The best business books of all time? Here are the choices of our panel of CEOs and experts
Robert Bruner still remembers the first book he read as a manager. It was 1988, and Bruner, now the dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, was an up-and-coming professor, respected for his work in finance. But he'd never managed people before. And when he was charged with overseeing the first year of the school's M.B.A. program, Bruner began to struggle.
"I probably had about half of the Darden faculty reporting directly to me," he says. Above him were the school's administrators. Below him were professors with more seniority than he had. The tug of war began. "It was one of those functions where, if it doesn't go right, everybody knows about it," says Bruner.
Under fire, Bruner scrambled for guidance. He found it in Peter Drucker'sThe Effective Executive. In the book, published two decades earlier, the dean of management thinkersknown for his study of GM under Alfred Sloanoffered advice to managers burdened with exactly Bruner's problems.
His lessonthat great executives are made, not bornstuck. "My most vivid takeaway from the book was the need to manage upward as well as downward," says Bruner. "It's easy when you're a manager to think it's just a matter of getting some followers to go along."
Drucker described a more sophisticated approach. "Drucker argues very effectively for the need to gain buy-in from people abovecoming to one's leaders with completed staffwork, with empathy for their dilemmas, and with enough flexibility to accept that they may not agree with you."
Bruner took these ideas to heart; he grew comfortable in his new role, and he was soon given the responsibility of redesigning much of the school's curriculum. He hasn't stopped reading since. "When you're in the crucible," he says, "you need these ideas."
Bruner is far from the only business leader who has turned not to a mentor or a boss for inspirationbut to a book. Books, after all, don't have ulterior motives, they don't complicate office relationships, and they never reveal your secrets. But hundreds of business books are published each year: How to find the one you need?
U.S. News spoke with 14 leaders from all walks of business lifefrom academics to entrepreneurs to corporate executivesabout the five books they consider indispensable reading for managers. The responses ranged far and wide: Military metaphors popped up occasionally, with Sun Tzu's The Art of War rearing its age-old head. But books about biology were also surprisingly prevalent, not only for their insight into how business environments imitate the natural world but also, several executives said, because understanding biology helped them appreciate the concept of randomness.
The vast majority of the books selected are more than five years oldand not all were bestsellers. "There's a tendency to think there's a lot of great new stuff out there. That may not be true," says Jack Brennan, CEO of the Vanguard Group, who reads a few dozen business books a year, then hands his favorites out to his executives.
Some basic how-to guides were also mentioned, from books about making sales calls to advice on writing. Ayn Rand, with her revolutionary ideas about entrepreneurship, also made her presence felt. And then there was Jim Collins, whose books Built to Last and Good to Great offer highly respected explanations of what separates good companies from great companies. Collins, Thomas Friedman, and Peter Drucker were the authors mentioned most often. Read on for more of what business leaders have found between the covers of books.