Retired Admiral Jim Stavridis seems to be everywhere this summer. The former commander of NATO-Europe and current Dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School--one of the world's great institutions for the study of international relations--has just published two books. The latest is on the history and tactics of sea power, which followed another book we'll talk about in a minute. They both got nice reviews and invitations for the author to speak on the topic.
But then the Destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Japan, killing seven and leaving behind a sad mystery: how could it have happened? Admiral Stavridis, who literally co-wrote the book on how to manage a ship at sea, was the natural expert to provide background.
This was about when I reached out to him to discuss his The Leader's Bookshelf. Oh, jeez, you're thinking. Another book on leadership. Help.
But Stavridis and his co-author defied all clichés by embarking on a unique mission: survey 200 military chiefs, and ask them what books, of any stripe, provide leadership lessons. From this list they selected fifty. The result was military-centric, but with surprising accents elsewhere.
Yes, there are standbys such as Sun-Szu's The Art of War and fiction by Jeff Shaara and Steven Pressfield. Biographies of great generals, naturally, but then some surprises: science fiction and young adult titles. Some of the books, such as T. R. Fehrenbach's This Kind of War, (on Korea) I had never heard of. Others, like Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander series, are old favorites.
Oh, and Stavridis writes Chapter One as a discussion of reading as a path to leadership. It is worth the price of the book.
Here is a lightly-edited transcript of our email conversation:
Q: The military has a tradition of teaching leadership as "preparation for command," while the business world is used to leadership comprising such skills as team-building or product innovation. Did you recognize this difference as you compiled your list? What is a great "command" book, and what is a great "business" book to you? Why?
A. While there are fundamental differences between military command and business leadership, much of what succeeds is transferable. The best "command" book in my mind is Killer Angels, [by Shaara] because it shows so many leaders of the Battle of Gettysburg. The best business leadership book is probably The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey, because it is so applicable to all walks of life.
Q. Speaking of military books, some military novels are classics of the psychology of leadership. Not showing fake, unalloyed bravery, but a commander racked by human doubt and psychology. Here I am thinking of Run Silent, Run Deep, [by Edward L. Beach] Forester¹s Hornblower series, and even The Hunt for Red October. Not to mention O'Brien's incredible Master and Commander. What can non-warriors learn from fictional views of military life?
A. The need for resilience in response to crisis; how to love and care for the men and women in the fight alongside you; the value of character; and the requirement of sacrifice. The best book on the list in that regard in my view is Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae.
Q. Some of the books on your list are a bit obscure. (I am thinking of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). On what theory of leadership are they included?
A. The pleasure of the list is in finding new and surprising books, like Connecticut Yankee. It focuses us on how challenging change and innovation can be, even when we have the answers in front of us.
Q. In business, we are often alone these days--for example, startups and solo professionals-- so there are fewer institutions to help us. If we need help with the psychology of business we might turn to Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, as well as Carol Dwek's Mindset title. Can neuroscience and psychology teach us about leadership?
A. I am open to every method of improving leadership. The 21st century in many ways will be about the rise of biology over engineering, and our thinking about leadership needs to reflect that. Central to all of this, of course, is artificial intelligence. Ender's Game [military science fiction by Orson Scott Card, and my excuse for the Galactic gag] gets at those ideas.
Q. I have had Thucydides' Peloponnesian War on my bedside table since college. Do you have an enduring favorite?
A. As a proud Greek American, I certainly agree with the Peloponnesian War as a fine choice! I often go back to Winston Churchill's Second World War as a touchstone for geopolitics, on the value of alliances, and resilience. As well as superb, clear writing.
Q. Thanks, Jim.
A. Thanks for looking over The Leader's Bookshelf.