Welcome to the Monthly Reading List Newsletter! Each month I will share a few thoughts on 3-5 books I’m reading and why I think you should pick them up. So, if you enjoy this email, please forward it to friends and family and help us continue to grow! Also, make sure you sign-up for our new The Sunday Email where each week we will share a quote/passage from a book and a short insight.
Special thanks to Onebrief – the future of military planning. Their generosity provided Erica M. a free copy of Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton from last month's reading list! One Brief's collaborative software takes the friction out of your planning process, especially on large staffs. Onebrief also updates your staff products automatically: if you change a slide, your Sync Matrix and OPORD/OPLAN stay consistent.
Their software is perfect for planning teams at 2 to 4-star headquarters. There’ll be a more tactical version available next year. To get Onebrief, you can contact their founder directly at 443-902-2041 or email@example.com
Books as a Mirror
I recently had a conversation with a mentor about a biography he was reading. He said that as he read the subject’s story, he couldn’t help but reflect on his own life, asking himself, “Am I like this guy?” I laughed when he told me this, because I read the same book and asked myself the same question. We each saw a piece of ourselves in different aspects of this figure’s story.
This example reveals the power of reading stories about other people. The characters, either real or fictional, reflect the good, the bad, and the ugly inside of all of us. Often, they can serve as a catalyst for much-needed introspection. In reading about the lives of others, we can pause and ask ourselves, “Am I like this person?” I call this the “hallway mirror effect.” We can pick up a book, see our reflection, and make adjustments, as needed, before we go on our way. I learned it from a writer who’s been dead for a long time named Plutarch.
In the first century, Plutarch spent years of his life capturing the stories of prominent Greeks and Romans. In Roman Lives, he confessed that at first he wrote them for the benefit of an audience but over time, he came to see their value for himself. He said, “I treat the narrative as a kind of mirror and try to find a way to arrange my life and assimilate it to the virtues of my subjects.” In the translation I read by Robin Waterfield, he points out, “The lives of good men call to attention our weaknesses and areas to improve, as well as encourages us in what we do. The self-examination which is necessary for moral growth is facilitated by the effects of virtue in others...”
When I reflect on the books I read this month, I realize I used each of them as a mirror for my own life. I thought about how I approached fear when I read the stories of courageous people in Ryan Holiday’s Courage is Calling. When I read The Boys in the Boat, the story of the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, I reflected on how my internal narrative prevents me from being present in the moment, just as Joe Rantz had to come to grips with his narrative to keep his “mind in the boat.” And, when I read two books in the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series, I asked if I measured up to the virtues of Pericles and Cato, while also reflecting on whether I exhibit any of the vices of Tiberius or Julius Caesar.
The next time you read a book, try using the main character as Plutarch did, as a mirror to check yourself. In doing so, you can begin looking inward, a practice that eludes so many of us. As social science author John Gardner commented, “By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.”
Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors the Bold by Ryan Holiday. In Ryan’s newest book (Available 28 Sep) he looks at how courage calls each of us to rise above our fears and do something that makes a difference for someone else.
I enjoy Ryan’s books because he provides numerous stories to illustrate his points. For instance, he begins the book with the story of Florence Nightingale and how she struggled with the call to do something about medical care. Once she finally overcame her fears, she set out to revolutionize how medical professionals take care of people and became the founder of modern nursing.
He also includes quotes and passages from biographies and other works in his books. Here’s one he used to point out that the outcome is never known when we commit to a courageous act. I think you can easily recognize the context --the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
"Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence,” he wrote to John Adams in old age, “which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrant?” When you sign your name, you put your ass on the line.
If you want a preview of the book, listen to my interview with Ryan where we talk about fear, courage, heroism, and the costs of not answering the call.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. In the early 1930s, University of Washington rowing coach Al Ulbrickson and his staff transformed a group of young men used to working on dairy farms and in lumber mills, shipyards, and mining camps into an elite rowing team that would go onto win the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
This book is an example of the challenges of bringing a group of people together to make a team. There are some fantastic passages about rowing that are equally applicable to any team. For instance:
But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat...Only in this way can the capabilities that come with diversity --lighter, more technical rowers in the bow and stronger, heavier pullers in the middle of the board, for instance --be turned to advantage rather than disadvantage.
I’m not a rowing fan, but I am a fan of books about leading underdogs to championships, which this book details with riveting detail.
How to Be a Leader by Plutarch and How to Be a Bad Emperor by Suetonius. These books are a part of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series by Princeton University Press. Each book is edited by a scholar, contains both the original language and the translated text, and the material is abridged so it offers a more-focused read. I’ve purchased several titles from this series to include How to Think About War by Thucydides. It’s a highlight reel of speeches from the Peloponnesian War.
So far, I’ve enjoyed all of them. The introduction of each book thoroughly insets up the material and provides context. I actually became interested in Plutarch after reading How to Be a Leader. That particular book contains three of Plutarch’s essays: To an Uneducated Leader, How to Be a Good Leader, and Should an Old Man Engage in Politics?
Plutarch has some great advice for leaders that remains applicable today. For instance, he talks about the need for people to develop their character prior to stepping into leadership roles, writing:
When jars are empty you cannot distinguish between those that are intact and those that are damaged, but once you fill them, then the leaks appear. Just so, cracked souls cannot contain political power, but they leak with desire, anger, boasting, and vulgarity.
If you are concerned about jumping into these ancient texts, this series is a great way to test the waters.
The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War by Stephen Robinson. In this well-researched book, Robinson reviews the evidence John Boyd used to develop his theory of warfare --and makes the case that much of it was grossly inaccurate. Robinson’s book is significant in that many of Boyd’s ideas have shaped how the military has thought about maneuver warfare for the last thirty years.
I’m about halfway through the book, and so far I’ve enjoyed reading it. It’s been a great refresher on the history of maneuver warfare and ideas that I haven’t encountered since attending the Naval War College in 2014. The author has already debunked several beliefs I had from my time as a captain about the origins of mission command.
The Blind Strategist reminds us there are plenty of maneuver theorists who will cherry pick evidence to make their case. If we don’t apply critical thinking skills to their claims, we may adopt them to our own detriment and to the detriment of those who come after us.
If you are a maneuver enthusiast, School of Advanced Military Studies grad, or just someone interested in learning about the history of maneuver warfare, this book will interest you.
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One more note on Onebrief: For the past 58 years, there’ve been dozens of planning software products. But real-world planners didn’t adopt any of them. Today, we’re still slaves to PowerPoint: US Forces in Afghanistan created over 15 million slides.
One more thing: Thanks for opening my monthly reading list email, if you have any book recommendations or questions, please feel free to reply. I read every response and if I have the time, respond.
To build software that every planner wants to use, Onebrief does things differently. Every month, they hold a planning exercise via Zoom. You’ll be part of a 6-person Operational Planning Team on a fictional Joint Task Force. It takes 8 hours on a Saturday, and you’ll be paid $500 for participating in this user research. Details and signup are available here.
To get Onebrief for your staff, you can contact their founder directly at 443-902-2041 or firstname.lastname@example.org
All the best,
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