The Military Leader Reading List

Plus the Army Chief of Staff's Reading List

A recent email from a reader asked simply if there is a Military Leader reading list. As a professional who credits books with providing a sizable portion of my development, I was embarrassed to respond in the negative. Though I often write about what I learn from books (here, here, and here), I have neglected to compile a list. This post is a partial remedy.

This is not a cursory list. These are the books that have shaped me and imprinted lessons that directly reflect in my daily leadership life. These are the books that I reference and quote from, and I think you might benefit from reading. Be sure to scroll down, there’s a bonus list at the end. Enjoy!

11 Priceless Colin Powell Quotes

If you were a fly on the wall of my high school 20 years ago, you’d see me walking to class with a copy of Colin Powell’s My American Journey. And why Powell’s 600 page autobiography and not, for instance, a car magazine or the latest Pearl Jam album? Because I’m a leadership nerd, that’s why…and still am.

I already had my sights on a career in the military, but this book seized my attention. Powell recounts his memorable career from Vietnam Captain to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and in plain language delivers poignant leadership lessons relevant for every profession. It’s not an overstatement to say that it became a foundational resource for my leader development…my leadership bible.

Although I underlined text on nearly every page of My American Journey, here are the quotes that have had a lasting effect on my career and have shaped my own leadership journey.


The Most Important Leadership Quote You’ll Read this Year

When I read this leadership quote a few weeks ago, I kicked myself for not having found it sooner. (It’s the type of advice I’d put in my signature block…and I’m not even a “signature block philosophy” kind of emailer.) It is attributed to the immutably inspirational leader of the Allied coalition in World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. This insight is powerful because it captures the fundamental nature, the heart, of what it means to be a leader. And Eisenhower uses only 26 words to do it.

Leadership Quote

Senior military commanders of World War II. Link to photo.
[Seated L-R: Gens. William Simpson, George Patton, Carl Spaatz, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Courtney Hodges, & Leonard Gerow
Standing L-R: Gens. Ralph Stearley, Hoyt Vandenberg, Walter Bedell Smith, Otto Weyland, & Richard Nugent.]

Systems that Strangle

What my car-buying experience revealed about organizational adaptiveness

Last week, my wife and I invested many hours in the process of researching and purchasing a used car. The fun phase of test driving and haggling now over, we moved into the not-so-fun phase…paperwork. The sales agent, who had come in on his day off to sell us this car, was eager to get us out the door and hurried to assemble papers for our signature.

“Here is your purchase order…here is the total…this is the warranty brochure.” All the standard forms. Then he highlighted, “And here is a disclosure so we can call you in the future.” Wait a minute, we thought as we read through the form in detail. “It says that your dealership can contact us about special offers, too. We’d prefer not to get those.”

“Oh, no” he said. “This just lets me do a follow-up call in 6 months to make sure you’re happy with the purchase. We won’t bombard you with any offers.”

My response stymied him for a moment, “Yeah, that’s ok. Believe me, I’ll call you if there’s anything wrong. I’d rather not sign it.” Not only had he not needed a signed disclosure to call me during the buying process we’d just navigated for the last week, but this car wasn’t even his dealership’s make. It was a trade-in that didn’t matter to his company. There was no need to follow up.

“Well, it’s really no big deal. Everyone signs this form. It’s part of the packet.”

“Is it required to buy the car?” I asked. He responded in the negative.

“Good,” I affirmed, “Then I’m more comfortable not signing it.” 

Interestingly, twenty minutes later we sat down with a very nice lady from the finance department who presented the same form for our signature. It was evident that not signing this disclosure statement was a throwing them a curve ball. What do you mean they don’t want to sign the form??? They have to…it’s part of the process.

In the end, we stuck to our guns and avoided a year’s worth of phone calls about special offers. But I also walked away with a lesson about processes, systems, and inflexibility.


Leaders in 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, check their terrain card and checklist while maintaining communications in the Andar province of Afghanistan, June 6, 2007. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman)

How Do You Spot a Leader?

I was looking through my document archives the other day and thought this might be interesting. From time to time as a company commander, I’d send out emails on leadership, training, and the like. (I suppose they were an early version of what I’m contributing now on The Military Leader.) This excerpt is my take on how a leader’s behavior says something about his talent, his commitment, his success, and ultimately, the success of his team.


Soldiers from the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, race for first place during an annual Physical Training Competition on Fort Riley, Kansas. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Robert DeDeaux, 1st Infantry Brigade, 1st Inf. Div. Public Affairs. Link to photo.

The “Phil-Osophy” of Life

by Phil Walter

On December 17, 2014 I read a post by The Military Leader that outlined General Colin Powell’s Rules. I am no General Colin Powell. However, I do have my own list. I developed this list of principles based upon experiences as an Infantryman, Infantry Officer, and more specifically during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as an Intelligence Officer.

Once complete, I hung this list in my office and jokingly titled it “The Phil-Osophy.” Visitors would read the list, like what they saw, and ask for a copy. Though they may seem overly aggressive, or excessively pragmatic, they work for me and I do my best to hold myself to them during times of weakness.


U.S. Marines from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit Battalion Landing Team transmit messages during an embassy reinforcement exercise at the Arta Range training area near Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Oct. 26, 2013. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Erik Cardenas.
Link to photo.

The Principles of Military Leadership [Day 3]

Today, let’s consider some input from General Colin Powell, as well as the classic list of Armed Forces Leadership Principles that most of us grew up with. There are clear overlaps, like “Set an example” and “Know your people and look out for their welfare.” But, how can we update and refine those principles to give leaders a more accurate picture what is necessary in today’s military? I welcome your thoughts and suggestions!

You Are Being Watched – A Lesson in Example

Years ago, as I approached my commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, a mentor was describing Army life to me and said something memorable about example. He pointed out,

“You will pass probably a hundred Soldiers throughout each day…and you’re gonna have to salute each one of them…and it will start to feel routine and unimportant, almost an annoyance. But don’t get sloppy and don’t take it for granted. You won’t remember each one of those Soldiers, but they will remember you. You may be the only officer a Soldier sees that day…the only salute he sees in return. So execute each interaction as if it were the most important of the day.”

Always on Parade

There is clearly the “professional bearing and appearance” side of my mentor’s lesson, the idea that a leader, whether she likes it or not, is on a perpetual stage.  Every moment is an opportunity to represent the organization’s values and telegraph desirable performance standards. Appearance matters. Doing correct push-ups matters. Training to standard matters. And suffering hardship with the team matters.

“Be an example to your men, in your duty and in private life.
Never spare yourself and let your troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation.”
~ German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

“You are always on parade.”
~ General George S. Patton, Jr.

Another aspect is that leaders influence followers in ways that are less-direct and more personal. Just as you have chosen what talents you like about your leaders, your followers get to choose what traits they will model after you. Each person views your leadership from a different perspective and a different set of needs. Some are looking for perseverance during busy times. Others are disgruntled and need the passion reignited. Some need a good lesson in humility. Still others will bend their parenting behavior to model your character traits.

Bottom Line

You don’t get to decide which lessons people take from your example or when they decide to learn from your behavior. You’re always “on” and you will likely never discover the true impact of your leadership. This is both the burden and the blessing of leadership…make it count.

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do.  You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”
~  General Colin Powell

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