For decades, the U.S. Navy’s chief petty officer (CPO) mess has overcome generational and cultural obstacles en route to decisive military victories. Because chiefs understand leadership doesn’t happen only through salt and sweat, they often turn to the bookshelves. When 282 senior enlisted leaders were asked to name the books that helped them most in their careers—books they wish the entire mess would read—seven books stood out. For any sailor aspiring to join their ranks, it is never too soon to study these treasured favorites:
By Donald T. Phillips (Business Plus, 1993)
More than a third of those interviewed cited Lincoln not only as a must-read, but also as an enduring resource they reference daily. President Lincoln is arguably the most quotable leader in U.S. history, and senior enlisted leaders like to marinate in his profound one-liners, aiming for one small change at a time. Lincoln was famously a “down to earth” leader who knew his people—a quality all CPOs strive to master.
“We always encourage deckplate leadership, and I think Lincoln’s style captured in the book correlates with what we, as chiefs, pride ourselves on,” said Tom Gilham, command master chief at Electronic Attack Wing, Pacific.
By Dale Carnegie (Simon & Schuster, 1936)
Written in the 1930s, Carnegie’s book is a simple read that challenges the reader to take notes and implement new skills.
Retired Command Master Chief David Dearie noted, “It’s another book that looks at yourself first. I used this when I was on the USS Makin Island (LHD-8) with my mess, and I refer to it still.”
A New York Times best seller for almost a century and part of the Enlisted Leadership Foundation’s LPO Academy curriculum, How to Win Friends cites timeless personal examples and “sea stories” of how listening and awareness can improve one’s position and develop relationships. It is a perfect template for the chief, who must be a positive influence for subordinates while navigating the mess, the wardroom, and a dynamic technical arena.
By Simon Sinek (Penguin Group, 2009)
No effective leader ever said, “Do it because I said so.” Great leaders explain the “why.” Senior enlisted leaders have taken a lesson from Sinek’s examples of chief executives at companies such as Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and Apple—all which benefit from exceptional employee buy-in. For the chief to be effective, buy-in both up and down the chain is a necessity.
“Even SEALs need to be convinced of the ‘why,’” said Derrick Walters, fleet master chief at U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa. “Especially when it comes to doing the not-so-sexy things in our profession. You will always be challenged as a leader to get buy-in, regardless of community.”
By Admiral William H. McRaven, USN (Ret.) (Grand Central Publishing, 2007)
What began as McRaven’s commencement speech to the University of Texas has morphed into a best-selling book of guiding principles. Senior enlisted leaders raved about the book’s content; and at only 125 postcard-sized pages, the book is thinner than the lid on a chief’s coffee tumbler, which adds to its appeal.
“I have given copies of Make Your Bed to my sons and seven grandsons,” said retired Master Chief Petty Officer Duane Bushey. “I told them to read it, reread it, keep it for life, and read a section at times all through life.”
Make Your Bed is more a motivational book than a leadership lesson, but chiefs gravitate toward McRaven’s message. One hits especially close to the CPO mess: “Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. It will be painful. If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.”
By James Kerr (Constable, 2013)
New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team has won the World Championship 16 times and is widely considered to be the world’s most successful sports team. But readers don’t require any rugby knowledge to take wisdom from the book. Rather, Kerr details the team’s secrets for building a strong unit: “Training should be more difficult than the game. . . . Leaders do make leaders. . . . Battles are indeed won or lost outside of the actual competition.”
“It really looks at the importance to remain humble as a leader, and could be directly tied to the functions of a CPO mess,” said Chris Beck, command master chief at 22nd Naval Construction Regiment. “You will find that it reads like a playbook for the CPO mess, all the way down to our charge book,” said Jeff Hineman, command master chief on the USS Antietam (CG-54).
By John C. Maxwell (Harper Collins Leadership, 2007)
One of the few “pure” leadership books on this list, 21 Irrefutable Laws also is a popular teaching tool. For example, Comand Master Chief Rudy Johnson enjoyed the book so much, he adapted the laws to his own ship, the USS Wasp (LHD-1), and issued a new law every week after his check-in date. His CPO mess got onboard and began incorporating the laws into their CPO season.
“I asked them to implement the laws within their divisions, and of course put it in their toolboxes,” Johnson said. “I just try to pass on what I believe and hope that someone was listening and will pay it forward.”
Maxwell’s overarching mantra that leaders work for their people reverberates within the mess. “My last mess read it, and four of the eight precommissioning chiefs of the USS Montgomery (LCS-8) picked up senior chief,” said Michelle Hastings, command master chief at Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 79. “I’m not saying it was because we read a leadership book together, but I can say, we were the best damn CPO mess in the fleet, and that book surely didn’t hurt!”
By James D. Hornfischer (Bantam, 2011)
Senior enlisted leaders lauded Neptune’s Inferno for its sturdy trident of naval history, motivation, and “toughness” that some argue is lacking in today’s fleet.
“Take note on ‘toughness’ from Inferno,” said James Murphy, an intelligence specialist master chief at Carrier Strike Group 15. “Being resilient doesn’t save lives or ships. Toughness does.”
“It’s the best book I have read that motivated me to be a senior enlisted leader,” said Chris Stone, command master chief at 3rd Marine Division, Okinawa. “I have asked myself 100 times over what I would do if I were one of the senior enlisted for any of the great leaders during this timeframe.”
There is no single secret to leadership, but these seven books offer some good advice. “The one thing you need to know about leadership is that there’s more than one thing you need to know about leadership,” writes Maxwell.