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Epistemic Status: Mostly my own subjective opinions. You should read this as though each statement has a hidden "in my opinion" or "I think" attached to it.

TLDR: I've read a lot of business books, and here I share my impressions[1] of some of the most popular ones. Some are definitely worth reading, depending on what you are looking for and what you already know. There are also several which I recommend avoiding because reading them would be a waste of time.

Intro

I read a lot, and I often find myself interested in business books. While these books are sometimes directly related to business and can help you be a better manager/leader/employee, some also can help you with self-control, decision making, or other areas of life. This is especially true if you are interested in increasing your competency in some area of life that can be applied to work. Thus, regardless of whether you want to be effective in altruism, in egoism, or in something else, these books might be helpful for you.

(I put this together fairly quickly without having anyone review it, so I wouldn't be surprised if there are some typos or other simple errors in it. Please do let me know if you notice something wrong.)

"Business book" is an odd genre. There are several different types:[2]

Many of the business books I've read didn't provide me with much value.[4] So what should I do? Well, I'm going to offer my perspectives on some of the most popular and well-known business books so that the people reading this can avoid the bad ones and steer toward the good ones. I'll only write a few sentences about each book, but if you have specific questions about any of the books, feel free to let me know and I'll try to elaborate a bit more.

I'm not being particularly scientific about this. I've found a few lists of "best business books" on Goodreads, looked at which ones I've read, and shared my opinions on them.[5] I'll exclude a few that aren't very related to business[6], but I'll generally try to cast a fairly wide net. I also should note that I am not really doing research for these beyond skimming some reviews to refresh my memory, so most of what I write is from memory, from my notes, or from cursory Google searches.

I hate that I feel the need to include a caveat, but this is the internet, so here it goes: just because I dislike a book and you like it, does not mean that you need to get angry and write impolitely. If you loved a book that I hated, that is okay. If you hated a book that I enjoyed, that is okay, too. If you have useful or interesting perspectives to share, please share them.

The Books

Very Good

  • Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders
    • This book is about nurturing initiative in your team, and the system that the author has seems to be pretty good. He went on to make a bunch of short YouTube videos if you want more exposure to his ideas, but the rough idea is that you should increase the level of control you give to an employee in proportion to the level of competence that the employee has, shifting the employee from someone who says "tell me what to do" toward someone that says "I intend to..." He has also packaged the concepts in ways that are fairly visual and easily understood, such as a "ladder of leadership." I enjoyed this because it is very much about how a leader’s shaping of the culture affects employee behavior.
      • EDIT: CEA uses the phrase "unless otherwise directed...," (shortened to UNODIR) to the same effect as "I intend to..."
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
    • This is related to any aspect of getting things done in life, not just at work, and is basically a system so that you don't forget tasks. That's it. There are people who are really enthusiastic about GTD and you can easily find summaries online. If you are already well-organized, if you don't get overwhelmed by having multiple distinct places where you receive to-dos, and if having tasks fall through the cracks isn't a problem for you, then you likely don't need this. But I suspect that most people would have less stress and more productivity if they adopted at least some of the GTD practices. The basics are to 1) consolidate everything into a single "inbox" (I like Asana and Google Calendar), and 2) make sure that when you process tasks you put tasks into one of the following categories: do, delay, delegate, delete. There is more that you can dig into, but even just these two things can make life easier.
    • EDIT: a great summary is available here.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow
    • This isn't so related to business or work life in general. The main reason and I felt justified including it here is that knowing how to avoid or mitigate mistakes is valuable for anyone who makes decisions, and reading this book really helped to humble me. A big part of being a good leader or a good manager is being able to make good decisions. I don't know much about how to train people to make good decisions, but awareness of how easy it is for our brains to fool us has made me a better thinker. Prior to reading this I had the vaguest of inklings about how our brains trick us. Many confident people would benefit from being more skeptical of their own thoughts. People who are in a management/leadership position should especially be more aware of their own failings. This book should help you increase that aspect of self-awareness.
  • The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business
    • This book provides a structure for how to organize your leadership team, and I imagine that it would be quite helpful to anyone who is starting a new organization or who is in charge of a young organization. It is basically a checklist for how to build a team and make sure departments are aligned. I have to admit, that doesn't sound too special. But the structure of an organization is massively impactful in shaping the behavior of employees. If you aren't going to design a team or an organization, then you probably wouldn't get much from this book, and it doesn't really have practical tips outside of the realm of designing and running an organization.

Good

  • What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful
    • This is targeted at people who want to better themselves, and the author has a list of 20 behavior issues/character flaws that often prevent people from being as successful as they like. Each of those 20 items really could be a little essay on it's own. I view this book as vaguely like coaching for being a better person, with emphasis on professional roles.
  • High Output Management
    • A decent introduction to operations management, as well as a few principles illustrated by situations from Andy Grove's own career. You won't learn much if you are an experienced manager or if you are well-read, but if you are relatively junior in your career or if you are new to reading business books you might gain some nice perspectives. I especially enjoyed his description of a breakfast restaurant as a nice introduction to the basics of operations management.
  • First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently
    • If you want a highly abridged version of this book, you can read the article Why Great Managers Are So Rare.
    • It has been several years since I've read this, but my memories are that it refers to actual research, which is a rarity in popular business books. One of the most valuable takeaways from this book has simply been the checklist of 12 questions for evaluating how well a manager is doing his/her job.[7] Like any measure, it is subject to being manipulated or gamed or Goodharted, but that even a simple checklist like this is a big improvement over the minimal or non-existent systems for evaluating managers at most of the companies I've observed.
  • The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement
    • This book falls into the category of parable/allegory/fable: it is a fictional story used to illustrate some business principles. This format is somewhat common among business books, and while I don't enjoy business fables, that it actually works quite well in The Goal. I imagine it would be hard to write a book about operations management without it feeling very dull and textbook-like, but The Goal does a pretty decent job. This book is fairly weak in terms of literature, but very good in terms of feeding operations management concepts in bite-sized chunks. It is considered somewhat of a classic among operations managers, especially for understanding the theory of constraints. Due to the accessible style, even if you are only 18 years old and have no work experience, you should still be able to understand most of the ideas in this book. If you are studying business administration, you might end up having this book as assigned reading. In my first full-time white collar job my boss assigned the book to our team, and I am really glad that she did.
  • The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
    • My memory is a bit fuzzy on this book, but what I took away from it was the idea that if you are trying to figure out what customers find valuable, you need to iterate a lot, which allows you to learn, and then you can take those learnings and apply them in order to get a better product. A big part of this involves getting feedback from your customers. "Startup people"/"Silicon Valley speak" refer to this as product-market fit. If you are already familiar with the idea of a minimum viable product, the importance of iteration, and similar ideas, then you probably won't get much from this book. But if you are new to the business world and haven't read much yet, then you might learn some general stuff.
  • Dan Ariely's books (Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty)
    • I read all of Dan Ariely's books around 2012-2014 or so (although he has published a few additional books since then) as well as other on what I consider to be part of the standard popular behavioral economics reading list, and they lined up closely with my interest in how our brains deceive us. I was surprised to see it on lists of business books, since it is really a psychology book. However, most people need to make decisions in their professional life, and if you are a leader or any type then you are probably expected to have good judgment with your decisions. If you want to make good decisions, then at the very least you should be familiar with some of the basic findings of behavioral economics, and preferably you should read a few books about how we tend to fool ourselves.

Passable

  • Winning, by Jack Welch
    • The premise of this book is more or less "I was successful, so here are the things that will make you successful." There is sensible advice, but like with so much sensible advice, in order to be useful it has to be true and novel rather than merely true. I'll take candor and lack of candor as an example. This book draws some attention to how lack of candor causes problems, and how candor is beneficial. This is true, but it also strikes me as obvious: in a culture that avoids healthy conflict and where people avoid bringing up bad news, isn't it obvious that this is less effective than candor? Like other "this is how I did it" business books, some things may not be applicable in different contexts. To the extent that my working career will closely reflect being a manager at General Electric during the 80s and 90s, there may be a lot of useful insights here. But there is also a lot of content which is basically just backed up by his opinion. Rank-and-yank performance management is something that I have my own feelings on, but I haven't yet read any research about it, so I can't really say with any confidence to what extent it is or isn't effective.
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
    • If you are already decently knowledgeable about behavior economics and the related aspects of psychology, then you might not learn much from this book. It was full of applicable content, and the examples make the content much more vivid. Some of these things might be obvious things that you haven't really thought of before (such as if you give someone a gift, then they are more likely to comply with your subsequent requests). But mostly I view a book like this as drawing our focus toward things that exist all around us that we generally don't pay attention to (power of social proof, believing in commitment because their reputation is on the line, deferring to authority, etc.).
  • The Essential Drucker
    • If you like Peter Drucker and if you are a nerd for business writing, then this will probably be a good book. It is a bunch of opinions and statements. There isn't really any evidence provided to support these opinions, and the fact that it is basically an anthology of various articles and speeches means that there isn't any strong unifying theme. But Drucker seemed so influential on the practice of management in the 20th century that it is worth being familiar with him.
  • The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals
    • I liked the phrase of “whirlwind” used to describe the activity and energy that’s necessary to keep the operation going on a day-to-day basis. I also liked the bifurcation of work into whirlwind and important goals. The concepts of acting on lead measures rather than lag measures, of keeping a scoreboard, and of having a cadence are all useful, if a bit obvious. That said, my primary complaints are that
      • if you are an organized person who is able to differentiate between what is important and what isn’t, then you won’t gain much from this book. If you are trained in project management (or if you are naturally the type to do project management), then this book seems superfluous.
      • A large proportion of the book seems to consist of proclaiming how great his method is, how Company A and Company B benefited so much from his method, and anecdotes about his method being very important to the success of various people and organizations.
  • Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
    • This book didn’t seem particularly radical. It was just basic advice on general management. How to get feedback, how to run a weekly staff meeting, how to do hiring and firing, etc. Most of the advice seemed fairly standard, and I’ve met plenty of people working in positions of authority who would benefit from following the advice. Overall I found it good, but nothing too special.
  • The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business
    • The book is a list of concepts and definitions, with a few examples thrown in. If you are new to the world of business and you want to understand some of the terminology, then you might benefit from reading this book. I’ve not done an MBA, nor (at the time of reading this book) had I ever taken any courses in business. I didn’t learn anything from reading this book because the concepts it provided were all things that I had picked up from other books, or from popular press.
  • Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
    • This book should have been an article. The TED talk was nice, but there simply doesn’t seem to be enough content to justify a book. You don’t get anything more from the book than you do from the TED talk. And the core concepts aren’t particularly complex, either.
  • Rework
    • This is sort of a manifesto. It is a mixture of the author’s philosophy of how business should be done, with a good portion of his own personal experiences about what worked for him. There is nothing too surprising or amazing; mostly just stuff that I understand to be true. I didn’t gain much, but maybe if I had read it at age 18 I would have.
  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
    • Here is what you will learn from this book:
      • the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
      • the importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose
    • That’s it. That’s all there is here. It is just another business book that filters years of other people’s research into broad talking points. The ideas are true and useful, but unless you are brand new to working with people then a lot of it probably will be stuff you already know.
  • The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It
    • The core idea here is about delegation and documentation. Define a role well and make sure that the standards are clear so that when you start to withdraw the new employee keeps doing the job properly. This seems to me mainly targeted at people who are running their own businesses, but it has a few useful tidbits for anyone who is managing people, a team, a business unit, etc.
  • James Collins's books (Great by Choice, Built to Last, and Good to Great)
    • I’m clumping these three books together. They sold well and they are smoothly written. There are some nice concepts that are made memorable through description (such as fire bullets, then cannonballs as a sort of explore-exploit problem), but similarly to many of the business books that I don’t think are particularly worthwhile, if you’ve done some reading/learning before then it is likely that you won’t gain too much from these.
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
    • Again, it filters years of other people’s research into broad talking points. There are a lot of anecdotes (which is a common trend in business books). There was a lot of buzz about this book, and I’m guessing that is mainly because it is fairly digestible and because the author is a journalist and writes quite smoothly. But this could have been an article: habits are a loop of cues, routines, and rewards, and you are able to tweak these individual elements.
  • The 4-Hour Workweek
    • A nice introduction to the concept of automation of a business, and perhaps quite interesting to a person who has never realized that alternatives to the mainstream (full-time job, working 30-60 hours per week) exist. I read this when I was 19 or so, and I thought it was really cool. Now that I am a bit older I am not quite as impressed. Nonetheless, there is some helpful advice about concrete things, such as sending clear if-then emails and not being constantly available for messages.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
    • I hate management fables, but this did manage to get the point across. There are communication habits that people have which sabotage their ability to achieve goals. His five dysfunctions are: lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. Perhaps useful if you need to review what kinds of behaviors help or hinder success.

Bad

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
    • These ideas strike me as common sense, but they have great marketing and packaging. The ideas themselves aren’t bad. They are quite reasonable. But they aren’t novel either: it seems like a repackaging of the protestant work ethic. There are too many analogies, and the whole book is pervaded with a “dogmatic air of absolute certainty.” I enjoyed this review of it.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
    • While the core ideas seem to have some merit to them, the presentation is little more than a series of bland anecdotes. I wouldn’t really want to behave in a way that this book describes: it advises you to be agreeable to everyone, to compliment and flatter people very frequently, and generally to act like a people pleaser. I can see how it might be useful for salespeople in certain situations. What is good from it? Well, the idea of “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it” seems fairly true, but it also seems situational, and fairly obvious.
  • Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
    • I strongly disliked the tone of this book, and it was a struggle to make myself finish reading it. A large portion of the book seems to consist of the author name-dropping all the famous people he has met. The advice is fairly bland/obvious (throw a dinner party and invite people, then ask people to invite an interesting person they know).
  • The One Minute Manager
    • This is a simple fable (or maybe an allegory?) about a wise teacher who passes knowledge to a young “hero.” The knowledge consists of a series of step for one-minute goal setting, one-minute praising, one-minute reprimand, and so on. It seems to be written at about a 5th grade level.
  • Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
    • I don’t know why this book got onto lists of best business books. It is just a memoir of a guy who built a business. It is vaguely interesting, but there aren’t really any lessons or takeaways. It is just a guy that happened to do the right things, in the right place, at the right time. There isn’t anything repeatable here, or any transferable lessons.
  • Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
    • This was a type of "corporate feminism," which has an extremely narrow focus, and thereby excludes most women. There were two main things that made me dislike this book. The first is a problem of tone: the author’s blindness to her own privilege. The second is the assumption throughout the whole book that the issues holding women back are primarily individual issues that each woman is responsible for changing on her own rather than structural/systemic issues with how our culture and organizations are formed.
  • Who Moved My Cheese?
    • This is another business fable. The summary is that people should be ready to change, because (if you are a rat in a maze) you never know when your cheese will be moved. When change happens, you have to be capable of going out and finding new cheese. Described as “the classic of downsizing propaganda.”

If you are just starting out

If you are new to the professional world and you want to learn a bunch of generally applicable skills, where to start? I started from the Manager Tools podcast, first subscribing, then going through their archive to download and listen to anything that looked interesting or relevant.[8] I spent a year or two listen to Manager Tools on my commute, and it was a pretty good starting point for me. I'm basing this recommendation on my rough perception of what would be most helpful for a college student who hasn't yet had any full-time work experience and who wants to learn about the professional world.[9] 

If you have a business book you are considering reading and you aren't sure whether or not it is worth your time, let me know. If it is decently well-known, then there is a good chance that I have read it and I can tell you my impressions of it, including whether or not it would be helpful for you if you tell me about your situation.

 

  1. ^

    Whether or not you gain something from reading a business book will depend a lot on what you already know. There are certain books that I would have gained a lot from if I had read them at age 18, which seem so obvious as to be useless at age 35. YMMV.

  2. ^

    To be clear, these are just my own casual descriptions off the top of my head, not anything formal or widely used. Books can fall into multiple categories; this is not a MECE categorization.

  3. ^

    I assume that these authors write an essay/blog post/article, get the idea that they could be a more-or-less bestselling author, and then add lots of fluff to get enough content to justify printing a book. Sometimes the extra examples and anecdotes are helpful (I loved all the examples in Thanks for the Feedback), but usually they don't add much value.

  4. ^

    There can be many reasons for this, but the most common few are that

     • I already know the thing the book is trying to teach

     • the book's author falls prey to the fundamental attribution error, claiming that his (it is almost always a written by a man) actions are responsible for his success, ignoring the other factors that contributed to his success

     • the signal to noise ratio is bad: there is some good information, but it is mixed in with a lot of rubbish.

  5. ^

    To be clear, this is not a list of what I think the best business books are. This is a list of my opinions on the books that other people think are the best business books. My list of best business books looks quite different.

  6. ^

    The Art of War shows up on a few lists, but it isn't so relevant to business. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century also showed up on a few, and I don't view it as very relevant.

  7. ^

    The questions can be found on various blogs and articles, but I've put them here for your convenience:
    1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
    2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
    3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
    4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
    5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
    6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
    7. At work, do my opinions count?
    8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
    9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
    10. Do I have a best friend at work?
    11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
    12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

  8. ^

    The Manager Tools Basics are a good place to start, and from there you can use the Map of the Universe to explore topics.

  9. ^

    There is all kinds of classism wrapped up in this, as you could easily work full-time in a job where many of these ideas are less applicable, especially as a young person without wealth or family connections. I can't think of a label that described the type of work I am talking about without using phrases like "white collar" or "professional class" or other phrases that are quite loaded with classist meanings. I'm sorry about that. I feel bad that I don't have better words to describe what I want to talk about, but if someone has recommendations for better terminology I'd be very happy to hear them.

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"Business Adventures" by John Brooks is a collection of midcentury New Yorker articles about business, obviously very old-fashioned but they are really quite good. There's something to be said for learning about:

  • a short squeeze in shares of the Piggly-Wiggly supermarket chain (founder went broke, later tried to make Amazon Just Walk Out but with 1950s punch card technology)
  • the first insider trading lawsuit
  • the first "Big Tech" information technology company that spun off from university research and promoted liberal political causes (Xerox)
  • the earliest cases of employees being sued over noncompete/intellectual property agreements

Among many other interesting but less obviously relevant topics.

Thanks for mentioning it. I've never heard of that, but it seems like it has some cool stories. I'll add it to my (ever growing) want-to-read list.

Thanks! Charity Entrepreneurship maintain a list of books they recommend, which include a few you mention here. I'm only partway through the list and it's good and helpful, though there are some misses. 

Atomic Habits was quite practically written and concise; the Lean Start-up pretty interesting. I hated Adam Grant's 'Originals' with a passion.  Ray Dalio of Bridgewater wrote 'Principles', which has been highly recommended. The third section covering his actual management principles looks really good so far, but the second section, in which Dalio describes his philosophy of life, has some real hot garbage.