“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, learning from others who went before you, you are functionally illiterate – you can’t coach and you can’t lead. History lights the often dark path ahead; even if it’s a dim light, it’s better than none. If you can’t be additive as a leader, you’re just like a potted plant in the corner of a hotel lobby: you look pretty, but you’re not adding substance to the organization’s mission.” – Gen (Ret) James Mattis, 26th Secretary of Defense
So, you are just graduating from professional military education and want to spread the knowledge you gained from incorporating reading into your routine? Or, you are moving to a new unit, and want to help raise the professionalism in the unit. Whatever your reasons are, anyone in any unit can help put together a unit reading list and start a unit book club.
Putting Together a Unit Reading List (Allie)
We will start easy–a unit reading list. All senior leader and service reading lists are public (links at the bottom of this article). You can comb through them to pull titles applicable to your unit, geographical or topical area of focus, or service. We suggest a reading list broken down into topics such as leadership, history, counter-terrorism, strategic competition, innovation, and technology. As you pull titles, keep the source of the recommendation so everyone can see where you pulled it from when you crowdsource your list. Do not feel limited to service and senior leader reading lists. Amazon and the New York Times publish lists of bestsellers, and other organizations publish topical reading lists.
Find Your Audience
Next, find like-minded individuals with whom to socialize your list–these can be peers, subordinates, or leaders within your organization who are also passionate about reading and the value it brings to an organization. Think of this as the staff officer review. Take your list and send it around for others to offer input. On the off chance you have not read some books you have selected; others can vouch for them or recommend their removal from your list. This is where the source of the recommendation helps as well–others can see where you pulled your recommendations. We suggest using Google docs or another platform for multiple people to edit simultaneously so you do not struggle with version control. As others add suggestions, keep their unit position and name associated with the book.
Once you have a list that represents five to ten people, circulate it with your unit’s senior leaders. These can include a unit’s vice commander, executive officer, or the general officers/flag officers of a multi-star organization–your “C Suite.” Creating verbal buy-in before the E-Mail request helps to generate support. It also gives the leaders some time to think through their recommendations before you provide your proposed list and deadline. We recommend two weeks.
Submission for Approval
Finally, narrow the list down and submit it to your unit’s leader and senior enlisted leader with two options: 1) a “commander’s reading list” or 2) a unit reading list. Our biggest piece of advice is to keep the list manageable. We suggest only eight topics with two to four recommendations per topic. If you roll out your list at the beginning of the year, six topics with two recommendations per topic provide a book a month for unit members to read. If many people have submitted great recommendations, include alternates with your topics or a list of alternates at the end. Walk your leadership through your method: 1) pulling published reading lists, 2) getting unit member suggestions, and 3) integrating senior leader recommendations.
Once the reading list is approved, you can format it with the unit logo and print it in column form, so it looks like a bookmark. You can place copies at the entrance to your building, outside senior leader offices, on a SharePoint portal, and include them in unit welcome materials. The more tailored it is to the organization; the more inclined unit members are to read the books on the list. For example, many reading lists include “Once an Eagle” by Anton Myrer. A more specific recommendation would be “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific” by Robert Kaplan. Books on supply chain management apply to logistics units, while books on best safety practices are welcome in the aviation community.
Starting Your Own Book Club (Jamie)
Reading and Retaining
If reading is step one of the learning process, then retaining what you have read is step two–and arguably the most important step. This is where book clubs can be a decisive resource. Recently, a co-worker recommended a book she loved. After reading it, we discussed it for several months. We used lessons from the book and applied them to current events. We explained and understood things with the same vernacular because the book helped us develop a shared language. I have retained more from that book than from any other book I have read since high school.
Our discussions ingrained in my mind the lessons of that book, and she and I grew closer and became a stronger team. Influenced by this experience, I reached out to most of the colonels in my career field (public affairs) and asked for their support and input to start a communication-oriented book club. We started by defining the purpose of the book club. Some book clubs are social, some are professional. I wanted to create a professional book club for Army Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) to promote continual professional development in communications-related areas and increase networking opportunities.
The timing of a book club offers the opportunity to get creative, or not. The Army PAO Book Club discusses one book, once a month. However, I have also attended book clubs that met quarterly with multiple book options on the same topic. That format provides a free-flowing conversation on the specific topic that the readings buttressed. Timing is extremely important. I ask busy professionals to commit their time. So, I am conscious of how long it takes to read (or listen) to a book and the time required to attend the meeting. A book club is valuable when it finds the balance of being rewarding without being too time intensive. As you think about the timing of your book club, refer to your purpose. If your focus is on team building, a monthly engagement supports that goal. If professional development is important, then a quarterly tempo with more books is a better option. There are different ways to layout the tempo of a book club, so experiment and find out what works best for you.
Who to invite? Again, this goes right back to the purpose. I wanted to enable our community to develop professionally and to network, so initially I invited every major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel in the active duty public affairs career field whose email I had. As word-of-mouth spread, I kept adding those interested. My criteria now are active duty public affairs professionals. At the outset, a colonel responded to the initial idea with a sarcastic, “great, another meeting!” However, it strengthened my commitment to selecting books that benefit those interested. Nothing has been more rewarding than a book club meeting resulting in a lively, open, and free-flowing discussion.
Some join reading clubs only to get book recommendations, but that still meets the intent. Meeting the professional goal, I have learned more from this last year of reading and discussing books than ever imagined. I know a lot more people in the public affairs career field, meeting the networking goal. I think more people have felt comfortable reaching out to me and others in the group. Retaining what you read does not require a book club, but it is a great option to enhance shared understanding.
A unit reading list or book club is an opportunity to explore topics not seen as “military”–books about gender bias, diversity, sports, or other topics inevitably sharpen one’s leadership sword. COVID has taught us that when the days of physical staff rides are impossible, Teams and Zooms can bring history and lessons learned to our fingertips at home.
- Jim Mattis and Bing West. 2019. “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead”. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.
- Professional military reading lists: https://amedd.libguides.com/reading
- Army Chief of Staff: https://www.army.mil/article/239759/21st_century_csa_reading_list
- CNO Professional Reading Program: https://www.navy.mil/CNO-Professional-Reading-Program/
- Commandant of the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program: https://grc-usmcu.libguides.com/ld.php?content_id=58127840
- Chief of Staff of the Air Force reading list: https://static.dma.mil/usaf/csafreadinglist/
- SEAC Reading List: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Features/story/Article/2101064/seac-colon-lopez-releases-reading-list-for-service-members/
- Commander Australian Defence College Major General Mick Ryan: https://mwi.usma.edu/war-books-major-general-mick-ryans-2021-reading-list/
- Other reading lists: https://www.dodreads.com/military-reading-lists/
Jamie Dobson is an Army public affairs officer stationed at the Pentagon. When she is not attending book clubs, she is an avid hiker and swimmer. You can connect with her at linkedin.com/in/jamie-dobson-94352b82/
Allie Weiskopf is an Army public affairs officer stationed at Fort Bragg, NC. When she is not reading, she is running and listening to books. You can connect with her at linkedin.com/in/allieweiskopf/