On The Foolishness of Worst Business Book Lists

A tragic thing happens in the corporate world as executives move up the ladder: they learn more and gain experience. It happens to people at the C-level, the chief executive officers, chief operating officers, and other chief whatevers.

Now, you might say, why in the world is this a tragedy? Isn’t that exactly what you want: experienced knowledgeable executives at the top levels?

Of course it is.

The tragedy arises when chief executives and other top executives learn so much, that they stop being able to identify with others still coming up the ranks, who have lesser experience and are still learning. They get arrogant and disdainful toward those who are still learning. It’s tragic because they have a tragic flaw like the heroes in Greek plays.

These flawed executives weren’t pushed out of the womb knowing EBITDA or lean manufacturing or sales forecasting. They too were once clueless about such concepts and had to learn. Somehow, though, they forget what it was like not to have business knowledge they now take for granted.

So what does all this have to do with small business?

When I see articles like this one, it makes me realize that some people just don’t understand what it is like to be in the shoes of an entrepreneur trying to get ahead, or a small business owner who does not have 30 years of corporate experience and has not attended expensive seminars and conferences.

The article makes fun of some of the business books on the market, calling them the worst 6 business books.

What I found most objectionable about the article is the way it implies that basic introductory concepts are something to be made fun of.

It would be one thing if the article complained about pseudo-science or faddish management concepts, and the writer had put worthy effort into actually reading a book cover-to-cover, done some independent research, and debunked it because it was flat out wrong. It’s another to glance at a chapter heading and take pot shots simply because the book is presenting basic concepts the writer already knows, but millions of others may not. We’re not all 55-year old CEOs who’ve “been there, done that.”

What’s more, even if we have decades of experience, we always can find something new to learn. That’s especially true for small business owners and managers. We have to wear multiple hats, meaning that we have to do hands-on work in areas like sales, marketing, finance, information technology and accounting. Unlike C-level executives, we don’t always have the luxury of staff who are functional experts. We have to learn this stuff — and learn it on our own. Where do we turn to learn? Often it is to books.

For anyone in these shoes — and I have been there — you need broad basic lessons, not advanced ones, to start out. Then as you master the basic concepts, you move on to books that are more advanced. That’s how people learn — it’s certainly how I learn.

The other thing to remember is that from an author’s standpoint it’s a true skill to be able to convey business concepts simply and understandably. The brainier you are, the harder it is to communicate so that people actually know what you are talking about. To understand how true this is, just think back to an indecipherable CEO letter or corporate report or technology product brochure you may have read. Hoo-rah for authors who can distill business concepts down into simple messages.

By the way, I have not authored any books myself. Nor do I have a personal stake in any of the books mentioned in the article. And like everyone else, I’ve read my share of crappy business books. But — I’ve also read excellent, although basic, books. Some of the most basic books have taught me what I needed to know to get to the next level of knowledge and the next level in my career.

Some of those books I read years ago seem simplistic when I review them today. I am far beyond the point where they have new lessons to offer me personally. But thank goodness for those books getting me to the level of knowledge I have today. They were worth the price.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

12 Reactions
  1. Haven’t seen so many “me too” comments like that in a long time. 🙂

    I guess they’re just pandering to their audience. That audience: the biggest bunch of snickering, stuck-up business elitists I’ve seen in a long while.

    What’s surprising is how they don’t get it in a marketing sense. These books are not for everybody. It’s called a niche market.

    Just because it’s not to there liking doesn’t mean it won’t work for others … and sell. You’d expect these bunch of “business experts” to at least know that.

  2. Amen.

    Thanks for saying what I was thinking.

    Authors are in a difficult position. They need to make certain their book is appealing to everyone in their market niche. Sometimes that means covering what many people believe are “the basics”.

    I look at it this way: A book author is like our guide when we climb a mountain. As we begin our climb we need to walk up the slope that leads to the steep parts of the mountain. We don’t just show up on the sheer cliffs that require us to climb vertically. A good business book must cover necessary basic topics before it moves on to more advanced material.

    Good books – like most things in life – are a matter of taste.

  3. The Journal Blogger

    You go, girl!

    You know, there’s a reason why all the advanced courses in any collage or university catalog have *prerequisites* attached to them. From our earliest experiences in kindergarten and first grade, life teaches that learning is incremental.

    It doesn’t make sense to try to teach anybody trig when they don’t know yet that seven times nine equals sixty-three.

    Given the large number of people without any form of business background starting microbusinesses these days, thank goodness for those basics books — and never mind what the business snobs think about them!

  4. Well, based on the performance of many corporations, a lot of those “been there, done that” CEOs need to go back there again and do it again. Little things like fiscal responsibility and listening to customers – while basic – are all too often forgotten in the ego dances and dollar chasing.

    I’ve read a ton of “basics” books – and guess what? I still keep them handy. Always good to have a refresher and get the synapses firing a different way.

  5. Well said Anita.

    When I think of “C-Level” executives (present company excluded) the phrase: “Cluster f@#k” is most fitting.

    When I was a young man (who also held equity in my employers’ business), I often surfed the racks of book stores for business “How-To” books. I found them interesting and worthwhile.

    As a seasoned business owner who also holds advanced degrees in finance, I cannot minimize the positive role these titles play in the pursuit of learning and wealth maximazastion.

    With respect to your editorial sword…take no prisoners

  6. Anita: Thank you for this very thought provoking post!

    I had seen the original article at chiefexecutive.net and then read a few blog posts that joined in the fun. After reading the article, subsequent comments, and miscellaneous blog posts, I will readily admit that I was cycling through the various business books I had “wasted” money on in the past.

    There was a point in my professional life that I had little to no business knowledge or experience (not that I’ve made any great leaps and bounds since then…ha!). With no mentors to hound, little work experience to learn from, or business education to use, my wife and I founded our first business together…with the critical help of many, many business books. I devoured everything in sight from various “Dummies” titles to more specific books from NOLO press. I also started reading a lot of business magazines and as many internet sites I could find with useful information.

    Our business (which has been profitable since it was founded and is still running) would never have made it off the ground without the information we gleaned from the various resources I mentioned. However, while thinking over the chiefexecutive.net article, many of the books that helped my wife and I get our start came to mind.

    Thank you for reminding me that I owe a lot of my success to some of the “dumbest” business books out there.


    Peter Begley

  7. When I hear of the comments made by those like you mention, I think of Warren Buffett’s response to this question:

    “If higher math is not important in selecting stocks, why are academic and professional journals dense with quantitative analysis?”

    Buffett replied:

    “Every priesthood does it. How could you be on top if there is no one on the bottom?”

    This is what many of those that mock simplicity think of themselves as – elitist, it troubles them that information gets out that the “prieshood” doesn’t get credit for.

    I also remember when Sam Walton would laugh when he would just do his small-town way of living and doing things, and he would find it on the cover of the Wall Street Journal as if he had sat in a session with hired marketers and went over ways to do that type of thing for the purpose of exposure.

    He always thought it humorous that it would become a story.

    They tried to make him a “priest” and he was always just a layman.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Regular readers of this blog know that I almost never rant about anything.

    But in the case of the Chief Executive article, it just struck me as such a cheap shot against worthy books, that I knew I had to speak out.

    — Anita

    PS, Answers.com defines “cheap shot” as “An unfair or unsporting verbal attack on a vulnerable target” and that’s exactly how the Chief Executive article came across.

  9. Well said. I still rate my 200-level marketing book by Henry Assael as one of the best, even though I know the concepts within it now. And I’d continue to happily recommend it to others. There is room for basic books—indeed, any book that shares knowledge that contribute positively to this world.

  10. Hi Anita: I’ve just checked the list and there are a few I would not recommend based on their Amazon summaries alone. While I agree with your point, the author does make some valid statements. I, too, would stay away from books that seem self-promotional and have an exclamation marks, mainly because I have to wonder about their integrity. However, a couple of the “worst” books there do intrigue me, the third one most of all. My point is that there are good introductory books (like the one I mentioned above) and bad ones—and I would hope that Mr Holstein examined those six carefully before making his judgements.