I did my ROTC years at university. And thanks to a robust politics department, attracted a lot of top diplomats and generals to give talks. Often these leaders would stop by the ROTC armory for question and answer sessions with the cadets. Our professor of military science, not wanting us to embarrass ourselves, coached us on how to be professional and courteous during these sessions. I’ll never forget the last thing he told us: “If you can’t think of a good question, ask them what they are reading. Great leaders are always reading.”
He was right. Leaders at all levels are reading more than ever, and here’s why.
Before you can take care of your subordinates you need to take care of yourself. Leadership can be stressful. And reading is a great way to blow off steam and cultivate mindfulness while continuing your professional development.
Studies show that reading reduces stress levels and helps people fall asleep quickly. This helps you get the most out of your time. Furthermore, reading daily reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia, anxiety, and depression, helping you lead well longer.
LEARN FROM THE MISTAKES OF OTHERS
Author and theologian G.K. Chesterton said, “Learn from others’ mistakes; you don’t have time to make them all yourselves.” In a profession like the military, we don’t have time to develop new tactics and strategies from scratch. People have been fighting (and writing about) wars for thousands of years, and reading what they’ve discovered can prepare the modern warrior to fight (and lead) well.
In addition to being time-consuming, combat is not a forgiving place to make mistakes. When the German Army invaded Russia in World War II, they did not anticipate a long campaign and failed to prepare for the brutal Russian winter. As a result, operations bogged down, thousands of soldiers succumbed to the cold, and the invasion was ultimately a failure.
Had the German commanders done their homework, they might have read about Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon invaded Russia a century earlier and also failed to prepare adequately for the bitter cold, resulting in catastrophic losses. Instead, the Germans made the same mistake, costing thousands (if not more) of lives.
BROADEN YOUR KNOWLEDGE BASE
In addition to better preparing you for military leadership, reading will set you up well for civilian life. While the schools we attend during the military try to provide us with plenty of reading material, field manuals and military biographies aren’t going to be able to prepare you for every situation you encounter off duty and in your post-military life.
Whether it’s investing, maintaining personal relationships, or getting repairs done around the house, a book can help you flesh out your skillsets and leave you better prepared for whatever life throws your way.
THE WORLD’S TOUGHEST READER
Still think reading is for squares?
General James “Mad Dog” Mattis has had a long and distinguished military career stretching from the sands of the Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan and eventually into Trump’s White House. Mattis is renowned for his no-nonsense demeanor. He once famously said, “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” When one reporter asked him what keeps him awake at night, he responded, “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.”
Mattis attributes his confidence to his voracious reading. By some reports, his library includes over 7,000 books. At a question and answer session in 2016, Mattis told a Marine, “You stay teachable most by reading books, by reading what other people went through. I can’t tell you the number of times I looked down at what was going on on the ground or I was engaged in a fight somewhere and I knew within a couple of minutes how I was going to screw up the enemy. And I knew it because I’d done so much reading.”
Despite the cult status he’s attained amongst service members, Secretary Mattis isn’t a great strategist because he’s some sort of superhuman. He got where he is today because he consistently puts in the effort to learn from those who served before him.
WHERE TO START
Here is Secretary Mattis’ Reading List, a man that needs to description about his vast knowledge. General Mark Milley, a Princeton grad and the upcoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also has a great reading list here.
For those looking to break up the military reading with a little fiction. Here is a list of BBC’s top 100 books to read before you die.