All-Time Best Management Books

Tom Peters

I recently was asked to develop a list of the “best management books of all time.” With the arrival of summer vacations, which mean catching up on reading for many of us, I thought I’d share the result with you. Instead of “all-time” best books, my selections represent a “modern all-time” set of offerings. On the other hand, only one of the books has appeared in the last couple of years. So, “modern,” yes; “pop,” no.

1. The Practice of Management, by Peter F. Drucker (Harper & Row, 1954, still available). Drucker’s first alpha-to-omega treatment of management is still about the best. Many of the things he said were ignored at the time. But they are more important than ever today.

2. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (Harvard University Press 1977, still available). This is arguably the best, and surely the most readable, explanation of how we became what we are today, from a business-strategy and organizational perspective. Drucker may have invented management in the very modern sense, but Chandler traces the origins of most of what we do back hundreds of years. Understanding those origins is more important today than at the time of publication. To achieve the dramatic change of course required for business survival today, we must know the genesis of our habits, and the context in which they once made sense.

3. Job Creation in America, by David Birch (The Free Press, 1987, still available). If Chandler is the master of the past, Birch is the master of the future. The MIT economist provides the best empirical analysis of the revolution occurring in America today: the resurgence of small and mid-size businesses, which are beginning to dominate many spheres, from steel to chemicals, computers, bio-technology, and banking. Birch severely challenges conventional wisdom about bigness and innovation.

4. The Winning Performance: How America’s High-Growth Midsize Companies Succeed, by Donald K. Clifford, Jr., and Richard E. Cavanagh (Bantam, 1985, still available). This book is a nice complement to the ones written by Chandler and Birch, and even Drucker, who loved The Winning Performance. The authors explore the innards of the new superstars on the American scene, the $25-million to $1-billion (revenue) companies. This book is especially worthwhile for the denizens of giant corporations, since most are restructuring to look like a collection of mid-size outfits.

5. The Change Masters: Innovation for Productivity in the American Corporation, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (Simon & Schuster, 1983, still available). The chief issue for big firms is change. And regardless of the pressing external need, we all tend to fight change tooth and nail. Kanter, one of the nation’s premier students of power in the corporation, does a sophisticated thoughtful and practical job of dealing with the grim (and occasionally amusing) realities of becoming more innovative.

6. The Structuring of Organizations, by Henry Mintzberg (Prentice Hall, 1975, still available). This book is at times obscure, and will be a bit too “academic” for some tastes. But we take on all too many mergers and reorganizations today without thinking deeply about the essence of the organization per se. Mintzberg thinks deeply about this subject. Any obscurity can be mastered by the layperson with a little extra, and imminently worthwhile, effort.

7. Managerial Psychology, Fourth Edition, by Harold J Leavitt (University of Chicago Press, 1978, still available). Pop managerial-psychology texts line the shelves of bookstores these days; most amount to an unnecessary sacrifice of a tree. But Leavitt is in another league. He knows the psychology of individuals, groups, and organizations dead to right—and he’s one heck of a writer. The book is very sophisticated and very readable.

8. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, by Michael E. Porter (The Free Press, 1980, still available). Porter is the “hot” name in business-strategy thinking today. But the Harvard Business School professor is more than hot;
he’s good. He has provided the most meticulous framework for thinking about competitive advantage developed so far. Also consider Porter’s more recent text, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance (The Free Press, 1985, still available).

9. The Marketing Imagination, by Theodore Levitt (The Free Press, 1983, still available). Marketing buffs go through gurus faster than companies switch ad agencies. But Levitt sustains. His thoroughly readable book has more wisdom per page than any other marketing text I’ve come across.

10. Further Up the Organization, by Robert Townsend (Knopf, 1984, still available). When it comes to uncommon common sense this book is simply better than anything that has been written, or is likely to be written, about management. People gobbled up the first version of this (Up the Organization) when it appeared in 1970. We were amused, but seldom moved to action. Then all of Townsend’s nightmares came true. Businesses’ Mr. T. is not only blunt, he’s also painfully and embarrassingly right. Hats off to business’s all-time philosopher/humanist/son-of-a-bitch.

My apologies to friends and enemies alike, who have been left out by omission or commission. To the reader, I think I can guarantee that you won’t go wrong with this list.

(c) TPG Communications.

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