19 June 2015

What Successful Strategists Read

L Block (British, 1848–1901) The Bibliophile’s Desk

Aaron Bazin is a career Army officer; Lieutenant Colonel FA 59 (Strategist) with experience at the combatant command level and within the institutional Army. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

Every two weeks or so here at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, a small group of officers and civilians gets together over lunch to discuss strategic-level topics. This gathering is a low overhead and informal event, where one officer gets the conference room and selects the topic of discussion. Sometimes, there is a book to read ahead of time, other times, there is a brief movie to watch and discuss. The dialogue that unfolds is usually lively, and there never seems to be a shortage of things to talk about. Generally, the people involved find the sessions very valuable and come back again.
…they had never really thought deeply which books were really the most important to them as strategists.

In a recent session, the topic of what books a strategist should read came up. The group talked about what books that they had read that were important to their success. As always, the discussion was excellent, and many officers realized (myself included) that they had never really thought deeply which books were really the most important to them as strategists.

We developed a short online instrument, posted it on Google Docs, and left it open for two weeks. We solicited input from the community of interest through social media (e.g., the U.S. Military Strategist Association Facebook Page, StratList, etc.) to obtain a convenience sample (N = 43) from the wider community of interest. We coded the data and developed a prioritized list of books that the results indicated were critical to read for success as a strategist (see figure below).

Books Critical to Read for Success as a Strategist

The books that topped the lists such as On War, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Starship Troopers, and Ender’s Game had the highest level of general agreement among the population. Interestingly, the community’s tastes in fiction seem to revolve around science fiction and political commentary (e.g., 1984, Catch-22) as well as military fiction. When asked which books that strategist’s do not typically read but should, The Holy Bible, and Navigating the Labyrinth stood out among the results. On the full list of books, you can find some interesting and even some humorous results.
Interestingly, the community’s tastes in fiction seem to revolve around science fiction and political commentary…

The survey also delved into the use of social media tools that strategists use for professional purposes and how they prefer to access the news. The results indicated that LinkedIn, email distribution lists, and blogs were the primary social media tools the field uses for professional purposes. The results also indicated that Internet searches, social media, and newspapers top the list of how the field prefers to access news (see figures below).
Use of Social Media for Professional Purposes
Preferred Methods of Accessing News

To most, the results of this survey are probably neither monumental nor surprising. The U.S. Army Combined Arms Center website currently lists many of these books on existing professional reading lists, including theCJCS’s Reading List and the CSA’s Reading List. Additionally, efforts such asWarCouncil.org’s project War Books have provided a very valuable deep dive into what many strategic thinkers read and how what they read affects them on a deeper level.

Churchill reading in his library at Chartwell

The bottom-line is that there already exists a long list of lists advising strategists on what they should read. At best, the analysis presented here provides one more list to consider. To remain open-minded, hopefully a strategic thinker would never limit themselves to any list. Nevertheless, the hope is that individuals find the results of this survey valuable as they chart their course of self-study and reflection, wherever that may take them.

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