It’s Time To Take a Fresh Look at Some Classics

Person reading in the foreground with old books in the background
October 5 , 2023  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Note: This is part of a series of reviews of classic books on business and leadership. 

If you buy into Sir Francis Bacon’s idea that “reading maketh a full man” (or woman), then the next logical question is, so what should we read? 

In the genres of business and leadership, hundreds of new books hit the market each year, but mixing in some of the classics brings context and deeper meaning to all that fresh thinking. So the editor of Walton Insights and I decided it might be fun and useful to periodically pick a book that’s considered a classic and provide a fresh review to see how it’s holding up.  

Think of these as “should I still read that?” articles. 

What does it take to be considered a classic? We could go strictly off sales, but, really, it’s a matter of opinion. A book, like a car or a movie or a song, is a classic when enough people say it’s a classic. For me, there are three key filters: One, it should have at least a decade of life in the market. Two, I should instantly think of it as a classic because it is so often referenced in that way. And three, it should be a book I personally think belongs on the list. Let’s call that the author’s exemption rule. 

I did some Googling, applied my three filters, and came up with dozens of books to consider for a fresh review. Then I narrowed it to books I’ve read (or mostly read), and eventually settle on these 10 (in no particular order):  

1. The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven Sample – This wasn’t on any other list I could find of classic books on leadership, but I loved it and think of it as a classic. Plus, newly installed Walton College Dean Brent Williams mentioned that it’s one of his favorite books. So there. 

2. The E Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber – This is a must-read for entrepreneurs and owners of small businesses.  I read the revised version before starting my personal business. (Side note: Mark Zweig’s Confessions of an Entrepreneur is another great read on this topic, but not yet old enough to be considered a classic.) 

3. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – This one was on pretty much every list I found, so it’s on mine, too. 

4. The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Steven Covey – Another regular when it comes to lists of must-read business books.

5. Good to Great by Jim Collins and Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras – These books are often quoted but they’ve been panned by some because so many built to last companies no longer are in business. Does that mean the principles were invalid or that the companies moved away from them?  

6. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni – The king of the business fiction and fables genre and a titan when it comes to business management and teams. 

7. Sam Walton: Made In America by Sam Walton – This one isn’t on many of the lists I saw, which just goes to show how flawed those lists can be. If I had to choose just one autobiography or biography to recommend to business students, I’d pick this over other greats like Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Amazon Unbound (Jeff Bezos) by Brad Stone, Iacocca by Lee Iacocca, or Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.   

8. Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne – Confession: I never finished this book. But I didn’t disqualify it because I have never personally found anyone who finished it. Its status as a classic has more to do with the power and truth of its main point, which can be summed up in a few sentences and is why I never read the whole book! 

9. Outliers and The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell – I like both of these books and haven’t yet decided which one I consider more of a classic, so that’s yet to be determined. Perhaps you can reach out or add a comment on LinkedIn as to which one (or both) we should review. 

10. Start with Why by Simon Sinek – Another book that achieved classic status due primarily to a simple and easy to acknowledge thesis. But maybe we missed something in the race to nod our heads in agreement. Perhaps we should start with the “why not?” 

I don’t know if I’ll review all 10 of these, but I’ll do as many as possible during the 2023-24 academic year. Which ones interest you most? What “classics” aren’t on my list that would have made yours? Let me know. My list is digital, so it’s not set in stone. 

Stephen CaldwellStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.