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03 March 2019

Prussian is an Acquired Taste

Common reading generates common understanding. Reading lists are a cornerstone of professional development and give others insight into how you think and what inspires you. At times reading lists can be more like a catalogue of accomplishments than a list of texts that will encourage personal professional development. We can be caught in the trap of displaying the books we have read (or not read) as a trophy instead of a recommendation to people of what to read, what we are inspired by, and what challenges our beliefs and way of thinking. For example, oft listed books such as On War and  The Art of War are inevitable stops along the road of professional development but are not good places to begin the journey.

My own reading habit wasn’t sparked until 2008 when my Troop Leader recommended I read The Mission, the Men and Me by Pete Blaber. This easy to read and entertaining book focused on the tactical leader and had many ideas that could be implemented at the troop level. My Troop Leader and I spent many hours talking about that book and in hindsight I realise that this common understanding of some major guiding principles was key to our successful relationship and was a major factor in the good performance of our team.

In 2014 I was privileged to be appointed as the Squadron Sergeant Major (SSM) of A Squadron 2nd Cavalry Regiment. The Officer Commanding (OC) A Squadron was a voracious reader and like most command teams, myself and the OC had different books that we were passionate about and the squadron was subsequently directed to read each text. This proved to be largely unsuccessful. During the same year, the 1st Brigade had the opportunity to conduct a professional development session with General James Mattis over video teleconference. It stuck with me how he built context around every example and every point and often referred back to different texts that he had read. One book that he referred to several times was Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon. It was clear that this book became a favourite of The Commanding Officer  (CO) of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. He would often recommend it, gift it and refer to it in professional discussions. It was at this time that I realised why our directed reading was failing. Firstly, I didn’t initially articulate why I thought the books were relevant and why it was important that we all read them. Secondly, reading is a habit that must be developed. I asked soldiers to jump straight into reading lengthy texts and they saw it as a chore.

In an effort to adapt this to my subunit  I picked one book and replaced directing everyone to read it with talking about it relentlessly myself. The book that I focused on was Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet. It was a relatively short and easy to read book that focuses on concepts that leaders can implement immediately. It emphasised the use of language and the way that intent was delivered up and down the chain of command. I referred to it in general conversation with junior leaders, in debriefs, counselling sessions and after action reviews. I found that interest was sparked when I would refer to the book in the context of what we were doing and although not intentional at the time, I was outlining why I thought we should all read the book and I found that without directing anyone to read it people were becoming interested. As interest grew in this book I was able to recommend other books that read well in conjunction with Turn the ship around. Two of those recommendations are by the same author, Simon Sinek. Leaders Eat Last and Start With Why explain the science behind why David Marquet was able to be successful on the USS Santa Fe and give further examples of good and bad leadership techniques. This technique of reading books in groups has also been spoken about by General Stanley McCrystal and I have found that I am able to get through texts faster if I read them in groups due to a deeper understanding of the context, concepts and characters involved.

Time in Sub-Unit leadership positions is short. Directing your team to read lengthy and irrelevant texts may lead to them switching off reading altogether. Remember that conducting personal professional development is something that you want your team to conduct throughout their career so be prepared to play the long game. Choose one or two of your favourite books and be relentless. Talk about them, give them as gifts and most importantly, give them relevance.

Written by : Ben Horton