The Junior Officers’ Book Club

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REUTERS/Erik De Castro

A soldier from 3rd Platoon, 2-27 Infantry uses a Javelin rocket as a pillow while reading a book in Outpost Bari Alai in Ghaziabad district in Kunar, Afghanistan.

This is the second time in six months I’ve written about military reading lists. In August, we looked at the books then Army Chief of Staff, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey asked his soldiers and officers to read as part of their professional development. Reading lists are interesting because they’re the books commanders and superiors want their troops to be reading in their free time, which is a precious commodity in the military. Any time spent doing outside reading is less time spent with one’s family, or for single troops, less time speeding to the nearest decent size city to, well, do what people do in their 20s.

In this month’s ARMY magazine, which is published by the Association of the United States Army, company level officers weighed in on the books that had an impact on their effectiveness as platoon leaders and company commanders. What makes this list noteworthy is that the suggestions are by company-grade officers, for company-grade officers–young leaders telling their peers and those coming through the ranks behind them what was important.

A quick look at some of the top five: Alas, the number one choice was Once an Eagle, which Matt Gallagher and I and many others spent a long time discussing last summer. We’ll leave it at that. We Were Soldiers Once…and Young is an incredible account of the Ia Drang battle, one of the first large engagements of the Vietnam War. I read the number three book, Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat by James R. McDonough, when I was in college. It’s not only a great look at what combat was like in the late Vietnam War, but a detailed examination of the decisions small unit leaders have to make, sometimes under horrendous conditions.

The number five book on the list is a timely choice given our discussion two weeks ago about the role leadership can play in preventing atrocities: Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death by our international editor Jim Frederick. As I said in that piece, this one is a tough read, but vitally important. Scott Horrigan, who recommended the book for the list wrote, “It will change how you look at your organization and how you look at the role of leadership.”

My biggest surprise was the book in the number nine slot, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. I received this book as a gift from my college rugby coach, a marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson. An examination of what makes ideas and concepts memorable and interesting, this is the only non-military book in the top 10. It seems like it would be a bigger hit at corporate training seminars than Officer Professional Development sessions, and its inclusion on the list at all, especially in the top 10, is very refreshing.

In leadership, whether on the battlefield, in training or in the boardroom, communications and messaging are crucial. I’m glad today’s junior leaders who have faced, and will yet face, some very tough years on the tail end of this decade of combat, are making sure their colleagues understand that as well.

What books had the biggest impact on your effectiveness as a leader?