What Are Young Leaders Reading?

By Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired)

But listening only to the voices of the most senior officers does not give a full picture of what books shape leaders. Every day, young women and men in their very early 20s embark on leadership roles throughout the armed forces. Newly commissioned ensigns and second lieutenants take charge early and often, standing in front of their division or platoon or on the deck of a small craft, and actively exercise leadership at the deckplate level. Many of them are surprisingly prolific readers, honing their skills not only through the deckplate advice of their chain of command and by experiencing the challenges firsthand in real time, but also through reading and learning about leadership situations. What books are they reading? And how do they choose them? When do they find time to read? There are profoundly important recommendations and ideas in the voices of these junior officers.

To gain their input, we have turned to a handful of senior mentors who are in touch with large numbers of junior officers through their work and personal lives. These include Captain Fred Kacher, who leads a U.S. Naval Institute “young leaders” group, many of whom routinely exchange their ideas about reading and leading. Another is Ryan Evans, who runs a popular site focused on security, “War on the Rocks,” and is a champion of young voices in publishing and dialogue generally. A third is longtime journalist and former Proceedings editor-in-chief Fred Rainbow. And I myself am in constant touch with many junior officers I have mentored over the years.

In putting this together, we have polled officers from a wide variety of backgrounds—all of the five services are represented, as are the service academies and other commissioning sources. Jet and helicopter pilots, ship and submarine drivers, and infantry officers and other ground-combat arms all weighed in. Lots of combat experience here, of course, given the experiences of the past ten years for the U.S. armed forces. The ages of those surveyed run from early 20s to early 30s, and include some very career-oriented leaders and some who cannot wait to complete their commitments and head off to the civilian world.

What they all have in common is a desire to read and to be good leaders. And generally they recognize that while leadership is not something you will learn exclusively from reading books, reading can energize and act as a sort of “force multiplier” to add alongside the experiences, lessons, and advice from mentors, classes, and other sources of inspiration to be a better leader. This particular group has strong opinions, and you can hear them on a wide variety of websites that are aimed at this group, as well as finding their occasional articles in the various journals of the profession of arms, including of course Proceedings .

We asked them collectively to provide a sense of books that they regarded as “classics,” i.e., that they had read at some point in their lives (even as youths) but were seminal in shaping their worldview and especially their sense of how to lead. A second question we put to them them was about the books they had read in the past year that particularly impressed them and enhanced their understanding of the wider world and how leaders shape it. The response was very strong, and it included a wide selection of viewpoints. In the following material, we try to capture the spirit of a significant batch of responses, giving emphasis to books that were repeatedly named as well as identifying some outlier choices.

None of this represents a comprehensive or scientific survey. It is not driven by a detailed or even a uniform format of questions, but rather an open-ended set of queries to a broad group of interested and engaged junior officers. While their time in leadership roles does not compare to the admirals and generals whose views and recommendations form the basis of The Leader’s Bookshelf , they add a powerful set of opinions to the mix.

Finally, it is fascinating and worth noting how few book recommendations overlap between the most senior officers and the most junior. Of all the metrics we could use to measure whether we were offering up the right set of books, perhaps this is the one that gives us the most confidence that our effort is a worthy one, producing as it has a full shelf of not only the 50 books the most senior and accomplished leaders recommend, but a nice group that comes from very junior officers at the heart of the leadership challenges in today’s turbulent world as well. The scope and span of the two lists together is heartening.

Combat Leadership

At the top of the queue for many junior officers are timeless classics reflecting the dynamic challenge of leadership under stress and crisis. This type of reading and leading is fundamental not only to the military, but in the worlds of business, finance, law, international relations and diplomacy, negotiation, and any other high-stress/fast-paced endeavor. So it is not surprising to see the following books on the junior officer list, all of which, interestingly, are novels:

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy is a searing novel that poses the deepest moral questions about how to fight and lead in the post-heroic age. Set in the colonial battlefields of post–World War II France, Vietnam, and Algeria, it allows a young leader to think about the moral and ethical questions at the heart of combat.

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield tells the story of the handful of Spartan warriors who hold out for crucial days against the vastly larger Persian forces and help save Greek civilization. It is full of the lessons of personal leadership in combat, personified by the Spartan King Leonides, who inspires, goads, pushes, and loves his men throughout their epic and ultimately tragic battle.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, brilliantly tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of the commanders from the North and the South. By contrasting the styles of leadership on the battlefield, the reader can consider the variety of styles and personalities that can make for successful leadership.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian is the first of a 20-volume series of sea novels about Captain Jack Aubrey, a late-18th- and early 19th-century Royal Navy officer. In the course of following Aubrey’s career throughout the Napoleonic Wars, O’Brian gives us countless timeless lessons in how a leader inspires loyalty and performance through equal measures of discipline and respect.

Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer is a classic Army story of the rise of two very different officers—one a polished, ambitious staff superstar and the other a mud-on-his boots true warrior. This is a book read by virtually every officer in the U.S. Army, and its portraits of the two leading characters have had a profound cultural effect on Army leadership styles for decades.

Memoir

Another popular category among junior officers is that of memoir. Here, as you would expect, there is less of a tendency to reach back into the more distant past, but rather a desire to read inside accounts of recent events:

Duty by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is a hard book to read in that it is a harshly realistic view of the twisted environment of Washington, D.C., during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The consummate professional, Secretary Gates stayed at his post across Republican and Democratic administrations, and always believed in his troops.

The Accidental Admiral by Admiral James Stavridis is often cited for honesty and sweep of topic—obviously a gratifying reaction for me personally. There are chapters on leadership, strategic communications, smart power, threat convergence, strategic planning, and the story of NATO operations in Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, Iraq, and at sea on counterpiracy missions.

Four Weeks in May by Captain David Hart Dyke is a very personal memoir from the captain of HMS Coventry , which was sunk during the Falklands War in the spring of 1982. His leadership in the most trying conditions a sea captain can face—the sinking of a ship and the deaths of many in the crew—is invaluable and resonates with junior officers.

It Worked for Me by Secretary of State and General Colin Powell is a collection of stories, tricks of the trade, and leadership tips by the most accomplished military officer of his generation. General Powell served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as National Security Advisor and ultimately as Secretary of State, and his storytelling is superb.

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by James Stockdale relates the story of more than seven brutal years Vice Admiral (then Captain) Stockdale spent as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. Of especial note is the way he weaves his study of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers (especially the stoics like Epictetus) into his leadership approach. Recounting the experiences of one of the most senior officers in captivity, this memoir is also a case study in leadership in a crisis situation.

History

In terms of history, the junior officers tended toward books about the history, context, and background needed to understand war, especially the wars they have themselves fought, or perhaps those they expect to fight in the future:

Invisible Wars by Max Boot recounts the long history of special operations, and it sheds considerable light on how these night warriors have evolved from a culture that is over 2,000 years in the making—much of it driven by personal leadership.

The Twilight War by David Crist is the story of the 30-year undeclared war between the United States and Iran. Using a wide variety of previously unavailable sources, Crist unpackages a story that might be crucial for junior officers to understand if our differences do flare up into war, even given the possibilities for peace opened (just a crack) by the nuclear agreement.

The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon tells the reader the inside story of the Battle of Jutland in World War I. The failures of command-and-control as well as the insidious results of decades of peacetime operations by the Royal Navy came home to roost in a failure of leadership at the highest levels. The book is a fascinating choice by junior officers, and one that has enormous resonance today.

Six Frigates by Ian Toll is a long love sonnet to the six original frigates of the U.S. Navy, only one of which survives to this day as the oldest commissioned warship in the world actually afloat: the USS Constitution . The story of their design, funding, construction, and seagoing operations is a powerful set of lessons for any leader.

Practical Tools

This generation of junior officers is pragmatic and focused on practical tools they can use. Theory seems of less interest to them, reflecting their backgrounds as millennials and Generation X leaders. Thus the “leadership” books they reach for are full of concrete suggestions for improving themselves as leaders and as people. Among them:

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith provides tips and advice from a famous executive coach on how to lead your way to the very top.

The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (Chairman of the Board and head of Google Ideas at Google, respectively) is about the rapid, accelerating change brought about by the fusion of information technology, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and the Internet—and how leaders can best adapt its power to motivate and inspire.

Going Big by Getting Small by U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Brian Petit explains how special-operations teams can lead in the operational space between strategy and tactics in places like Colombia, Yemen, and Indonesia, creating real effect through dynamic, on-the-ground leadership with small teams.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman helps leaders tap into their intuitive, quick-thinking brain as well as the slower, more contemplative processes. Essentially a book about how we think and what we can do to optimize our thought process, this is a focused tool for developing leadership skills.

Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal draws on the general’s deep experience with special-operations teams in changing outcomes in large, complex organizations and systems. Most importantly, he shows how such an approach can succeed in any setting.

The Road to Character by David Brooks contrasts the balance between our “eulogy values” of goodness, honesty, character, and selflessness against our “résumé values” of accomplishment, rank, reputation, and achievement. Good leaders know they have to do both, and the ability to balance between them in a world that seems to overvalue the “résumé values” is a true challenge.

Classics

Despite all of the focus on relatively recent books, modern wars, and well-known current figures, the junior officers cited three truly classic works, one of philosophy, one of history, and one of strategy:

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius outlines how we should all live our lives through harnessing stoicism, honesty, and the best we can offer.

The History of the Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides tells the story of the great conflict between two rival systems of city-states in Greece, led by Athens and Sparta. One of the earliest and best descriptions of political power and geostrategic thinking, the book is often taught in the nation’s war colleges.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is of course a staple of every war college curriculum. What is interesting is that very young leaders are immersed in this work from the 5th century B.C. Divided into 13 chapters, it runs the gamut of tactics, operational art, strategy, and grand strategy in clear and lucid prose.

International Relations

Books that explain the world are naturally popular among junior officers, who will seek to adapt their leadership style to the world that they expect to encounter. No surprise that this trio of geopolitical experts appear on several of the junior officer lists: Kaplan, Kissinger, and Friedman:

Asia’s Cauldron by Robert Kaplan describes the history and current tensions that surround the South China Sea.

World Order by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger draws on well over half a century of personal experience at the highest levels of academe, government, and business to describe the condition of today’s world.

On China, also by Henry Kissinger, is a sweeping story of more than two millennia of Chinese history and helps the junior officer understand the impact of culture, literature, and history on how a leader governs an enormous and complex society.

The Next Hundred Years by George Friedman reads like a gripping novel, but is in fact a very realistic set of predictions about the century ahead—some of which are already coming to pass.

Wars to Come

Over time, as in every other era, the tools of war will morph, and new ways both to attack and defend will emerge. It is only natural that junior officers will look ahead to those challenges, and two books that were often cited in that regard are a bit of a matched pair:

Ghost Fleet by Peter Singer and August Cole is a novel about a war between the United States on one side and an alliance of China and Russia on the other. It begins with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor using a great deal of emerging technology for warfare, all of it set a decade from now in 2025.

Cyberwar and Cyber Security: What Everyone Needs to Know by Peter Singer is a complement to Ghost Fleet except it is nonfiction. But taken together, the two books provide a chilling outline of where conflict is headed and have great appeal to junior officers.

Quirky Outliers

Several books, mentioned by one or more of the junior officers, do not fit logically in any category, but are fascinating choices. As you would expect, all are works of fiction, and each is quirky in some fundamental way. We offer them as examples of books that are distinctly outside the norm of reading by many, and which therefore may be all the more valuable to those in uniform today who seek a fresh insight or viewpoint:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is a long and highly engaging meditation on the importance of entertainment in our lives, set in an addict’s halfway house and a tennis academy. It is an utterly fresh portrait of today’s America, written by a gifted author who committed suicide at the peak of his career.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is a classic American novel about individualism, the power of society, and the determination of self-selected leaders. Complex and difficult in places, it is in many ways the first postmodern novel.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein is set in the future, with the Earth under attack from a species of large insects with advanced technology. In describing the training of the starship troopers, Heinlein gives us a vivid portrait of battlefield leadership and military preparation in a vivid, dramatic storytelling format that has high appeal to many junior officers.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is a tale of anarchism, terrorism, and espionage set largely in the United Kingdom in the late 19th century. Written by the brilliant seafaring author Joseph Conrad, it is an example of his later writing, which branched into the political. Superbly plotted, it provides ample lessons in leading through complex missions even at a very junior level.

Overall, it is interesting to note that there is only a 10 percent overlap—quite small—between the thoughts and preferences of very senior leaders in Chapter 4 of The Leader’s Bookshelf and the very young leaders represented here. This makes general sense, given age and demographics; but it also reflects the time more senior leaders have spent honing the craft of leadership in real-world situations. As a result, they are more likely to pick books of history, memoir, and politics; and the touchstones to which they look tend to be older figures in history.

So vive la différence; yet the common threads in the commentary from both groups is quite striking: a sense that history matters most, however it is received (fiction, memoir, classic historical study, etc.); that novels can provide excellent insights, especially into character; that memoir provides invaluable “inner dialogues” from leaders under stress and strain; and that some of the classics have a place on a leader’s bookshelf.

Clearly the overall lesson for any student of leadership seeking to build the right kind of bookshelf is to listen to some of these younger voices as well.


Admiral Stavridis served for seven years as a four-star admiral, including nearly four years as the first Navy officer chosen to be Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He is currently Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

 

 

Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) is a 1976 distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who spent over 35 years on active service in the Navy. He commanded destroyers and a carrier strike group in combat and served for seven years as a four-star admiral, including nearly four years as the first Navy officer chosen as Supreme Allied Commander for Global Operations at NATO. After retiring from the Navy he was named the dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 2013. In addition, he currently serves as the U.S. Naval Institute's Chair of the Board of Directors. He has written articles on global security issues for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Atlantic Magazine, Naval War College Review, and Proceedings and is the author or co-author of several books, including Command at Sea 6th Ed. and Destroyer Captain.

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