For the last several years Adm. James Stavridis and his co-author, R. Manning Ancell, have surveyed over two hundred active and retired four-star military officers about their reading habits and favorite books, asking each for a list of titles that strongly influenced their leadership skills and provided them with special insights that helped propel them to success in spite of the many demanding challenges they faced. The Leader’s Bookshelf synthesizes their responses to identify the top fifty books that can help virtually anyone become a better leader.
Each of the works—novels, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, management publications—are summarized and the key leadership lessons extracted and presented. Whether individuals work their way through the entire list and read each book cover to cover, or read the summaries provided to determine which appeal to them most, The Leader’s Bookshelf will provide a roadmap to better leadership.
Highlighting the value of reading in both a philosophical and a practical sense, The Leader’s Bookshelf provides sound advice on how to build an extensive library, lists other books worth reading to improve leadership skills, and analyzes how leaders use what they read to achieve their goals. An efficient way to sample some of literature’s greatest works and to determine which ones can help individuals climb the ladder of success, The Leader’s Bookshelf is for anyone who wants to improve his or her ability to lead—whether in family life, professional endeavors, or within society and civic organizations.
What is the backstory behind “The Leader’s Bookshelf”?
I wrote The Leader’s Bookshelf so that busy people would have a resource available to recommend 50 terrific leadership books. Since not everyone has time to read 50 books, I included a synopsis of each one and drew out the specific leadership lessons. I think of it literally like a shelf of terrific books, and each of them is recommended by a senior military officer so it is perfect for military readers.
How has writing “The Leader’s Bookshelf” made you a better thinker and better person?
Writing The Leader’s Bookshelf helped crystalize for me the power of reading to become a better leader – especially reading novels. Fiction is a kind of simulator in which a leader can place himself or herself and think through what they would do in a truly demanding situation.
I’m not in the Military, I don’t have any life-threatening challenges, and I don’t even know anyone in the military. I’m just an average dad who lives and works in the suburbs, how would this book benefit me and what could I learn from it?
All of us face leadership challenges in our lives, from helping our family to work together better to dealing with our jobs, to understanding inequality and justice in our society. Some of the books in The Leader’s Bookshelf include A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain which is about innovation; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee about a young woman’s coming of age in a racially troubled town in the south; and Killer Angels by Michael Shaara about the battle of Gettysburg on the surface, but really about differing styles of leadership in crisis. There is so much to learn from each of the books on this list, and in The Leader’s Bookshelf, we draw those lessons in crisp, clear ways that are not “military” at all.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
I would hope that a Junior Officer would come away with a sense of wonder at all the marvelous books out there that could help them on the voyage of leadership. They would understand that good leaders are good readers. And finally, that the most cost-effective way to improve as a leader is to open a good book.
What advice would you have for a mid-career military officer who is considering writing a book?
Start small by getting a few blog posts or articles published in professional journals and websites; always write about what you actually know about or have experienced; talk to other military officers who have written books; engage with a publisher that truly understands the military, like the Naval Institute Press; and be prepared to have your manuscript criticized and rejected before it ultimately is accepted for publication.
What are you reading now?
A book about Winston Churchill called, The Splendid and the Vile about resilience and how he managed to inspire Britain to fight the Nazis and not capitulate. It is by Erik Larsen (who also wrote Dead Wake about the sinking of the Lusitania and In the Garden of Beasts about Berlin just before World War II) and is a terrific read full of leadership lessons.
What would you recommend to a new Private or 2nd LT who is interested in one day writing about leadership?
Try My Early Life by Winston Churchill, an autobiography of the first thirty years of his life — essentially his job experience. He was fearless in battle, a fine writer, and in this particular book doesn’t take himself overly seriously. It is a terrific read.
Can you tell me about a failure, and how you learned through that failure and became better individual?
When I was in the mid-thirties and a new commander, I was made captain of a destroyer for the first time. We had many successes, but many failures as well – including failing a premier engineering inspection. I thought I’d get fired and my career would be over, but the commodore gave me a second chance, my crew had my back, and my peers – the other captains on the waterfront – all pitched in to help us. It was a powerful life lesson in second chances, why your peers matter so much, and how in the end it is your crew that will decide your fate.
What is next for you?
I did 37 years in the military and ended up as supreme allied commander of NATO. After that, I wanted to be involved in education and became the dean of a graduate school. Now I am fascinated by international finance and how the engine of growth is in small-to-medium-sized companies here in the United States, so I’m involved in private equity. Next up I might like to compete to run a big university or go back into government with the next administration, hopefully in a senior civilian position. For me, I love serving, I like to try new things, and I will always work – think of your life as a series of books on a shelf, and each volume will be different and hopefully interesting, with some successes and some failures along the way. Reading good books helps!
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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 the 12th dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He holds a PhD in international relations and was Chairman of the Board of the US Naval Institute. He is currently an Operating Executive with the Carlyle Group; and Chair, Board of Counselors for McLarty Associates. 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 The Leader’s Bookshelf and Destroyer Captain.
Reach Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret). Here