Christmas Leadership Book List 2019
By Tim Heck, Book Reviews Editor
Each year, with Christmas around the corner and High Street full of holiday sales, The Army Leader reaches out to respected military leaders, scholars, and authors to ask them for a recommendation for our Christmas leadership book list.
This year we sought a more diverse selection of books to open our thinking about military leadership. Our pool of contributing leaders spans commissioned, non-commissioned and warrant officers, civil servants and academics from across the UK and the world.
We are proud to have recommendations from the UK’s senior military officer in NATO, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Sir James Everard. But this Christmas we also jump across the Atlantic (and around the world) with recommendations from officers and NCOs from the USMC, including Sergeant Major Anthony Spadaro, the senior enlisted advisor at the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command. If you are after a less military view you can find out which books are recommended by Cat Little, the MOD’s Director General of Finance. And finally, Professor Jeremy Black, a prolific writer on military history, strategy, and almost everything else concludes our list with his own thoughts about what we need to, but do not, know.
The books they recommend cover a variety of topics and are not just leadership primers. Every book (or idea) will expand your leadership capacity and capability. If you are looking for a gift for yourself or others, or just looking to update your shelves and read something great this winter, this list is a great chance to see what some renowned leaders are reading. So, grab a winter warmer and check out some books that will improve you, educate you or just plain entertain you.
Many are available as audio books, and as an early Christmas present, readers can get four month’s membership to Audible at half price until 13 December 2019.
The Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism
How Did We Get Into This Mess: Politics, Equality, Nature
Recommended by General Sir James Everard, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe
My first recommendation is a book have I carried and re-read several times, for both the beauty of its language and its ideas. It is The Fight Against This Age – On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Rieman and was published in 2018. I used one of his lines in my speech this year when I represented the Queen at the Sovereign’s Parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. It highlights the importance of reading: ‘Clio, the Muse of history, always with a book in her hand, offering us the gift of historical awareness. But one has to read books to get to know her and benefit from her gifts.’
The second book is the one I am reading today: How Did We Get Into This Mess – Politics, Equality, Nature by George Monbiot. For a (small c) conservative like me, this book is sometimes a hard and uncomfortable read. I find myself listening to his words and becoming an activist! However, it is (a) good to be challenged and (b) I agree with him that ‘we should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see’.
General Sir James Everard is NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and a former Commander Land Forces and Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations). You can find The Fight Against This Age – On Fascism and Humanism and How Did We Get Into This Mess – Politics, Equality, Nature here. The audiobooks are available as part of the four month Audible half price offer.
Daylight Robbery: How Tax Shaped Our Past and Will Change Our Future
Recommended by Cat Little, Director General Finance
A book about the history of tax might not at first glance be the ideal Christmas read, especially for Army leaders. That said, if you adhere to the principle that, ‘the only certainties in life are death and taxes’, then a good appreciation of the subject is a must. For the military and Defence, there is, of course, a much more profound connection. Taxation, historically, was largely the means by which heads of state and nations funded wars. It is only really in the 20th Century that a much more general application of taxation revenues to wider public services can be seen.
This book will give readers plenty to think about in terms of the relationships between taxation, economic principles, nation building, behaviour, and the purposes to which its revenues are applied. It is also just an easy and fascinating read.
Cat Little is the primary adviser to Ministers, the Permanent Secretary and the Defence Board on the MOD’s financial management. She is the Senior Responsible Officer for the Spending Review is proud to hold the position of Defence Diversity and Race Champion. You can find Daylight Robbery here. The audiobook is available as part of the four month Audible half price offer.
Once an Eagle
Recommended by Sergeant Major Anthony Spadaro, USMC
Once an Eagle remains my all-time favourite book – period. I first read the book 20 years ago as a newly-promoted First Sergeant. Immediately, I was swept up in its grandeur and depth of prose. Little did I realize at the time that the book would ultimately alter my DNA and love for serving others. I have returned to it many times as a personal guidebook – it stands the test of time as the ultimate leadership primer; its basis in historical fiction, notwithstanding.
Why is it still relevant 50+ years after it was first published? It remains a study in character and values, courage, nobility, honesty, and selflessness, and it remains an unforgettable story about a warfighter who embodies the best in us all. Disregard that it remains prominent on many mandatory professional military education reading lists, this mammoth novel is ultimately a powerful examination of military life – its hardships and demands, its rewards and sacrifices, its meaning and tragedies, its uses and abuses. This is the quintessential novel about leadership and honour and the American arrior.
Once An Eagle is one of those books that feels like a war movie, until you look at it more closely. It is realistic, unflinching and truthful in its depictions of war experiences and the complexities of the politics of war, vivid in its storytelling, and its sense of loss and sacrifice ring true in an age where sacrifice with little return seems sacrilegious.
Over the course of years – I have demanded and I have cajoled many a Lieutenant to read the book. For those who undertook the challenge – the comments back to me were always the same – it served to shape and mould their identity as a selfless leader of warfighters.
Sergeant Major Anthony Spadaro, United States Marine Corps, has served in every climate and location over the last 34 years. He is currently the Command Senior Enlisted Leader – the senior non-commissioned officer – in the United States Indo-Pacific Command. You can find Once an Eagle here.
The Jungle is Neutral: A Soldier’s Three-Year Jungle Escape from the Japanese Army
Recommended by Command Corporal Major Steve Parker
Following a chance meeting with the nephew of the hero of the book Lieutenant General Urch recommended I read this astonishing book in preparation for my Late Entry Officers Course. After a compelling foreword from Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, the book breaks down into twenty skilfully constructed chapters, all of which highlight the power of human spirit, Chapman’s mental and physical fortitude, tactical prowess, and passion for nature.
Chapman is the unsung hero of the Second World War: a naturalist, a soldier, a teacher and a leader. He is the charismatic explorer who lived behind enemy lines in the Malayan jungle for three and half years, sabotaging trains and bridges, fighting and killing enemy soldiers, training local insurgents, battling illness and starvation. He did this whilst working on his passion as a naturalist; taking in-depth notes on local bird life and sending seeds back to Kew Gardens.
Chapman teaches us that no matter how hard things become, the human mind and body have extraordinary depth; he demonstrates that with sheer courage and stoicism there is nothing that can’t be achieved. He was a man who displayed the ability to withstand both extreme physical and mental pressure; developing coping mechanisms which aided him in his survival in the harshest of conditions. Whether it was being orphaned as a child, living in the oppressive heat of the Malayan jungle or on the freezing British Antarctic air expedition; Chapman would find a way not only to survive but prosper.
My favourite quote from this valiant adventurer is “I don’t see why the Japanese should inconvenience me.”
Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
Recommended by Brigadier John Ridge
You read some books and come away with handy tips on how to be a better leader, or interesting insights into how others have approached the subject. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan does something much more profound – he forces you to rethink your entire approach to understanding and decision making.
His central thesis is that we fool ourselves by thinking that the world operates in broadly predictable ways when, in fact, so-called “Black Swan” events are the real drivers of change. Our mental weaknesses lead us to rationalise past events dishonestly and to predict future ones unrealistically. We overestimate the role of trends and underestimate the impact of hugely significant, but highly unlikely, events. He ruthlessly savages economists, executives, and academics, and reserves praise for only a handful of enlightened thinkers and (perhaps surprisingly) the military, noting that “only military people deal with randomness with genuine, introspective intellectual honesty”.
I would not pretend that this is a light read and Taleb is a provocative, opinionated writer, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. I challenge anyone not to think differently about the world after reading it.
Brigadier John Ridge has served as Commander 8 Engineer Brigade and Chief of Joint Force Operations. He will shortly take up post as the Commandant of Sandhurst and British Army’s Director Leadership. You can find Black Swan here. The audiobook is available as part of the four month Audible half price offer.
Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell
Recommended by Regimental Sergeant Major Sarah Cox
Having served in the training environment for several years and been taught coaching and mentoring to an individual, this book goes into more depth about self-awareness, empathy and just looking after the team. The book is an easy read without over complicating the subject.
Bill Campbell was a former football player and coach at Columbia University and ended up in Silicon Valley becoming a confidant and coach for some the biggest personalities in business.
The book discusses about the personal relation Bill had with these individuals, the personal lengths he went to in order to support, coach, and mentor these individuals. He taught people how to be true and authentic to themselves and others and that to see each person as a human, not just part of a team.
For me, it highlights one of the most important part of the Army Leadership Code ‘Recognise Individuals Strength and Weakness’. Understanding not only your team but the individuals within the team will help to build a successful team. It helps to ensure all members feel valued and supported. I would recommend this book to all levels, especially JNCOs just starting their journey of being a team leader.
Regimental Sergeant Major Sarah Cox is RSM of the ARITC Staff Leadership School, and was the Centre for Army Leadership’s first Leadership Warrant Officer. You can get The Trillion Dollar Coach here. The audiobook is available as part of the four month Audible half price offer.
Defeat into Victory
Recommended by Colonel Paul E. Berg, US Army
One of the best leadership books I have read in my 29-year career is Field Marshall Sir William Slim’s book, Defeat into Victory. There is no better book to describe truly effective leadership that Slim’s account of his command of the British 14th Army in the Burma Campaign of World War II. This is by far one of the best memoirs that I have read in my military career. I use it at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College to teach about leading coalition forces and how to use the talents of individual nations to gain an advantage over a superior enemy force.
The best quote of the book? For me it this: ‘Morale is a state of mind. It is that intangible force which will move a whole group of men to give their last ounce to achieve something, without counting the cost to themselves; that makes them feel they are part of something greater than themselves.’
This is the memoir of a truly humble general who did not seek publicity, instead being made of the same mould as Bradley and Ridgeway. No one in Burma expected any sort of victory. But they all underestimated FM Slim who, with his humble, quiet, and respectful leadership style made history against all the odds.
Colonel Paul E. Berg, US Army, is the Academic Affairs Division Chief at the U.S. Army’s Army University. He is Editor of the Journal of Military Learning and edited The Last 100 Yards: The Crucible of Close Combat in Large-Scale Combat Operations. You can find Defeat into Victory here.
Fields of Fire
Recommended by Colonel (ret.) Stanton Coerr, USMC
Combat leadership is about one thing and one thing only: the management of heavily-armed teenage boys and girls who are allowed – nay, encouraged – to kill. In Fields of Fire, James Webb, himself a combat Marine officer and Navy Cross winner in Vietnam, drops us right into the muck, fear, violence and love of a Marine Corps infantry squad, and thereby paints in fiction what no one would dare do in fact.
This is the masterpiece of the Vietnam War: dialogue taut, thirteen individual regional dialects amongst his characters; I-was-there narrative realism of combat conducted one inch from the ground; a plot as exhilarating and intense and frustrating as the war itself.
Those who wish to know combat leadership must know what the teenager carrying a rifle does: every decision by those above him is put paid with blood and pain. That pain does battle, in the hearts of men, with the love they have for one another and for their Corps. Webb does not give these things to you: he brings out what you have already inside. Your tears at the end of this book are not his: they are yours.
Colonel (ret.) Stanton S. Coerr spent 25 years in the United States Marine Corps. In 2003 in Iraq he commanded five Marine liaison teams working between two tribes in combat: the U.S. Marines and the British Army. He is the author of Rough Men Stand Ready a book on tribes, identity and the military. You can find Fields of Fire here.
Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad
Recommended by Master Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Stephens, USMC
Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad is an astonishing book about one of the worst battles in human history. The battle lasted from 23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943 and is told from multiple points of view – from the lowliest supply private to the commanding generals of both Soviet and German armies.
It is one of the most horrifying tales of leadership and hardship I have ever read. With the current political climates around the world, this recounting is a dreadfully stark reminder of the horrors of massive armies facing off against each other in an urban environment.
Master Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Stephens joined the United States Marine Corps in 1996 and is a communicator by trade. He has served in I, II, and III Marine Expeditionary Forces and is currently the Operations Chief for 8th Communications Battalion aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. You can get Enemy at the Gates here. The audiobook is available as part of the four month Audible half price offer.
Lorenz on Leadership: Lessons on Effectively Leading People, Teams, and Organizations
Recommended by Dr. Brian Laslie
Lorenz on Leadership is never really that far from my mind. Truth in lending here, I once worked for General Lorenz as a speechwriter so, perhaps by osmosis, his leadership lessons became embedded in my mind.
The bulk of the book is made up of the series of maxims, what the general called his ‘guiding principles’, that Lorenz created and cultivated over time and presented almost daily to various organizations both in and outside of the American military. These include: “Life is a marathon, not a fifty-yard dash” and “never develop a sense of entitlement.” Each maxim is followed a brief explanation.
It is, perhaps, the most accessible and applicable book on leadership I have opened. I have found that these maxims creep into my daily thoughts and influence my decision-making. These life lessons are equally applicable at levels of military leadership and can be applied to your personal life as well. Perhaps the best part of this book is that it is free to download!
Dr Brian Laslie is the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). His first book The Air Force Way of War was selected for the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff reading list. You can download Lorenz on Leadership for free.
Red Army: A Novel of Tomorrow’s War
Recommended by Major Tim Heck USMCR
In the 1980s, as the Cold War heated up, multiple authors looked at what conventional warfare between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985 and Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising are among the best known but both largely focus on NATO’s fight. In 1989, then-U.S. Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters published Red Army: A Novel of Tomorrow’s War which put readers in the hatches of the T-72s, BMPs, and Hinds expected to come swarming over the Fulda Gap. While the Marxist language is dated, looking at warfare through the eyes of others is rarely a wasted opportunity.
Peters’ characters, ranging from the lowliest conscript to a Front commander, all reveal the human aspects of war and, in the process, offer a compelling counternarrative to the faceless horde vision of the Red Army. Peters’ protagonists force the reader to recognize that war is ultimately a human business, no matter how many laptops or high-tech equipment we surround ourselves with.
I found Red Army in a small forward operating base in Afghanistan over a decade ago. It’s made a move to six countries with me since then and I come back to it frequently. In every reading, Peters’ Soviet soldiers make me question my own leadership and effectiveness. There are plenty of “What now, sir?” moments in the book that have helped shape my reaction to real-world leadership challenges.
And finally, for readers looking to save some money this year, Professor Jeremy Black MBE, Professor of History at the University of Exeter and prolific author and research on military history, offered a ‘lack-of-recommendation’. Professor Black’s thoughts on how we think about strategy encourages us to self-reflect while also looking outward.
The Death of Strategy
Recommended by Professor Jeremy Black
The death of strategy was a major complaint in the discussion of Anglo-American warfare in the 2000s and 2010s. A number of books were published on strategy but they were all deeply flawed because they failed to devote sufficient attention to the non-Western practices of strategy. An understanding of those practices is crucial in order for Western powers to be most effective
Thus, I will be controversial and say my choice of a subject without a book should make leaders confront what we do not know.
Professor Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter and author of over 100 books on British, European and American political, diplomatic and military history.
If you enjoyed the book list, you can see what books were recommended by the Army Sergeant Major and the Commandant of the Defence Academy in our Summer Leadership Book List 2019