This week I made it to my fourteenth anniversary as a commissioned officer in the United States Army. Along the way I’ve encountered some great books that have shaped my outlook on the Profession of Arms, many of which I wish I would have read immediately after pinning on my second lieutenant bars. This weekend, many of us will celebrate Christmas. So, in a fun thought experiment, I asked “If I could go back and give five books to 2nd Lt. Byerly for Christmas, what would they be?”
Below is a list of books that address history, family, leadership, and self-development. It’s too late now for 2nd Lt. Byerly to receive these as gifts, but maybe you know someone who is about to accept his or her commission as an officer, and could benefit from these titles.
Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession
Anytime leaders ask me what military history book I would recommend, this is always my first choice. I think it’s the best primer for the study of history and the book does an excellent job of selling the importance of self-study for military professionals. I didn’t read it until I was a company commander, and I immediately regretted the years wasted not deliberately setting a course for self-study It’s broken down into a series of essays, which makes it easily digestible for someone beginning their professional journey.
Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
Pressfield’s book provides a fictional account of King Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. This book not only introduces young leaders to the importance of fiction in leader development, it also is full of great small-unit vignettes that are worthy of discussion for a new platoon leader. My copy is dog-eared, underlined, and has been passed around to both NCOs and officers. I would give 2nd Lt. Byerly this book so that he can reflect on the idealized version of leadership exemplified in both training and combat.
Morgan McCall, Jr., High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders
McCall has made an academic career of studying the failed careers of others. He argues that when we aren’t deliberate about leader development, rising stars crash and burn. This book highlights the critical importance of investing in subordinates, counseling, reflection, and learning from failures as well as success. I would give 2nd Lt. Byerly this book with the hope that he would spend more time reflecting on his day-to-day experiences early on in his career, and that he would not fear failure like I did.
Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret) and R. Manning Ancell, The Leader’s Bookshelf
Because reading is a practice that professionals should continue throughout their careers, I would offer a title that serves as a gateway to more reading. This book provides a list of reading recommendations from current and former flag officers in the military. Each recommendation is broken into several subsections—why they recommended it, who wrote the book, what the book is about, a quote, and a summary of leadership lessons from the book.
Andy Stanley, When Work and Family Collide: Keeping Your Job from Cheating Your Family
I hear leaders talk about work/life balance all the time, but if you really think about it, there is no such thing. We’re always cheating on one or the other. This book is about prioritizing family over careers. I read this when I was a young captain, but wish I would have read it much sooner.
*Editor’s note: This piece originally ran last year, ahead of Christmas 2017.
Image credit: Denise Mattox
Similar to GoF, Shaara's "Killer Angels" has many lessons for young leaders.
Pressfield's "The Afghan Campaign" is a great reflection on the timelessness of the conflict in Afghanistan today.
I would recommend "On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace " by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. It speaks to the importance of "train as you fight". If you don't, you are not adequately preparing your Soldiers to face the psychological and physiological effects of combat. Tough realistic training can also help inoculate against some of those effects.
When I was a junior officer in the late '70s, the recommended read was "Once An Eagle" by Anton Meyer. The challenge was which of the leadership styles embodied by the two main characters did you want to emulate and which was better for the Army.