Twenty years ago, America was suffering from a recession combining high unemployment coupled with inflation. Major industrial companies like Chrysler had to be bailed out, the oil crisis concentrated wealth in the ground and among Arabian plutocrats and the threat from a seemingly dynamic Japan seemed insurmountable.
At the time, business books were afterthoughts gathering dust in the back of bookstores.
That's all changed as America in the past two decades has enjoyed a long boom — 20 years of prosperity punctuated by just one or two fairly mild recessions. With that boom, business achieved a new cultural popularity as CEOs like Lee Iacocca, Donald Trump and Bill Gates became icons. Meanwhile, business books have gained an unprecedented prominence and popularity (as have business magazines like Forbes).
Books on management, chronicles of big deals and businessman biographies have all taken their place on the best-seller lists. CEOs, journalists, consultants and even football coaches — in addition to academics — have weighed in on all things business.
Here is a list of the top five most influential business books of the last 20 years as voted by our panel of experts.
For a full list of all top 20 books, check out the link in the right column. And for a listing of books by genre, read on.
Making the Most of Management
Management books dominate our list, starting with In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert H. Waterman (Harper & Row; 1982), the clear favorite among our panelists.
Excellence, which started as an internal project at McKinsey, the consulting firm, caught fire at a time when there was a widespread view that American business could do nothing right and that Japan was the fount of management wisdom.
"The idea that there were well-run American companies was radical at the time," said Tim Forbes, chairman of Forbes.com and one of our panelists. The book took off after being published in the teeth of the 1982 recession.
The reason, according to the authors, was not so much the eight rules of management that the book propounded — verities such as "stick to the knitting" and "stay close to the customer" — but the lively case studies of 43 "excellent" companies.
The popularity of Excellence also touched off the author-cum-consultant phenomenon in which writers use books to sell their advice and their speeches—counsel that appears all the wiser and more valuable because it's printed between covers.
Next on the list is Built to Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras (HarperCollins; 1994). The authors set out to determine what's special about "visionary" companies like The Walt Disney Co., Wal-Mart or Merck. These firms share both longevity and great brand image.
After assuming that outstanding long-term performance was almost certainly the result of a series of strong CEOs and great ideas, Collins and Porras experienced an almost Joycean epiphany: Much more important than a charismatic leader is flexibility — bright people unafraid to "try a lot of stuff and keep what works." In other words, it's not about vision at all. The pursuit of a "core ideology," on the other hand, is vitally important.
Collins made the list a second time with last year's Good to Great (HarperCollins). In this book, Collins advises management on how to turn good companies into "great" ones.