John Connolly on the five best business books of the past 2500 years
You spend a lot of money buying business books, looking for that silver bullet to help you stay in business, or in a job, or both.
The truth is that a few business books have one good idea and many of the most popular ones have lots of bad ideas. Today we save you hundreds of dollars and hours of reading time, with our bluffer’s guide to five of the-biggest selling business books of the past few millennia.
The Art of War
Sun Tzu (5th century BC)
Any book recommended by Mao Zedong and Tony Soprano has to be a must-read. We haven’t got Mao’s review but Tony says: “I mean, here is this guy, a Chinese general, wrote this thing 2400 years ago, and most of it still applies today! You know most of the guys that I know they read Prince Machiavelli, and I had Carmela go and get the Cliff-Notes [study guide] once and … he’s okay. But this book is much better about strategy”. Buy The Art of Strategy, a new translation (2000), by RL Wing, for an easier read.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1532)
The founders of the American revolution, Mafia boss John Gotti (the real Tony Soprano) and JR Ewing all loved Nick’s book. Its popularity is surprising given Nick was a minor Florentine official who was unemployed when he wrote The Prince. Basically, Nick says when you take over as CEO, do the big write-downs and nasty stuff straight away, appoint executives who will tell you the truth rather than suck up. And in your “private dealings with your employees show that your judgments are irrevocable”.
The Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith (1776)
Adam looked like Marty Feldman, tutored in proper Polish, went to university at 14 and lived with his mother most of the time. No need to read his long book because the message for managers is: everyone acts in their own self-interest (so tell your employees and customers what’s in it for them) and for those pushing for council amalgamations – specialists outperform generalists.
John Brooks (1969)
A New Yorker writer, John put together a collection of business stories from the 1950s and 1960s that has become one of both Warren Buffett’s and Bill Gates’ most cherished books. As Gatesy says: “Brooks’ work is a great reminder that the rules for running a strong business and creating value haven’t changed. For one thing, there’s an essential human factor in every business endeavour. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfect product, production plan and marketing pitch; you’ll still need the right people.”
The Halo Effect ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers
Phil Rosenzweig (2007)
Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this book “one of the most important management books of all time”. If you only read one of these books in its entirety, this should be it. As Phil says: “When a company’s sales and profits are up, people often conclude that it has a brilliant strategy, a visionary leader, capable employees and a superb corporate culture. When performance falters, they conclude that the strategy was wrong, the leader became arrogant, the people were complacent and the culture was stagnant. In fact, little may have changed – company performance creates a halo that shapes the way we perceive strategy, leadership, people, culture and more.” Bottom line: “The drivers of high performance are sound strategic choice and rigorous execution.”