Saturday, October 14, 2017

Leaders are Readers

The Leader’s Bookshelf, edited by Adm. James Stavridis USN (Ret.) and R. Manning Ancell, Naval Institute Press, 2017. Here are clear and compelling summaries of 50 books recommended by senior generals and admirals. Each review encapsulates the work, explaining its importance, providing a salient quote, and delivering at least one of the leadership lessons within. Often the lead paragraph is a personal statement from the general officer about how the book came to be important to him or her.
Greet every new acquaintance with
"What are you reading?"

Of course, most are about war. During the 650-mile sprint from Kuwait to Baghdad–almost as long as the grinding battle from Normandy to Berlin–the American commanders, Gen. John Kelly, Gen. Jim Mattis, and Gen. Al Gray agreed that it felt like déjà vu because of the many reflective and consequential books they had read, such as The Killer Angels (set at Gettysburg), and Good-bye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester.

But other kinds of books are here, also: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal); The Foundation Trilogy (recommended by Gen. John P. Abizaid); and To Kill a Mockingbird (recommended by Gen. Dan K. McNeill). They all offer lessons in leadership and lessons in life. Those lessons include what not to do, as told by C. S. Forester in The General (recommended by Gen. John F. Kelly).

While mostly the advice of senior leaders, this collection includes a brief chapter of recommendations from junior officers. They are the future. Atlas Shrugged was one of those, and it is clear from the terse and misinformed blurb that the editors do not like it. They cannot reconcile the self-interested ethics of the merchant with the way of the warrior. (See “Choose Your Virtues” here and “Shifting the Paradigm of Private Security” here.) Other books recommended by those on the rise include six from the shelves of the top ranks: The Centurions, Gates of Fire, The Killer Angels, Master and Commander, Once an Eagle and The Art of War. New perspectives include Cyberwar and Cybersecurity by Peter Singer, The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (reviewed here), On China by Henry Kissinger, and Heinlein’s Starship TroopersThat chapter is amid four others with heartfelt insightful advice on books, reading, writing, and publishing. 

Book lists are not arbitrary. Those who build them for the military are thinking deeply, long, and hard, about the survivability, sustainability, and evolution of their commands. Iconic among them is the Commandant’s Reading List first compiled for the USMC by Gen. Alfred M. Gray, Jr. (The current list is at the Library of the Marine Corps Research Portal.) It is arranged for enlisted, senior enlisted, officers, and senior officers, and rated for each by difficulty from entry level through senior.

Admiral Stavridis has many good words for the Proceedings magazine of the U. S. Naval Institute, a civilian organization that has supported America’s waterborne warriors since 1873. Most of the articles are analytical essays and investigations by staff officers, but they also encourage writings from the ranks with regular columns such as “No One Asked Me, But…” and “From the Deckplates.” (Other services have similar civilian support organizations. See Army magazine here.) These auxilliaries also deliver online content, of course. 

Adm. Stavridis acknowledges the online world, but still advocates for books. And he tells of generals from Caesar and Napoleon to Patton and Mattis who carried their libraries into the field. Of course, it is easier when you can order your army to carry your books for you. It’s a bit harder when you wear a couple of stripes and shoulder your own duffel. Still, even if you can pack only a few, Adm. Stavridis tells of commanders who returned to their favorites often as they rose through the ranks. Choose well and you will be rewarded.


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