LeadershipReflections On Reading

What Our Military Leaders are ACTUALLY Reading

By Jeremy Walton

Every year or so, the military services come out with their official reading list. This is often an expansive list and can contain up to 150 books, which are recommended for our military leaders. While a 150 strong reading list can be beneficial, it may be a bit too much for those just starting out on their journey of reading. 

Last month, I narrowed down the list a bit. I asked ten of my closest military friends, “what is the one book that has most contributed to your leadership development? Is there a book that has impacted you and one you would recommend?” Their responses varied and covered publications from the classics to the latest mainstream. This article will list some of those books and summarize each. In no particular order, here are the books:

Five Levels of Leadership 

By John C. Maxwell

Depending on the circles you swim in, John Maxwell is one of the more popular authors on this list. As a #1 New York Times bestselling author, he has created several impactful books. Such books include The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, and Developing the Leader Within You, just to name a few. He is a prolific author having written over seventy books so far.  

In The Five Levels of Leadership, Maxwell breaks down the five different levels of leadership and makes them accessible to his readers. Not types of leadership, but levels. He also shows his readers how to move from a lower level of leadership to a higher level of leadership where they will achieve the most impact.

According to Maxwell, the Five Levels of Leadership are:

1. Position – People follow because they have to.

2. Permission – People follow because they want to.

3. Production – People follow because of what you have done for the organization.

4. People Development – People follow because of what you have done for them personally.

5. Pinnacle – People follow because of who you are and what you represent. (Most Impactful)

Starship Troopers

By Robert A. Heinlein

Sci-fi B movie material? Maybe on the surface, but the book won a Hugo Award. Not a small deal in the literary world. For the reader who pays attention, Robert A. Heinlein demonstrates a political understanding that makes the reader more aware of the human condition and how impactful politics are if those humans are not careful. 

The setting for most of the book is a futuristic boot camp that is considered the toughest in the universe. You follow a new recruit named Johnnie Rico, who joined the Terran Federation on a whim. But quickly, he learns to become a soldier. He learns why becoming a soldier is so important as he goes to fight mankind’s most alarming enemy. There are high-tech weapons and battle scenes, but the main elements of the story here are people and politics.  

On Grand Strategy

By John Lewis Gaddis

Some musical artists play their music by ear, although this is not very common. Some artists draw and paint for many years before they create something that is considered a work of art by the outside world. How much grander would the artist’s work be if it was supported by a study rather than just trial and error? When works of art are supported by experience and study, it is more likely to be considered quality. This is a generally accepted principle. A strategy is also an art form. For those who want to be a quality artist of strategy, may I present to you On Grand Strategy. A book by John Lewis Gaddis.

This is a challenging read. If this statement excites you, you are in for a treat. This book is a meditation and looks at the wide-ranging history of the art of leadership and decision-making during times of war and challenged statehood. The leitmotif of this book is, “ends and means have to connect if anything is to happen.” Behind any successful strategy, this is the frequently overlooked truth.      

The majority of the book lists different examples of military leaders throughout history who either achieved or failed at strategy. The book attempts to communicate, great strategists of the past were “patient, calculating, and adept at taking small, deliberate steps toward their goals. Humility and self-awareness kept them from exceeding their grasp.” They would wait for opportunities to act quickly but not overextend themselves. A successful strategist would increase their means first, then try to achieve their end goals. Failure results when the reverse happens. The doomed strategist would “lead from aspirations (ends) and fail to ever effectively manage their capabilities (means).” Like a quality artist, the strategists of today must plan and study well, understand what they have the means to accomplish, and not overextend themselves. 

Lincoln on Leadership

By Donald T. Phillips 

Donald T. Phillips has made it a life-long study to answer the question, “How would Lincoln handle the pressing crises of our modern world?” Out of all the American presidents, people recognize Lincoln as the greatest among them. This is because he was the president during the United States’ most tumultuous times and his leadership saved the country.

Viable leadership principles for your leadership tool chest could be the following: seizing the initiative and never relinquishing it, waging only one war at a time, avoiding issuing orders, and instead requesting, implying, or making a suggestion. The author explores these tools that Lincoln used and examines how Lincoln may have applied them if dealing with today’s high-pressure issues, from politics to business. 

The Happiness Advantage

By Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor challenges the popular belief that if someone has more money, loses a few pounds, gains more respect through promotion, or gains that long-sought-after job, that person will become happier. The book says that if a person re-programs their brain to be more positive, they will have a more competitive edge at work. The thrust of the book is it is not success that results in happiness, but happiness results in success.          

Lessons in this book are how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility so that we can take advantage of them when we see them. It also shows how to channel our efforts into small manageable goals, how to gain the leverage to conquer bigger ones, and how to reap the dividends of investing in a social support network.


By Mary Roach

This is an outsider’s perspective on many scientific experiments and studies conducted throughout the far corners of the Military. It is a unique and fun read, but the greater purpose of the book is to give the reader a greater perspective of the many parts of the military that all work together to form a massive team.

In this book, Mary tells about her visit to the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

Blue Collar Leadership

By Mack Story

In Blue Collar Leadership, Mack Story wants the reader to believe it is easier to compete when you are attracting great people instead of searching for good people. The author geared the book toward the leader of an organization who wants to build a culture that attracts the type of people that you want to work for you. He helps you understand why culture is the key to becoming a sought-after employer of choice within your industry. One of the key points in this book is “Culture matters because those who work there will determine who wants to work there.”

There are key leadership principles throughout this book that can benefit leaders across a wide variety of fields and positions, such as “how to get noticed by the right people and how to get promoted for the right reasons.” The book also covers how to be recognized as a front-line leader worth following, and how a person doesn’t need formal authority (position) because they will develop something better: moral authority (influence). Mark has structured the book to speak mainly to leaders who have never led a cultural transformation but are curious to find out how to do so. The book also covers the “Why” of cultural transformation.

Start With Why

By Simon Sinek

Many people are familiar with Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last. He has written another foundational leadership book in Start With Why. In this book, he asks the questions, “Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? Why do some command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike? Even among the successful, why are so few able to repeat their success over and over? People like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with WHY. They realized people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it.” Leaders who have had the greatest influence in the world are those who have been able to communicate to those that follow them the reason why they are to be involved.  

Into the Land of Bones

By Frank L. Holt

The conflict in Afghanistan has been on the American radar for twenty years since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. However, conflict in Afghanistan has been going on longer than the past two decades. Frank L. Holt examines the history of this conflicted country in order to give the reader a better understanding of the conflict still raging.  

Holt gives a meticulously researched account of Alexander the Great’s campaign into Afghanistan, which occurred 2300 years ago. Alexander’s conquest is seen through the point of view of the local warlords, who pushed Alexander’s troops to their limits. Holt elegantly narrates the plight of the most powerful leader of the time as he led the most sophisticated army of its day into the treacherous world of these tribal warlords. The grueling campaigns and the impact they had on Alexander, his generals, their troops, and the world are recounted in great detail. Three great superpowers have invaded Afghanistan since Alexander the Great’s exploits. Holt talks about how Great Britain went in during the nineteenth century, the Soviets in the twentieth, and the United States in the twenty-first. He explores why this conflict is still important to our modern time.  


By Elliot Ackerman

This is a book of fiction, but the implications of this fictional story coming true are very sobering, and Elliot Ackerman does a stunning job of showing his readers what a war with China would look like and how it could come about. 2034 is both the title and the year Ackerman has set the stage for this China vs America war.  

Other stories have predicted future wars that have depended on the superiority of technology, but 2034 does not do this. It lays out the escalation dynamics of how a conflict could play out when the United States’ technological superiority and overmatch no longer exist, and when the geopolitical center-of-gravity shifts away from Washington.

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