TOP 10 BUSINESS BOOKS OF 1996

This is a dark time for management. Our best thinkers are now witch doctors dealing in voodoo hoodoo. Polls inside companies and communities show plunging regard for leadership.

With about 1,600 books on business and organizational topics currently vying for attention, finding the top 10 is no easy task.However, John Kotter's take-heart testimony that leading change is both doable and learnable deserves recognition as the best business writing of 1996.

Silver goes to John G. Sifonis and Beverly Goldberg. Their call for a combination of governance-technology-leadership was provocative.

Bronze goes to Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, whose mix of photos and reflections on simpler ways to achieve better organizations and lives stirs new hopes.

Dark times? Read these 10 best and decide:

* ''Leading Change'' by Mr. Kotter, published by the Harvard Business School Press. Mr. Kotter has been a calm, clear voice of wisdom about leadership for years. When speaking, his tone is rational, his demeanor no-nonsense. His six prior best-sellers demonstrate that this professor from Harvard Business School always has the research to back up his assertions. This thinker does his homework.

But his new book is special. In a bold style of writing, he rails against the ''waste and anguish'' of many organizational-change efforts. He talks of real change, not quick fixes.

Mr. Kotter's eight points for change roll out of this slim book like the collected wisdom of someone who has traveled widely, thought hard and now is willing to speak bluntly about leaders generating both positive and enduring change.

Mr. Kotter says good leaders establish urgency, create an internal coalition of change-inclined people and then bond the group with a shared vision and strategy. They go on to campaign for change, giving power to others to manage the details. These leaders capitalize on numerous short-term ''wins'' to create a sense of momentum.

The leaders whom Mr. Kotter respects ''anchor'' better ways of doing business deep into the culture of the organization.

* ''Corporation on a Tightrope'' by John G. Sifonis and Beverly Goldberg (Oxford University Press).

The writers present a strong case for corporate excellence in governance, technology and leadership. The authors define the 21st century standards for managerial performance. It is elevating.

* ''A Simpler Way'' by Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers (Berrett-Koehler).

The authors share a profound dissatisfaction with the organizational status quo. We must emulate the simplicity of nature to rebuild our organizations and people. The volume has stunning photographs, but can best be described as gnomic.

* ''Aiming Higher'' by David Bollier for The Business Enterprise Trust (Amacom).

No book has ever argued better that business should be more, much more, than just exchanging goods and services for money. The examples and studies show you can aim higher and succeed. It is uplifting.

* ''Redefining Corporate Soul'' by Allan Cox with Julie Liesse (Irwin).

Given one of the most difficult business subjects, Mr. Cox takes ''soul'' and makes it easy to understand, appreciate and apply. In today's arid corporate world, drink heartily from this book. It's refreshing.

* ''Value Migration'' by Adrian J. Slywotzky (Harvard Business School Press).

The author shows forcefully how companies can be blind to new products or services threatening their very existence. Mr. Slywotzky wants you to be alert, to change and to grow. Expanding.

* ''Co-opetition'' by Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff (Currency Doubleday).

If business is a game, these authors argue that the basic rules of being in business are under revision. Competition and cooperation will merge, creating a better business environment for all. A book best described as ''unifying.''

* ''America's Best'' by Theodore B. Kinni (Wiley).

IndustryWeek's John Sheridan started its best-plants awards in 1990; Mr. Kinni has distilled the wisdom of 62 winning manufacturing management teams into a blockbuster seminar-in-print. It is revelatory.

* ''Synchronicity'' by Joseph Jaworski (Berrett-Koehler).

No other book is like this one. Its gripping life stories punctuate a how-to on managing toward ''predictable miracles'' by exploring your ''cubic centimeters of chance.'' What a wake-up call!

* ''The Last Word on Power'' by Tracy Goss (Currency Doubleday).

She observes, significantly, that no great change can happen in the organizational world unless its leaders personally change. Transformation starts with the letter ''you.'' Courageous.

Special mention goes to ''Teaching the New Basic Skills'' by Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy (Free Press).

In our emerging economy, it's our children who must learn to thrive in new ways. So what did they learn in school today? Not enough and not the right stuff, say the authors. Yes!

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