In response to our post on Youngme Moon’s Different, one of our readers asked, “what criteria do you use in determining the quality of a good business book?” It’s a great question, and the answer is probably far more subjective than we want it to be. I’m personally looking for the mix of inspiration and instruction, solidly in that order. I want to be challenged to be a better manager/leader/person, and then I want some directional clues as to how I might pull it off or at least what success might look like. And I want the messy, human version of it. I want the backstory and the stumbling, the scenes of people taking their swing and sometimes missing because that’s how my life feels to me. Those details normalize the improvement process.
Based on that criteria, here are ten more “business” books (very broadly defined) that moved me recently, in no particular order:
- Absolutely American — a Rolling Stone writer spends four years following cadets at West Point as they learn how to lead, and drinks the Kool-Aid by the end. Speaks to the power of commitment and meaning in an organization.
- The Essential Drucker — a ‘best of’ volume from the “man who invented management.” There is magic on every page, sentences like, “there is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
- The Power of Full Engagement — lessons from training high-performance athletes on managing energy, not time. Explores how change occurs at the personal level. Good enough for Oprah.
- It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys — the title inspires me on good days, mocks me on bad ones. The book lays out a very actionable framework for creating order out of chaos.
- Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most — my favorite message here is to do it, to really have those hard conversations, a useful reminder for someone like me who grew up in a WASPy, midwestern culture that’s not so sure that’s a good idea.
- The Prophet — quick, accessible wisdom from Kahlil Gibran, the brilliant Lebanese philosopher. I’m reminded daily that business is actually quite personal, and the quest to be a better human being touches all aspects of life, including work. Among the best guides I’ve found.
- Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln — a less-than-gentle reminder that communication is an essential leadership act. Some of the advice is silly, like put headlines on the bottom of all your slides in very large caps, but the basic message stands. You’ll be a better speaker by the end.
- Leadership and Self-Deception — not easy to consume, but the only book I’ve found that goes after the personal and organizational costs of lying to yourself, a very common human behavior. The cover calls it the “word-of-mouth phenomenon that is changing lives and transforming organizations,” and I don’t think that’s an understatement.
- John Adams — I’m a shameless Adams fan, so take this with a grain of salt, but the story offers up an alternative portrait of effective leadership. Adams was the anti-Washington, abrasive and emotional and aesthetically displeasing. Hated by many of his contemporaries, Adams did as much if not more to create and sustain the unlikely American experiment.
- Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle — aside from telling the incredible story of Israeli entrepreneurship, the book reveals why culture is such a critical input into ambition and innovation. The message is relevant for anyone who wants to learn how to grow countries, companies or leaders.