Monday, December 16, 2013


by Charles Snow

John Jordan, a colleague of mine at Penn State, writes a periodic newsletter called Early Indicators. It’s about the latest techie stuff and trends, and I find it quite interesting. John’s latest newsletter, however, was entitled What Makes a Great Business Book?

In this post, I’d like to summarize John’s ideas on great business books and then conclude with my own. John’s thought process was kicked off when he finished reading Brad Stone’s book on Jeff Bezos and Amazon entitled The Everything Store. Although he enjoyed the book, he concluded that it lacked “greatness.” After making his own list of great business books (shown below), he began to eliminate the categories of business books that, in his opinion, were not worthy of the label “great.” These are:
  • “Self-help” books such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
  • “Patterns of success” books such as Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence or Jim Collins’ Good to Great. (John points out that successful companies today are often unsuccessful companies tomorrow.)
  • “Strategy” books such as Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy, Hamel and Prahalad’s Competing for the Future, or Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy. (These seem like “exercises in hindsight” rather than “scientific discovery.”)
  • “First-person tales” (too numerous to mention). 

John Jordan's Sample of Great Business Books
Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods
Frederick Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month
Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand
Yvon Chouinard, Let My People Go Surfing
Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma
Peter Drucker, The Conduct of the Corporation
Annabelle Gawer and Michael Cusumano, Platform Leadership
Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine
Marc Levinson, The Box
Michael Lewis, Moneyball and Liar’s Poker
Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital
From this mental exercise, John concludes: “My personal list of the best business books veers away from the usual in one of two ways. First, a skilled writer, a self-aware founder/principal, or a combination of the two tells a story rich with personal experience in a highly particular situation. Second, a deep thinker creates a powerful conceptual apparatus that endures over time.”

I didn’t make my own list of great business books, but after thinking about what John wrote, I ended up in pretty much the same place he did: 
  • Business biographies can be great if you learn something valuable that you can use in leading your own life. (I don’t think you’ll learn any secret business weapons in these types of books, however.)
  • Sweeping business histories such as Berle and Means’ The Modern Corporation and Private Property or Chandler’s The Visible Hand provide a deep understanding of business and how it relates to other sectors of society. These types of books are great because they educate us with lasting knowledge.
  • Good stories set in a business context can be both fun and enlightening. Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker and Burrough and Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate let you in on the lingo of Wall Street (where financial titans think of themselves as “big swinging dicks”), and they offer insight into why financial types think like they do (because they view business as a game in which you try to make money rather than as an enterprise that helps society). Lewis’ Moneyball explains for us laymen how the Oakland A’s used sabermetrics to identify baseball talent and field successful teams without the advantage of unlimited budgets. 

So there you have it! Don’t let my or John Jordan’s opinions affect your business book purchases. But if you ignore what we’re saying, get ready for a “I told you so.”


  1. No "Tales of Garcon: The Franchise Players"?

  2. Do any of these "great books" touch on business ethics? I'd be surprised. I think business ethics is an oxymoron.


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