1. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein (1996)
From the ancient Greeks' belief that the universe was divvied up in a game of craps to Keynes's assertion that uncertainty makes us free, this lively economic history helps readers understand why we think -- and bet -- the way we do.
2. The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything, by Guy Kawasaki (2004)
The author has aptly described this book as the start-up version of What to Expect When You're Expecting. From his early exhortation to create a mantra (as opposed to a mission statement) through his final mandate to be a "mensch" (give something back), Kawasaki offers a broad, opinionated, often-shrewd blueprint for early stagers.
3. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson (2006)
Next time you are shipping alarm clocks to Singapore without thinking twice about freight costs, thank Malcom McLean, the trucking entrepreneur who battled labor and government to make it possible. This excellent history proves that sometimes the simplest answers are the most revolutionary.
4. Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers' Trust from Wedgwood to Dell, by Nancy F. Koehn (2001)
The compelling stories of six admired companies (the others are H.J. Heinz, Marshall Field's, Estée Lauder, and Starbucks) remind us that great brands aren't clever marketing constructs. Rather, they emerge from founders' deep understanding of the worlds they and their customers inhabit.
5. The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle's-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads, and Other Workplace Afflictions, by Scott Adams (1996)
Managers can learn more from the man with the antigravity tie than from a shelfful of books on organizational dynamics.
6. The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It, by Michael Gerber (1995)
"Work on your business, not in it" may be the most oft-quoted piece of wisdom in the entrepreneurial vernacular. Gerber urges readers to develop systems that allow their companies to operate even without them. This book doses starry-eyed entrepreneurs with much-need perspective.
7. The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, by Peter Drucker (1967)
Drucker's classic prescriptions for decision making and time management are common sense, yet nonobvious. "In every area of effectiveness within an organization, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problems." "If there is any one 'secret' of effectiveness, it is concentration." Nobody does it better.
8. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge (1990)
In the '80s, everyone talked about continuous improvement. Then, MIT's Senge showed us how to do it. Virtually every trait associated with 21st-century success (speed, flexibility, collaboration) is discussed here.
9. First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (1999)
The authors studied surveys of a gazillion people and discovered those undifferentiated masses yearn to be treated as individuals. The manifesto of one-to-one management.
10. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don't, by Jim Collins (2001)
This book raised the aspirations of millions of business people and introduced at least some humility to the corner office. Collins's message -- about understanding what you can be best at, preserving the core, and sublimating personal to organizational ambition -- remains an essential signpost for wanderers on Leadership Lane.
11. The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company, by Jack Stack (1992)
The term open-book management didn't exist when Stack, CEO of Springfield Remanufacturing, started giving employees the education and the data to track their company's -- and their own -- performance. Stack is equally instructive and open in chronicling the experience.
12. Growing a Business, by Paul Hawken (1987)
More than 20 years after this book's publication, few equal its blend of pragmatism and values. An early proponent of the role of passion in business, Hawken speaks directly to the ambitious but overwhelmed and often isolated founder.
13. Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage, by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston (2006)
Companies that fight against the green tide risk poisoning relationships with customers, investors, and governments. This manual smartly balances opportunity and risk in the quest to shrink companies' environmental footprint.
14. How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie (1936)
Of course, your salespeople and managers should read this self-improvement classic. But Friends is also about leadership. "There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything," writes Carnegie, "and that is by making the other person want to do it."
15. The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, by Clayton Christensen (1997)
Christensen shook up the business world with his insight that paying close attention to customers can hurt if your company is blindsided by a "disruptive technology."
16. Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations, by Thomas A. Stewart (1997)
This book is an unanswerable argument for valuing your company's collective knowledge as much as the contents of its warehouses and factories. Stewart explains with lucidity and wit how to create, wrangle, and exploit intangible assets.
17. The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up, by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham (2008)
Brodsky and Burlingham write Inc.'s Street Smarts column; The Knack similarly brings readers into the thick of running an entrepreneurial business.
18. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, by Yvon Chouinard (2005)
An eloquent manifesto for the socially and environmentally conscious business. The founder of Patagonia may be a reluctant businessman, but he is also an unusually thoughtful one.
19. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Don't, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007)
The Heath brothers identify qualities of memorable and effective ideas wherever they occur, in one of the most useful and entertaining marketing books to come along in years.
20. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story, by Michael Lewis (1999)
Follow along as Jim Clark, the zillionaire founder of Silicon Graphics, chases after his next paradigm-shifting venture. A fascinating profile of the beyond-type-A entrepreneur and a wry anatomy of Silicon Valley in the boom years.
21. Nuts! Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, by Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg (1996)
Corporate culture is a squishy term, until you look at Southwest Airlines -- and suddenly the possibilities become clear.
22. Ogilvy on Advertising, by David Ogilvy (1983)
The Web has changed how things are sold, but it hasn't changed what sells. The founder of Ogilvy & Mather emphasizes research, brands, and big ideas. On copywriting, he's still king. And he always makes excellent company.
23. On Competition, by Michael Porter (2008)
Before you choose a strategy -- hell, before you choose an industry -- consult Porter's greatest hits. He distinguishes between operational effectiveness, which means doing things well (think Japan circa 1985), and competitive strategy, which means doing things differently or doing different things (think entrepreneurs circa forever).
24. Personal History, by Katharine Graham (1997)
We have heard several women CEOs cite this memoir by the former owner of The Washington Post as the most important tome in their leadership libraries. Coming into herself as a leader, Graham is an unexpected yet courageous exemplar of the socially seismic second half of the 20th century.
25. Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, by Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang (1997)
Schultz's humble origins, his succumbing to a passion for a product, and his ongoing pursuit of servant leadership are genuinely inspirational.
26. Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, by Bo Burlingham (2005)
For decades, company owners thought they had two choices: accept perpetual mom-and-pop-ism or pursue torrid growth. Small Giants posits a third option -- be modest in scale but also an extraordinary employer, vendor, or community citizen.
27. Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder (1981)
This Pulitzer Prize–winning account of a team of Data General engineers rushing to complete a next-generation computer was published the year IBM introduced its PC. Back then, the technologists and work methods described must have seemed like exotic birds. Today, they are familiar, but Soul remains a bravura piece of journalism and foundational history of the tech sector.
28. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith (1776)
For anyone curious about the fundamentals of modern economic theory, Smith's synthesis of earlier ideas laid the groundwork for laissez-faire capitalism. As we struggle with self-interest run amuck and debates over government intervention in business, Wealth deserves a revisit.
29. What Management Is: How It Works and Why It's Everyone's Business, by Joan Magretta and Nan Stone (2002)
We love the authors' belief in management's role as the guarantor of everyone's well-being and their refusal to treat case study subjects as paragons. And we admire their humble goals: "You will…understand what management is capable of on a very good day. And on those bad days when things are going wrong, you will be far more likely to figure out what needs to be fixed."
30. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, by James Surowiecki (2004)
Surowiecki's exploration of the power of group intelligence grows ever more relevant. Technology makes this entertaining work of behavioral economics dangerous to ignore.
Editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan writes Inc.'s book review column, The Skimmer's Guide to the Latest Business Books. She also writes company profiles, and columns on leadership and office life. Her work has also appeared in the Harvard Business Review and CIO Magazine. And, yes, early in her career Buchanan edited the TV Guide crossword puzzle.More from Leigh Buchanan: