Book club: old books, new business lessons

Hannah Langworth reveals what you can learn about commerce from two time-tested classics

Successful businesspeople, you might be surprised to hear, don't always turn to the latest chief executive memoir or business professor theory for corporate insights and career inspiration.

Some look further afield - in time and space - to books that have proved their worth over centuries and in a huge variety of different circumstances.

Here we introduce two of these works and explain what you could learn from them.

The Prince (Il Principe)

by Niccolò Machiavelli

Who wrote it, when and why?

The Prince was written in early sixteenth century Italy by Florentine diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli and takes the form of a manual for rulers.

What does it cover?

The book is mainly concerned with conquest and government, and covers military strategy, how to govern states after you've conquered them, how to choose your assistants, how to keep the loyalty of the people, how to avoid rebellions, and much more.

The book is famed for its honest, calculating and somewhat ruthless approach - for example, Machiavelli says, "It is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both" - which some have seen as amoral and others as simply practical.

What can you learn from it today?

As you might imagine, The Prince is a rich resource for corporate titans running business empires, but there's also some useful tips for those still working their way to the top.

For example, Machiavelli suggests you "follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been outstanding".

If you have to struggle hard to establish a position, don't worry, because you'll have earned respect along the way and will be able to hold it once achieved "with ease", unlike someone who's been handed success on a plate.

He also suggests that you should "never let [your] thoughts stray from military exercises, which [you] must pursue more vigorously in peace than in war" - a sage warning in today's professional landscape too where, as in Renaissance Italy, current turbulence and plenty of competition mean that it's not a good idea to get too comfortable in any particular situation.

Who rates it?

The Prince has been on the bedside table of countless ambitious rulers, politicians and businesspeople since it was published, and summaries of its lessons regularly crop up in the business press.

Key quote

"How we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation."

The Art of War

by Sun Tzu

Who wrote it, when and why?

No-one is exactly sure who "Sun Tzu" is or when he wrote his work, but the current best guess is someone living during the Warring States period of Chinese history - 403-221 BC.

It's a practical guide to waging war for a time of great conflict in China, but can also be read as a work of philosophy with broader applications.

What does it cover?

The work is relatively short, but runs through key topics of military strategy, like how to choose where and when to attack, and how to manage your troops.

There are also essays on more specialist topics like the use of fire in warfare and the importance of spies.

On top of that, there are thoughts about war in general - for example, "What is valued in war is victory, not prolonged operations. And the general who understands how to employ troops is the minister of the people's fate and arbiter of the nation's destiny."

What can you learn from it today?

The work contains many statements that, once you start to think about them, are useful in many contexts, not just military ones.

The business world, which is sometimes a bit of a battlefield anyway, has seized on maxims like "Management of a large force is the same as management of a few men - a matter of organisation".

There are also helpful thoughts for those just starting out on the field of corporate combat - for example, "To win battles and take your objectives but fail to consolidate your objectives is ominous and may be described as a waste of time" or "One should always respond to circumstance in an infinite variety of ways."

Who rates it?

The Art of War has been referred to by Asia military commanders for centuries, including Japanese warlords and Vietcong officers and is required reading for US Marines and CIA officers.

It's widely read in the business world, by everyone from corporate lawyers to chief executives.

Key quote

"Know the enemy and know yourself and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated."