For Advice That's Never Stale Pick Up a Classic Business Book

“The key to a leader’s impact is sincerity. Before he can inspire with emotion he must be swayed by it himself. Before he can move their tea
March 03, 2009

“The key to a leader’s impact is sincerity. Before he can inspire with emotion he must be swayed by it himself. Before he can move their tears his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe.” ~ Winston Churchill

During a time of such unprecedented economic turmoil and change, lately I find myself visiting my trusty (and dusty, I might add) in-home library of business books, looking for answers and timeless wisdom from influential authors who just might be capable of leading us fearlessly into the future.

Out of hundreds of books to choose from, here are five that deserve a spot in any collection of business classics. I’ve summarized the insightful advice I took away from the authors, all business visionaries who helped transform the world with their genius. You will find that most of the advice is more timely, practical and relevant than you could possibly imagine considering today’s economic climate.

1. The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor (1960). Through his Theory Y view of management, McGregor calls upon us to reassess our assumptions about human behavior in the workplace. Some of his major points in Chapter 4, as quoted from the book:

  • The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.
  • External control and the threat of punishment are not the means for bringing about effort toward organizational objectives. Man (or woman, to make it more current) will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which he/she is committed.
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of the rewards associated with their achievement.
  • The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility.
  • The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  • Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized.

During tough times, we must discover how to realize the potential represented by our own people. Learn to manage the most valuable side of your enterprise — the human side.

2. In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr. (1985). In this classic book that went on to become an all-time best seller, the authors unveil the secret to successful business management. The roadblock to success didn’t have to do with ignorance. It had to do with how American corporations tend to be too shortsighted to permit experimentation and innovation — a similar issue we all face with our current economic market condition.

Skimming the table of contents of the book provides a healthy dose of solutions to this question: What should we do next to lead our company out of this mess? Part III is titled “Back to Basics.” The subsections include:

  • A bias for action
  • Close to the customer
  • Autonomy and entrepreneurship
  • Productivity through people
  • Hands-on, value-driven
  • Stick to the knitting
  • Simple form, lean staff
  • Simultaneous loose-tight properties

Here I see – don’t you? — the eight basic practices the authors find to be characteristic of successfully managed companies.

Advice: Get back to basics. Treat people decently, ask them to shine, and make quality products that you can sell for a profit. Even for today’s tough times, that’s a door opener to a future filled with promise.

3. Beyond Entrepreneurship: Turning Your Business Into An Enduring Great Company by James Collins and William Lazier (1992). Since the publication of this inspiring, little-known book, Collins went on to write Built to Last and Good to Great, but Beyond Entrepreneurship is one of my all-time favorites by Collins. It’s about growing a business that has staying power and that can bounce back from difficult periods (like now) stronger than ever.
Scan this book’s table of contents and you will find leadership style, vision, strategy, innovation and tactical excellence all essential elements of attaining corporate greatness. Straight from the book:

  • Leadership style: It’s impossible to build a great company without an effective leadership style. It all starts with you.
  • Catalyzing a vision: Every great company has at its foundation a compelling vision.
  • Demystify the topic of strategy: Once a vision is clear, you need to make good decisions and have a road map for making the vision happen.
  • Innovation: How do you stimulate creativity and keep your company innovative as it evolves?
  • Tactical excellence: How to translate vision and strategy into tactics and, most important, how to create an environment that produces consistent tactical excellence.

You can build an extraordinary organization capable of long-term health and success provided you lay a foundation for greatness now and are faithful to your values. It’s based on YOU. Trust people. Be decisive. Set priorities. Walk the halls. Give positive reinforcement. Communicate the vision of your company. Inspire people. And despite, or in spite of, our harsh economic times, continue to move forward with anything new, bold and risky.

4. On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis (1989). According to Peter Drucker, “This is Warren Bennis’s most important work,” and many would not argue with that. The lessons in this book are just what Dr. Economic of the 21st Century would order up for us in a pinch.

Examine the table of contents and you will find a recurring theme of understanding the basics: knowing yourself, knowing the world, operating on instinct, deploying yourself, strike hard, try everything, move through chaos, get people on your side and forge the future. Sound all too familiar? It should. These are all the traits and characteristics you need now to lead during a time of great uncertainty.

For today’s leaders, according to the book, three things make a difference.

  • Staying with the status quo is unacceptable.
  • The key to competitive advantage will be the capacity of leadership to create the social architecture capable of generating intellectual capital.
  • Followers need from their leaders three basic qualities: direction, trust and hope.

Manifest the qualities above, says Bennis, and you will become an outstanding leader who enables a business to flourish.

5. The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done by Peter Drucker (1966). He identifies five practices essential to business effectiveness that must be learned. They are:

  • Managing time
  • Choosing what to contribute to the organization
  • Knowing where and how to mobilize strength for best effect
  • Setting the right priorities
  • Knitting all of them together with effective decision-making

If you look at what’s going on in the world, the bottom line is this: It boils down to executive effectiveness.

Advice: If you read one book this year about how to improve your own effectiveness as a business owner or executive during tumultuous times, this is it. Executive effectiveness can be learned, and there is a difference between being busy and being effective — one of many gems covered in this masterful book.

What’s next? Gather your wits, practice everything outlined above, pay attention to your people, collectively come up with solutions, discover there’s a world out there for doing business, declare “we are doing the change we want to see” and keep going. Believe that success, even now, is possible, and by your actions and your attitude, convince others that it’s true.

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About the Author: Global business expert Laurel Delaney is the founder of She also is the creator of “Borderbuster,” an e-newsletter, and The Global Small Business Blog, all highly regarded for their global small business coverage.