“Business is a game, played for fantastic stakes, and you’re in competition with experts. If you want to win, you have to learn to be a master of the game.” — Sidney Sheldon
Business books can change your game in work and in life.
There are more great business books coming out every year than I can read in a lifetime.
The Best Business Books that Change How You Think, Feel, or Act
One of the ways I filter for great business books is, I ask the most effective people I know, which business books had a significant impact on how they think, feel, or act. I like to find the special business books that really make a difference, not just in theory, but in practice.
Recently, I reached out to several leaders, past and present, and up and down the ranks. I like to leverage the collective brain.
What 3 Business Books Changed Your Life?
In this case, I posed a simple question to find out which business books actually made a difference in the lives of these effective leaders:
“What are the top 3 books that changed your life in terms of business effectiveness?”
I ended up with a really eclectic set ranging from parenting guides to changing the world.
Top 3 Business Books for Business Effectiveness
The top three business books that showed up multiple times were:
Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, is a beautiful strategy guide on how to make your competition irrelevant.
Rather than swim with the sharks in the red ocean of competition, find the blue ocean and swim with the dolphins.
Learn how to expand the market to non-consumers by reducing friction points and pivoting around what’s truly valued by customers. Learn how to differentiate to avoid commoditization.
Good to Great, by Jim Collins is a book about how companies make giant jumps in their market performance.
Collins and his team researched 1,435 companies to find 11 companies that made huge improvements in their performance over time.
What did the 11 companies have in common?
They demonstrated discipline in people, thought, and action.
This is the book that made the Hedgehog concept famous.
The Hedgehog concept is the intersection of three circles:
- What can you be the best in the world at?
- What drives your economic engine?
- What are you deeply passionate about?
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, is a leadership fable about building better performing teams by understanding the 5 key sources of team dysfunction.
Normally I don’t like storybooks for business skills, but the fable format really works for this one.
This book is about how to function as a unit by learning the five dysfunctions:
- Absence of trust
- Fear of conflict
- Lack of commitment
- Avoidance of accountability
- Inattention to results.
I’ve experienced great shifts in culture by leaders who learned the lessons from this corporate fable and applied them to their teams.
36 Best Business Books that Changed the Lives of Leaders
Here are 36 best business books that influenced the effective leaders that I reached out to:
All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum, is a book that shows you how to rediscover your essence of happiness.
Fulghum does a great job reminding us that you already learned before the age of six, what you need to know in life to be a happy human being.
Why is this a business book?
Because it’s easy to lose yourself or lose your humanity as you play the game of business.
This is a book to remind you to get back to your wiser self.
Authentic Leadership, by Bill George, is a book about wrapping your leadership around your purpose and your heart to lead in an authentic way.
George does a great job making the case that mission-driven organizations last longer and create more shareholder value than financially-driven ones.
And the key is developing leaders that express the five essential dimensions of authentic leadership:
Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne is a book about disrupting the market through differentiation.
This book will have you rethinking how to compete in the market in new ways.
It’s a brilliant book based on a decade-long study of more than 150 strategic moves spanning more than 30 industries over 100 years.
A great example is Cirque du Soleil which created blue ocean market space. They reinvented the circus. Rather than focusing on children, they focused on adults. Rather than focusing on animals, they focused on acrobats.
Cirque du Soleil achieved a level of revenue in less than 20 years, that took Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey more than 100 years to attain.
Build to Last, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, is a book about building visionary companies.
Collins and Porras define a visionary company as: “premier institution in their industries, widely admired by their peers and having a long track record of making a significant impact on the world around them.”
This book also dispels some company held myths about visionary companies:
- A great idea is needed to start companies
- Visionary organizations need charismatic leaders
- Maximizing profits is the dominate goal with visionary companies
- Visionary companies focus on beating competitors
- Hiring outsiders as CEO’s is the best way to spark an organization
Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, is a book about how to out-execute your competition.
Bossidy and Charan teach you three building blocks to design, instill, and operate effectively the three core processes of execution.
The three building blocks are:
- The Leader’s 7 Essential Behaviors
- Creating Framework for Cultural Change
- The Job No Leader Should Delegate – Right People at Right Place
The three core processes of execution are: 1) The People Process, 2) The Strategy Process, and 3) Operations Process
Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, is is a book about making conversations real and making every conversation count.
Fierce is a way of life and Scott challenges you to grow in all aspects of your life through better conversations.
Scott Shares seven principles for fierce conversations:
- Principle 1. Master the Courage to Interrogate Reality
- Principle 2. Come Out from Behind Yourself into the Conversation and Make It Real
- Principle 3. Be Here, Prepared to Be Nowhere Else
- Principle 4. Tackle Your Toughest Challenge Today
- Principle 5. Obey Your Instincts
- Principle 6. Take Responsibility for Your Emotional Wake
- Principle 7. Let Silence Do the Heavy Lifting
First, Break All the Rules, by Gallup Press, is a book about how managers can focus people toward expertise and performance, rather than climbing ladders.
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman distill insights from more than 80,000 interviews performed by Gallup over 25 years to figure out what the best managers do differently.
They found four keys to excellent managers:
1. Finding the right fit for employees
2. Focusing on strengths of employees
3. Defining the right results
4. Selecting staff for talent
They also found the key to turning talent into lasting performance comes down to discipline, focus, trust, and willingness to treat each employee as an individual.
8. Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street
Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, by William Poundstone, is a book about how to make as much money as fast as possible by exploiting an insider’s edge.
This is the story of how two Bell Labs scientists, Claude Shannon and John Kelly, discovered the scientific formula for getting rich, back in 1956.
They applied the science of information theory to the challenge of how to make as much money as possible, as fast as possible — and it worked.
The “Kelly formula” worked in racetracks, casinos, and trading desks.
Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is a book about how to use economics as a new way to look at the riddles of everyday life.
Levitt and Dubner use economic theories to analyze social phenomena.
The authors tackle questions such as …
- Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?
- What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?
- Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?
- How much do parents really matter?
- How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?
10. Good to Great
Good to Great, by Jim Collins is a book how companies that go from good to great demonstrated discipline in people, thought, and action.
Collins shows you how you can do it, too.
How To Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, is a timeless classic on how to win people over and get them on your side (although there is a modern version for the digital age, How to Win Friends & Influence People in the Digital Age.)
Dale Carnegie shares techniques for handling people, six ways to make people like you, twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking, nine ways to change people without anger, and how to deal with criticism.
Perhaps, the greatest gem in the book is the secret of success:
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, by Thomas F. Gilbert, is one of the best books on human performance.
Many people consider Dr. Thomas Gilbert to be “the father of performance improvement.”
You will find yourself re-reading this book and finding new insights each team about human performance technology.
Some of the ideas you will find in this book include: performance exemplars, potential for improving performance, behavior-accomplishment distinction, performance matrix, ACORN troubleshooting test, performance audits, states, Worth = Value – Cost, knowledge maps, mediators, and job aids.
Jack: Straight from the Gut, by Jack Welch, is a book is the what, why, how of Jack Welch.
Welch is famous for his leadership as CEO of General Electric (GE). During his tenure, the company’s value rose 4,000%.
By reading this book, you learn where Jack gained his confidence and competitiveness. For example, his Mom would often beat him at gin rummy, and he would get angry and fired up to try to beat her next time. He demonstrated his competitiveness in baseball, football, hockey, golf, and business.
You also learn how Welch thought about vision, people, ideas, strategy, business growth, and being a CEO. One of his key insights is that the leader’s intensity determines the organization’s intensity.
Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, is a book about how to exercise leadership without getting “taken out” or pushed aside.
Heifetz and Linsky show you how to lead when leading gets tough. It’s about putting yourself on the line and not playing it safe.
This book will help you recognize adaptive challenges and treat them differently than technical problems. It will also show you how leadership is a labor of love, how to forget a winning team, how to stay connected during the tough stuff, and how to avoid the traps that snare people.
Read my book review of Leadership on the Line (Book Review).
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, by The Arbinger Institute, is a book about how to get outside of the box of self-deception.
The authors write that self-deception “determines one’s experience in every aspect of life.”
When we are in the box, we view and treat others as objects to help us reach our goals.
When are are in the box, we limit our ability to reach our full potential, and we betray our obligation to help others realize their potential.
When we are in the box, we create problems including lack of commitment, conflict, stress, poor teamwork, lack of trust, lack of accountability, and communication issues.
When are are out of the box, we see others as people with hopes and dreams.
To get out of the box, create an environment of openness, trust and teamwork, where people work hard for the collective good, not individual accomplishments.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, is a book that shows you how to create sticky ideas.
The authors use the mnemonic, SUCCESs, to create stickier ideas:
This book also helps you counter the curse of knowledge. When people “know too much”, they have “the curve of knowledge” and can either under-communicate, assuming everybody knows what it is, or over-communicate and add too much complexity and distinctions that get in the way and confuse others.
Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, is an epic book about making sense of life.
The New Yorker says it best:
“if you want to know what ‘ancient Roman’ really means, in terms of war and religion and love and parties, [you should] read Memoirs of Hadrian.”
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis, is a book about honing a team of underdogs to success “based on the facts.”
Too much talent is overlooked based on a traditional view of talent and success.
Billy Beane is considered one of the greatest innovators of modern baseball. He recruited players based on scouting for skills that were undervalued, and by focusing on objective qualities versus subjective qualities.
Michael Lewis shares the story of Bill Beane, his transformation of baseball, and how powerful an underdog can be when given a chance.
19. Pasteurs Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation
This is a book that explores the nature of research.
Donald Stokes creates a simple matrix for describing the nature of research, using two axis:
- quest for understanding
- considerations of use
This effectively creates four quadrants:
- High understanding, low use: Pure basic research
- Low understanding, low use: Tinkering
- High understanding, high use: Use-inspired basic research
- Low understanding, low use: Pure applied research
The big idea in the book is that basic science and applied science can be brought together to have significant impact on society.
Louis Pasteur is an example because he both advanced our understanding of microbiology, while innovating and applying the knowledge to bring pasteurization to the market.
Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, is a book that helps parents teach their kids how to relate to each other in a positive and empowering way.
As the authors put it:
“The family is where we learn our relationship skills. And the way we relate to our children and teach them to relate to each other, even in the heat of battle, can be our permanent gift to them.”
The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder, is the true story of how a special team of engineers created a new computer against the odds.
Kidder won a Pulitzer prize for this novel.
While it is the story of the MV/8000 project (code-named Eagle Eclipse) at Digital Electric, is it also a story about doing the impossible, while management creates an environment of obsession, isolation, fear, and paranoia.
Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, is a book about how Israel became a Start-up Nation of entrepreneurs.
Israel’s number one export is innovation and it’s one of the most creative hubs in the world in terms of startups, venture capital and new technology.
Over 60 Israeli companies are listed in the NASDAQ, which is more than all European companies combined.
What are some of the keys to being a highly productive Start-Up Nation:
- Invest in Research & Development as a priority
- Create a culture where people have confidence in their ideas, question what’s right, and take initiative and responsibility for their work, beyond hierarchies and formalities.
- Think international and pursue ventures in technology, software and communication
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, is one of the most powerful self-development framework of all time.
Here are the 7 habits of highly effective people:
- Habit 1: Be Proactive
- Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
- Habit 3: Put First Things First
- Habit 4: Think Win Win
- Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
- Habit 6: Synergize
- Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
Habits 1, 2, and 3 are focused on self-master and moving from dependence to independence.
Habits 4, 5, and 6 are focused on developing skills for teamwork, collaboration, and communication and moving from independence to interdependence.
Habit 7 is focused on continuous growth.
The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spender Johnson, is a story about a manager learning how to become a one-minute manager.
The one-minute manager relies on three tools, 60 seconds each:
- Set three goals for each of your employees, which you can review in one minute or less.
- Use one-minute praise to give your employees positive feedback.
- A one-minute reprimand is more than enough to express your dissatisfaction.
The key to the one-minute reprimand is that use it right after the mistake is made and you are very specific. This helps you instantly clear the air and avoid dwelling on bad feelings, while setting the stage for future success.
The Art of Happiness, by Dalai Lama, is a book about learning how to be happy for real, at any stage in life.
The book is organized into three parts:
- the purpose of life
- the necessity for compassion
- the usefulness of suffering
Throughout the book, the Dalai Lama shares ways you can expand and compound your happiness:
- Use happiness as your central index of progress
- Look to difference sources of happiness
- Don’t compare yourself to others in terms of income and success
- Focus on self-worth as the core condition for happiness
- Define self-worth in terms of an innate sense of purpose and dignity
- Learn from your thoughts and emotions in terms of the level of happiness they induce
- Reclaim your innate state of happiness
- Learn how to be gentle and reject your aggressive impulses
- Distribute compassion equally to others
- Use meditation and community service as a way to strengthen your sense of purpose
- Practice intimacy and openness through better friendships — a key ingredient to a happy life
- Use suffering as a way to evolve and grow
- Use emotional reflection to preempt and prevent suffering
The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley, is a book about how to come up with better ideas for your products, services, and operations.
The meta-point of this book is that the best ideas for improving products or processes comes from keen observations of how how regular people work and play on a daily basis.
In addition to a walkthrough of IDEO’s workplace environment, you also learn how IDEO tackles a design challenge: they don’t start with what they think a new product should offer, they focus on existing gaps of need, convenience, and pleasure based on every day use.
The Art of Leadership, by George Manning and Kent Curtis, is a book about how to develop your full potential as a leader, and how to become the kid of leader you always wanted to have.
This book is more than a textbook. It’s actually a “learning” book where you are involved in the learning process, through interactive exercises and self-assessments.
The authors cover vision, ethics, empowerment, leadership principles, multiplying effectiveness, developing others, and performance management.
The Art of the Start 2.0: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything, by Guy Kawasaki, is a book about how to start your business in the real world.
Guy Kawasaki shares best practices for starting a business from the school of hard knocks.
Some of his lessons on entrepreneurship include:
- Find the intersection between your expertise, passion, and opportunity
- Don’t try to anticipate everything
- Figure out how you make meaning (so you can also make money)
- Create a three-to-find word “mantra” to inspire you and your team
- Pick a business model and establish MATT (Milestones, Assumptions, Tests, and Tasks)
- Prototype early and often and get feedback from your users
- Worry about adoption before you worry about scaling
- Create a story around your product
- Establish a culture of execution
- Be short and to the point in your pitches, and demo your product if possible
- Learn who is using your product and how they are using it and they will “show” you how to sell to them
- Influence the key influencers to compound your efforts
- Create more evangelists
- Create a cool business building ecosystem around your product
29. The Art of War
The Art of War, by Ralph Sawyer, is a book about military strategy, written in China around 500 BC.
While it’s a book about war, it’s applicable to the business arena, and any competitive landscape.
Business leaders, athletes, and military leaders alike continue to draw insight and inspiration from the strategems throughout the book.
To get a better feel for the book, here are the 13 chapters at a glance:
- Detail Assessment and Planning
- Waging War
- Strategic Attack
- Disposition of the Army
- Weaknesses and Strengths
- Military Maneuvers
- Variations and Adaptability
- Movement and Development of Troops
- The Nine Battlegrounds
- Attacking with Fire
- Intelligence and Espionage
The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered, by George Soros, is a book about the challenges of capitalism in a global market.
George Soros shares interesting theories and ideas about capitalism and open society. One ideas is the concept of reflexivity. Reflexivity is when there is a two-way connection between present decisions and future events. By making decisions in the present, reality is being created, which, in turn, gets reflected in the present.
Soros explains there are two fundamental flaws with capitalism:
- market chaos – the inherent volatility of financial markets
- market fundamentalism – how capitalism influences social activities and human interactions, beyond business and economics, to become more transactional and revolve around money.
Soros splits the book into two sections, where the first is more theory, and the second examines the market situation in 1998.
While his predictions may not have panned out, some people still find the theories in the book a good way to review and explore market evolution.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, is a book about how to lead high performance teams by rising above the five dysfunctions that teams usually experience.
The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen, is a book about “running the business”, while “changing the business.”
The dilemma happens when you are sustaining your existing innovations around incremental needs, while a new market entrant has different needs or values.
It’s hard to do both (thus the dilemma).
Christensen identities four types of disruptive innovation:
- a new product
- a new technology to produce a product
- a new way to distribute
- a new way to provide services
Christensen calls out two flavors of technologies:
- Sustaining technologies – enhance performance, functionality or capacity.
- Disruptive technologies – solve a problem in a new way or for new people, changing the industry or creating a new one.
Three factors that limit you:
These three factors that made you a leader in your market, are likely fairly established in your organization, and will likely limit how much you will change for new entrants.
So the way you solve for the dilemma is to find an organization that has the right values and processes for the new entrants, and then fund them.
Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-wright, is a book about building great tribes for better business results.
The authors break tribal culture down into five stages:
- Stage One: The stage most professionals skip, these are tribes whose members are despairingly hostile—they may create scandals, steal from the company, or even threaten violence.
- Stage Two: The dominant culture for 25 percent of workplace tribes, this stage includes members who are passively antagonistic, sarcastic, and resistant to new management initiatives.
- Stage Three: 49 percent of workplace tribes are in this stage, marked by knowledge hoarders who want to outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. They are lone warriors who not only want to win, but need to be the best and brightest.
- Stage Four: The transition from “I’m great” to “we’re great” comes in this stage where the tribe members are excited to work together for the benefit of the entire company.
- Stage Five: Less than 2 percent of workplace tribal culture is in this stage when members who have made substantial innovations seek to use their potential to make a global impact.
The promise of tribal strategy is that each member of the tribe will know exactly how to succeed and what they must do to make the tribe effective.
To get there, the authors take you through the process of identifying core values and the noble causes that the tribe aspires to, then using those principles along with the tribe’s inherent assets and behaviors to create success based on the tribe’s goals and objectives.
Unleashing the Idea Virus, by Seth Godin, is a book about how to turn your ideas into a virus.
Create an environment where consumers will market to each other.
Think of your idea like a virus and get customers to spread your idea through word-of-mouth marketing.
An idea virus either spreads quickly or it doesn’t. So if it doesn’t catch fire fast, then try something new.
Godin shares 8 factors that help create an idea virus:
- Sneezers: Sneezers are influencers that will spread your idea. Choose the best sneezers who will infect others with your idea.
- Hives: People live in groups, or hives, that share many things in common, such as traits, views, and consumer behavior. Look for a hive with sneezers, a problem, and a mnarket opportunity. Choose your target customers and don’t try to appeal to everyone. “Some examples: Fraternity brothers at a college, orthodox Jews, readers of Fast Company, Deadheads.” – Seth Godin
- Velocity: Velocity is the speed at which an idea travels from one person to the next. Infect enough people in a short period of time or your idea will die.
- Vector: A vector is a common link between people. Study the methods people use to share information and leverage them.
- Medium: Create clever video clips, pictures, phrases or whatever works to get your audience’s attention. “ A medium is not a manifesto—every idea is a manifesto, trying to make its point, and the medium is the substance that the idea lives in.” — Seth Godin
- Smoothness: Smoothness is how easy it is for people to share your idea. Make it easy to share and easy to hook people up front.
- Persistence: Some ideas are more persistent than others. By combining the other factors of an idea virus, you will help make your ideas long-lasting.
- Ampli?er: Amplify positive word of mouth and reduce negative word of mouth quickly.
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, is a book about how mass collaboration changes everything.
The big idea is that winning companies compete by reaching outside their walls to harness external knowledge, resources, and capabilities.
They focus their internal staff on value integration and orchestration, and treat the world as their R&D department.
Similar to how the Internet moved to Web 2.0, the authors assert companies need to evolve to Enterprise 2.0.
Enterprise 2.0 is a new kind of business entity with the following attributes:
- opens its doors to the world
- co-innovates with everyone, especially customers
- shares resources that were previously closely guarded
- harnesses the power of mass collaboration
- behaves not as a multinational but as a truly global firm.
Wikinomics is based on four powerful new ideas:
- Openness – Firms that are open to external ideas and people resources will outperform firms that rely solely on internal resources and capabilities.
- Peering – Peering is a form of horizontal organization for creating information-based products and services.
- Sharing – Maintaining and defending a proprietary system of intellectual property often cripples your ability to create value. Contributing to the common is a way to build business ecosystems that harness a shared platform for growth and innovation.
- Acting globally –
Seven models of mass collaboration:
- Peer production – applies open source principles to create information-based products, ranging from operating systems to encyclopedias.
- Ideagoras – give companies access to a global marketplace of ideas and innovations that they can use to extend their problem-solving capacity.
- Prosumers – a person who consumes and produces a product. It combines producers + consumers.
- New Alexandrians – as the authors put it, “”New Alexandrians understand that creating a shared foundation of knowledge on which large and diverse groups of collaborators can build, is a great way to enhance innovation and corporate success.”
- Platforms for Participation – collaborative knowledge sharing sites (e.g., Amazon’s reader review section)
- The Global Plant Floor – not just parts but whole modules are produced in different places, shipped and snapped together at the last moment (e.g., Boeing’s newest planes).
- The Wiki Workplace – exemplified by the “Geek Squad’s” development and subsequent incorporation into Best Buy.
Winning with People, by John Maxwell, is a book about mastering connecting with people in a deep and authentic way.
Maxwell organizes his insights into interpersonal relationships around Five Big Questions:
- The Readiness Question: Are we prepared for relationships?
- The Connection Question: Are we willing to focus on others?
- The Trust Question: Can we build mutual trust?
- The Investment Question: Are we willing to invest in others?
- The Synergy Question: Can we create a win-win relationship?
Time is the ultimate test.
Many of these books have proven to be some of the best business books on the planet, time and again.