The Military Leader Reading List

A recent email from a reader asked simply if there is a Military Leader reading list. As a professional who credits books with providing a sizable portion of my development, I was embarrassed to respond in the negative. Though I often write about what I learn from books (here, here, and here), I have neglected to compile a list. This post is a partial remedy.

This is not a cursory list. These are the books that have shaped me and imprinted lessons that directly reflect in my daily leadership life. These are the books that I reference and quote from, and I think you might benefit from reading. Be sure to scroll down, there’s a bonus list at the end. Enjoy!

The Military Leader Reading List

In The Challenge of Command, Roger Nye explores the varying personas that commanders (and leaders) must develop to be successful, including serving as moral guide, tactical expert, and intellectual leader. The book also serves as a book reference guide for learning about military history, leadership, and command.

Perhaps the most widely read leadership author today, John Maxwell captures the essential elements of leadership in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. It applies directly to leading military organizations and is valuable for leaders at every level of command. Definitely check out Maxwell’s numerous other books, too.

East of Chosin is a gripping account of the frozen retreat of the Army’s 31st Regimental Combat Team Task Force in the face of overwhelming Chinese assaults in Korea, 1950. Through the RCT-31’s experience, East of Chosin exposes the limits of human endurance in ground combat. The audiobook is also a good listen.

Closing with the Enemy uses doctrinal language and historical battle data to reveal the birth of combined arms maneuver on the European battlefields of WWII. Doubler shows how our modern notion of air-ground integration, combined synchronized attacks, and urban tactics all originated in 1944-45. Closing with the Enemy is a great addition to any tactical unit reading list.

While I’ve recommended it before, General Colin Powell’s autobiography bears another mention. In My American Journey, Powell recounts his career in the kind of detail that developing leaders will appreciate, while clearly identifying leadership takeaways along the way. It’s a great foundation for any military career.

Nineteen Stars: A Study in Military Character and Leadership follows the historically decisive careers of Generals Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, and Patton and brings out the true nature of what made them successful. You get a glimpse of how their personalities worked for them, and at times against them. The leadership lessons pour out of this book and show the incredible talent that our military produced at a key moment in history.

If you haven’t read Blink, you’re missing out on a valuable education about how you think, what experience does for you, and the part your intuition plays in decision-making. Blink introduced me to meta-knowledge (that is, being aware of the quality of your own thinking). It also set me off on a personal research effort to better understand how the brain responds to stress (as in combat) and what leaders can do to remain emotionally stable in combat.

As part of that research effort, I read On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, Dave Grossman’s sequel to On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. On Combat dives into the physiological impact of combat situations and the personal reactions to killing. It draws from law enforcement and military scenarios and research to give Soldiers a glimpse into what combat will do to them. A must-read for new Soldiers and officers.

Deep Survival is one of my favorites because it teaches a mindset that is crucial for military leaders…and it has the best subtitle of any book I’ve read:  Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Through accounts of real-life survival situations and tragedies, Laurence Gonzales uses neuroscience to explain what attitudes and behaviors allow some people to survive while others do not. His discussion of “mental maps” is directly relevant to combat. I wrote more about it here.

“If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything.” That’s the idea behind StrengthsFinder 2.0 – we focus too much on rounding out our weaknesses instead of developing our strengths. StrengthsFinder 2.0 and the accompanying online test are powerful tools for identifying your unique strengths and maximizing your performance as a leader. I found it much more useful than Myers Briggs, DiSC, and several other personality tests. Check out Strengths Based Leadership, too.

One problem success-oriented leaders have is that we have trouble saying NO to a good idea. (We even have trouble saying NO to bad ones.) Consequently, nonessential events and tasks consume our time and distract us from our most important work. Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is a fantastic, no-frills course in reducing your life down to the essentials so you can be most effective. It will change the way you think, live, and lead.

The most important knowledge gap in leadership is understanding how followers perceive our actions. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is all about closing that gap. Marshall Goldsmith is a premier executive coach and bestselling author who packs a ton of leadership insight into this book. Like me, you’ll probably find “Twenty Habits that Hold You Back from the Top” to be particularly humbling.

And finally, some good books I’m reading this year:  The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (yes, it’s taken me this long to read it…don’t judge), The Exceptional PresenterStart with Why, and Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders.


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Army Chief of Staff’s Reading List

As a bonus, here is the 2013 U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Reading List. I picked the 2013 version because it’s got some perennial classics but also offers a good set of broadening options for the military leader. It’s separated into four sections: The Army Profession, The Force of Decisive Action, Broadening Leaders, and The Strategic Environment.

The Army Profession






The Force of Decisive Action






Broadening Leaders






The Strategic Environment






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