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Breakroom Book Review: The Leader's Bookshelf

This month, we decided to mix it up. Instead of reading a book on leadership, we decided to read a book about the books that leaders read. In The Leader’s Bookshelf, James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral of the US Navy, synthesizes the results of a survey of over 200 active and retired four-star generals and admirals in the US Armed Forces. The survey sought to identify the reading habits, favorite books, and list of titles that most impacted the participants’ leadership skills and styles.

From the list of 50, we narrowed down to our top choices in the categories of most likely to read, most relevant to business, and most surprising:

Most Likely to Read: Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H. R. McMaster Vietnam is a controversial war that cost countless American lives. H. R. McMaster takes an in-depth look at why America became involved in Vietnam, ultimately concluding that, “The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington D.C.”

Most Relevant to Business: Hope Is Not a Method: What Business Leaders Can Learn from America’s Army by Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan and Col. Michael Harper This book is composed of a series of case studies exploring the task of reorganizing the American military following the Cold War, a daunting task to say the least. The key takeaway can be conveyed through a single quote: “The challenge for the leader is not to ‘get it exactly right,’ because there is no ‘it.’ The challenge is to become ‘good enough’: good enough to seize and exploit developing opportunities, good enough to deploy our forces more rapidly than competitors, good enough to get it ‘about right’ in execution.”

Most Surprising: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee We were initially surprised to find a work of fiction about a family living in the segregated South on a top-50 book list for leaders. However, Stavridis’ explanation of why this text is favored is eye-opening and inspiring. For leaders, the book is a case study on morality and why doing the “hard right thing” is always better than the “easy wrong thing.”

Not surprisingly, most of this list is comprised of non-fiction works about war-time generals and presidents which left most of us disappointed as we’d hoped to find more unanticipated titles. That said, we did pick up a few lessons regarding why we should make reading a priority in our lives and how we can do so:

  1. We all live life from only one perspective. Reading allows us entry into other’s lives and perspectives, which can ultimately change and refine our own way of viewing the world.
  2. We don’t have to read for an hour or longer; it’s okay to read in time slots as short as five or ten minutes as long as the time is valuable. Fit it in where you can and remember, there is no right or wrong way to read.
  3. Technology is your friend. If you travel frequently, eReaders or smartphone apps may be strong options. While this won’t give you the feel of turning pages, sometimes convenience outweighs ritual and provides immense benefits.

If nothing else, The Leader’s Bookshelf reminded us it’s important to stay curious and never stop learning.