Biographies of corporate leaders have long been a staple of the business bookshelf. But when you ask a handful of today's best-known management theoreticians and practitioners to recommend the ones they found most inspiring or instructive, they're likely to hesitate, apologize -- then come up with a title from another section of the library entirely. Granted, there's one business autobiography in the list that follows. But it's included for what its author would surely regard as all the wrong reasons. For the rest, well, as Tom Peters put it, "What is leadership, if not the complex and subtle use of power to bring about change? For my money, real leadership can be seen most clearly in political biographies."

Peter F. Drucker, author and management consultant: The Men Who Ruled India, by Philip Mason. "whatever their failings, the British rulers in India did something that had never been done before: they built an administrative structure designed to establish peace and justice in a huge country that had never had either. In so doing they created the first information-based organization, a model for today's company. Top management -- the highest leaders in the government -- set the overall objectives. But they gave full operational responsibility to a handful of very young men appointed to run the districts. All of these district governors -- few of them over 25 -- were expected to inform top management every month of their performance, plans, and goals.

"You don't need modern technology for such communication; in India, advanced technology was a quill pen, and telecommunications was a barefoot runner. But you do need a commitment to sharing information up and down the management ladder. That's precisely the kind of leadership so many companies lack."

Tom Peters, author and management consultant: American Caesar, by William Manchester; Charles de Gaulle, by Don Cook; A Prince of Our Disorder, by John E. Mack. "Each of these political biographies is about a man who essentially transformed a nation. What you learn from them is the subtle complexities of leadership that are equally importnat in business -- the highly refined use of personal relations, symbols, and knowledge to accomplish magnificent ends. Three examples:

"When General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Japan after the second world war, he knew that he should go in unarmed; he knew what uniform to wear; he knew how to locate his headquarters vis-a-vis the emperor's palace; and so on. And MacArthur's years as an expatriate living in Asia had taught him about the symbols of Japanese culture, thereby allowing him to get off on the right foot.

"When Charles de Gaulle landed in France with the Allies, he virtually wrested control of the country from Eisenhower -- for one thing, by hustling in bags of French currency instead of letting the Allies issue scrip. If you're a good historian, you know that whoever controls the currency has much to say about the balance of power.

"Colonel T. E. Lawrence -- Lawrence of Arabia -- started from a position of pure powerlessness, only to gain control of a whole subcontinent through his astonishing knowledge of Arab culture. In the back of John Mack's fine biography are Lawrence's 27 prescriptions for dealing with alien cultures. The first one is to the effect of "go easy for the first few weeks; a bad start is difficult to atone for." That's good advice for a new CEO.

"We often expect out leaders to be plain vanilla: you can see that in the Presidential races going on now. These leaders didn't have a drop of vanilla in them. They were as awesomely flawed as they were magnificent."

James O'Toole, editor of New Management magazine: My Years with General Motors, by Alfred P. Sloan Jr. "Of all the biographies I've read in my life, none has affected me so profoundly as Sloan's autobiography. I've read it three or four times. What I find fascinating about the book is that it is internally so consistent, so well argued, so convincing that it became the model for how managers should think -- indeed, the model for much management education. And the intriguing thing is that it's all wrong. For example: for the first 300 pages or so, Sloan seems oblivious to the fact that there are any employees in the company. At the back of the book, when he finally discusses "labor," he focuses on the adversarial relationship between the company and the union. Even then he never mentions Walter Reuther, the great United Auto Workers leader, by name.

"That, in a nutshell, helps me understand what's wrong with the management of large companies in America. It helps me in dealing with my students, most of whom want to become entrepreneurs and run small companies. By reading this book they learn which management practices to avoid."

Tom Melohn, president, North American Tool & Die Inc.: George C. Marshall, a multivolume work by Forrest C. Pogue. "General Marshall -- chief of staff under Roosevelt and later Secretary of State -- was a man of unparalleled skill in finding and nurturing his top operating managers. Just look at the record: Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower. He had a program that helped him identify the best people early, and a program to make sure they got the right experience. Then he gave them more and more responsibility. Eisenhower was only a colonel when the war began. But Marshall leapfrogged him over dozens of others because he was the right man.

"What really turns me on about Marshall was the man's incredible integrity. He desperately wanted to head up Operation Overlord -- the Allied invasion of Western Europe -- himself, and he could have maneuvered to get the job. But he knew Roosevelt and Churchill needed a man with better human-relations skills than he had, so he recommended Eisenhower. He must have realized that Ike would pass him by -- that he, Marshall, was giving up the adulation of the Free World, maybe even the Presidency of the United States. And he did it anyway.

"Integrity like that is inspiring -- in business, and in life."

* The Men Who Ruled India, by Philip Mason (HC, W. W. Norton, 1985, $27.50)

* American Caesar, by William Manchester (paperback [PB], Dell, 1982, $6.95; HC, Little, Brown, 1978, $24.50)

* Charles de Gaulle, by Don Cook (PB, Putnam Publishing Group, 1985, $19.95)

* A Prince of Our Disorder, by John E. Mack (PB, Little Brown, 1976, $12.95)

* My Years with General Motors, by Alfred P. Sloan Jr. (PB, Doubleday, 1972, $7.95)

* George C. Marshall (in four volumes), by Forrest C. Pogue (HC, Viking, 1963 to 1987, $24.95 to $29.95 each)