find the same reminder in everything from Aesop’s fables to Country and Western lyrics. But MBA students (and alumni) will benefit from this careful exposition based on professional investment experience and advanced training. MBAs draw Taleb’s harsh criticism for their undisciplined thinking; they make a handy piƱata for the ideas inside.

* On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt. CEOs actually know rather little about conditions inside their firms and rely on the veracity of people and systems to convey what little they do know. This little book grapples with one of the fundamental problems that all CEOs face: when is one hearing the truth? In modern society the CEO encounters many shadings of expression. The classic in this gray area is “bullshitting,” that phoniness associated with the speaker not knowing what he or she is talking about. This is certainly very widespread. Is this a serious problem? How seriously should the CEO deal with it? Frankfurt, a moral philosopher at Princeton, deals with these and related questions in a short and readable volume that will shatter any preconceptions you may have about philosophy. A good companion book is Frankfurt’s equally short and compelling, On Truth.

* Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. My friend and colleague (he is a Fellow of Darden’s Batten Institute) has written a massively influential primer on how firms have progressed from “just good” to “truly great” performers. His insights, developed from careful clinical research, are eminently useful for the CEO. I have encountered many business leaders who leveraged Collins’ insights to take their firms to higher levels.

* Leading Change, by John Kotter. The agility of firms in responding to changes in market conditions has been the saving grace of American business over the past 20 years. The odds are that we will require such agility for many years to come. How business leaders create this agility is the focus of Kotter’s book. Though Kotter lays out the elements of change leadership in a brief easy-to-read volume, he leaves no doubt as to the high challenge facing the person who must take an organization in a new direction. This book is vitally important for any leader of an organization heading toward the cliff-edge—and perhaps just as important for those leaders who are serenely self-confident that there is no cliff-edge in sight.

* The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker. Employee surveys routinely point to the ineptitude of executives as the top cause of soul-destroying organizations. Some of this opinion is pot-shotting at a convenient target. But no executive should ignore the possibility that one’s well-intentioned behavior is creating more problems than it is solving. Drucker’s classic volume offers the single most helpful guide to the daily task of being effective. Great executives are made, not born. Too often the “making” process takes its toll in failure at the processes of administration. Even those executives who have arrived in the corner office can benefit from a refresher.

* Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. “Who is John Galt?”–is the opening sentence. The central character of this compelling novel is an entrepreneur determined to introduce his new technology against daunting opposition. This is a refreshing counterpoint to the image of entrepreneurs in the media today: trendy, young, merely lucky, ex-slackers who are doing stuff in the Internet space. I’ve met many of these and don’t think that profile serves them or us very well. John Galt is an inspiring leader, visionary, determined, and a very hard worker. Business leaders have hunkered down for several years now and need to find their voice again. This book can help one articulate how entrepreneurs, corporations, and free markets serve the common welfare. It can help the reader get into the minds of inventors and business people in a compelling and illuminating way. This book is “must reading” for both friends and adversaries of capitalism.

* The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America by Warren E. Buffett and Lawrence A. Cunningham. Written by an investor and CEO with perhaps the best long-run record, Buffett humors and provokes in these essays collected from his annual reports and letters. A couple of generations of finance professionals have studied these for their insights. This book excerpts and collects the best items. There are a number of other interpretive books that attempt to distill Buffett’s perspective; but nothing beats reading Buffett’s ideas in the original.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 06/14/2007 08:35:38 AM