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Top 10 Influential Business Books of All Time

These ten books changed the business world forever.
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Thousands of business books are published each year, most of which are destined for the remainders bin. However, there are a handful of business books that have literally changed the world. Here's my list:

10. The Art of War (3rd Century BCE)

While militaristic thinking sometimes leads to bizarre business behavior (like treating competitors as enemies rather than potential partners), Sun Tzu's magnum opus really isn't about war, per se. It's more about how to think strategically about complex issues, as well as how to adapt those strategies to the often limited reality of the human condition.

Fun fact: Sun Tzu's patron tested the strategist's theories on war by asking him to organize an army of prostitutes and have them parade around the courtyeard.

9. The Prince (1532)

While intended for monarchs rather than moguls, Machiavelli's realpolitik view that "the end justifies the means" is the basis for modern corporate ethics. Executives in publicly-owned companies are constrained by law to represent the interests of the shareholders and can only "do the right thing" when the right thing makes financial sense.

Fun fact: Machiavelli was a complete failure as a military and civil adviser, and lived to see his ideas widely ridiculed.

8. The Wealth of Nations (1776)

Written when the fastest mode of communication was a sailing ship and slavery was legal in most of the world, this book provides the basis for popular economic thought even in the Internet age. Interest factoid: Adam Smith's oft-cited "invisible hand" only appears in a single sentence in the book.

Fun fact: While Smith was a proponent of the "invisible hand" of economics, he frequently warned against the formation of monopolies.

7. How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)

Although he wrote in an era when the scientific world treated IQ as the only standard of intelligence, Dale Carnegie perceived that lasting happiness and success emerges from relationships rather than ideas or facts. While parts of this book now seem a bit quaint, his basic concept is now a commonplace among business leaders, many of whom now value EQ above IQ in both hiring and promoting.

Fun fact: Dale Carnegie changed his birth name from "Carnagey"  to "Carnegie" in order to create a (false) connection with the multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie.

6. Atlas Shrugged (1957)

Ayn Rand's screed against collectivism utterly transformed how many business leaders perceive their role in society. Prior to Rand, many executives felt apologetic for their success and responsible (at least to some extent) for the welfare of those less fortunate. After Rand, many executives now view themselves as heroic figures, an upper crust of "makers" amidst a herd of "takers."

Fun fact: Ayn Rand, despite her dislike of social welfare programs, was a recipient of both Medicare and Social Security.

5. The Greatest Salesman in the World (1968)

When this classic sales book was written, most people thought of salesmen as slick, fast-talking con-men. While that stereotype still exists, most salespeople now see themselves the way author Og Mandino saw them: as essentially moral people who are striving to make the world better and make other people happy.

Fun fact: Og Mandino flew thirty bombing missions during World War II, some of them piloted by actor James Stewart (of "It's a Wonderful Life" fame.)

4. The Soul of a New Machine (1981)

Credit Tracy Kidder's tome with popularizing two now-ubiquitous business concepts: 1) that truly dedicated workers should spend most of their waking life at the office rather than working a mere 40 hours a week, and 2) that decisions should be made by "empowered" employees rather than top down management.

Fun fact: The "we can change the world" message in this book is all the more poignant in that the "machine" ended up being a technological dead end.

3. The One Minute Manager (1982)

Believe it or not, there was once a time when most businesspeople believed managing people was a fairly difficult job. However, that was before Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson set out their simple (some say "simplistic") rules for common-sense management. The success of this booklet spawned an entire industry of "management made easy" consulting.

Fun fact: Ken Blanchard assigned himself the title of "Chief Spiritual Officer" of his company, an idea which did not spawn many imitators.

2. Guerrilla Marketing (1984)

In the Mad Men era, marketing and advertising implied a big money investment. In this book, though, author Jay Conrad Levinson explained how unconventional efforts can often create better results at a lower cost. Amazingly, Levinson had this insight more than thirty years before social networking and smartphone apps became such a huge part of the corporate landscape.

Fun fact: Among other things, the book suggests tattooing your corporate logo on your forehead.

1. Reengineering the Corporation (1993)

Hammer and Champy's "manifesto" obliterated the implicit social contract between employers and employees. Gone were the notions of lifetime employment and corporate loyalty, replaced by an endless regimen of downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, and offshoring.

Fun fact: The current biz-blab terminology for "reengineering" (i.e. layoffs) is "ventilating the organization."  Nice, eh?

Readers, what other books should have made this list? Leave a comment!

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Last updated: Feb 6, 2013

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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