They fall into two categories:

The first set of four makes it clear that there is more to life than the giant firms the “gurus” focus on (I’m often guilty). There are a ton of excellent/amazing/super-cool mid-sized businesses out there to emulate. Many are in “boring” industries. My name for them is “Small-ish/Mid-sized Niche Dominators.” THEY ARE THE BACKBONE OF NATIONAL ECONOMIC EXCELLENCE. (Poster children: Germany’s Mittelstand—until recently, Germany was the world’s #1 exporter, courtesy their mid-sized dynamos; one report called the mittelstanders “agile creatures darting between the legs of the multinational monsters.”) The slogan that captures the nature of these firms best comes from George Whalin in Retail Superstars: “Be the best. It’s the only market that’s not crowded.”

The next three books focus on the so-called “soft stuff”—e.g., putting people (REALLY) first. The Soft Edge in particular is a gem among gems. (Soft Edge is particularly near and dear to my heart. I’ve long said that In Search of Excellence can be captured in just six words:”Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” The so-called “hard” stuff—such as the plans and the numbers—are really the soft, squishy, and often fictional stuff. The so-called “soft” stuff—such as the people and culture and relationships—are the true “hard” Bedrock of Excellence.)

The last, The Second Machine Age, is simply the best book written to date on the implications of the tech tsunami that is rolling in.

Read ’em!

To wit …

Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, by Bo Burlingham

Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America, by George Whalin

Hidden Champions: Success Strategies of Unknown World Market Leaders, by Hermann Simon (said by some to be Germany’s #1 “management guru”)

The Future Is Small: Why AIM [Alternative Investment Market] Will Be the World’s Best Market Beyond the Credit Boom, by Gervais Williams

The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success, by Rich Karlgaard, publisher, Forbes

The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits?, by Zeynep Ton, MIT

Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, by Richard Sheridan, CEO Menlo Innovations

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, MIT