The Reading List


“So Professor, what should I be reading to develop my leadership skills?”

This is a question I often hear from students and executives.  Most folks assume I am going to focus my recommendations on leadership books and leadership articles. Some of these sources are helpful (in fact there is now a new section on my website which includes lists of recommended leadership books and articles). However, my opinion is that values-based leaders’ reading lists include a much broader scope of topics beyond “leadership.”

I often discuss the importance of being BALANCED (Principle#2) and developing a global perspective; understanding all sides of an issue and “seeking to understand before you are understood”. A key way to gain this perspective is to have a broad reading selection. Rather than focusing only on business, I believe values-based leaders need to develop a true “liberal arts perspective” which includes an understanding of history, government, literature, religion, philosophy, the arts, and the sciences.

And as you examine these areas, make sure you are examining them from multiple sides so you really do understand different perspectives.

Here’s a personal example. While on Spring break with the family last week, I wanted to take some time to understand the history and current issues in the Middle East. I must admit I often get confused with the differences among the unique countries, cultures, leaders and religious identities (Sunnis, Shites, Kurds, etc). So, having the time during Spring break last week, I had the opportunity to read Richard Engel’s book, “And Then All Hell Broke Lose“, Henry Kissinger’s latest book, “World Order“, and an article from the Atlantic Magazine entitled, “The Obama Doctrine“.

This selection of readings gave me different perspectives and opinions regarding the history of the region and how we got to where we are today. Rather than labeling “good guys” and “bad guys”, I gained a perspective of different world views, and why people believe what they believe. Some of the issues addressed included:

–Should the U.S. have invaded Iraq in 2003?

–Was taking out Hussein the right thing to do?

–Should Obama have sent troops into Syria?

–Is the nuclear deal with Iran positive or negative for “world order”?

–What should be the U.S. policy in the Middle East toward Russia and dealing with Putin?

There truly are multiple sides to each of these questions and issues, and values-based leaders take the time to study them thoroughly in the process of developing their own world views, especially when it comes to such weighty matters.

The less people say “I don’t understand where you’re coming from”, and the more they focus on “understanding why people believe what they believe”, the world will be much better off.

So, good luck in your journey to developing your own global perspective — it really will help you develop your leadership skills!!!

I always enjoy hearing from you!

3 comments

  • I rececently re-read Team of Teams by General McChrystal.
    There is a real need in today’s world of business and not for profits to react quickly,share information across functions and be empowered to act.
    It really made me think.
    You can become a better leader by reading but you must always ask questions.

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  • Let me first say that the issues in the Middle East are hundreds if not thousands of years old. To say that we can occupy a country for a decade, pull out at a moments notice and expect to have made a lasting impact is pure fantasy. Hussein, in my opinion, should never have been taken out, at least not in the way he was. On his removal a giant vacume was created. This hole was never filled, and created a way for Iran to gain more leverage in Iraq. I am also a firm believer that the militant group ISIS would never have formed under Hussein’s rule. Then again, everything becomes clearer in hindsight.

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    • LEXINGTON, Va., March 24, 2010 — Retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni didn’t get where he is by mincing words, and he didn’t mince any Tuesday night at an appearance in Marshall Hall.

      “The greatest absence I see today in leaders is a lack of that future orientation of strategic thinking; I don’t see it in business or government,” Zinni said. “We see only the here and now; we don’t see things in terms of a long-term strategic design.”

      Zinni’s talk on the shortcomings of today’s leadership follows publication of his latest book, Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom.

      Earlier in the day, Zinni toured the George C. Marshall Foundation, where he reconfirmed the support of that foundation by BAE Systems Inc., a $25 billion global defense and aerospace company for which Zinni serves as chairman of the board.

      The idea for the leadership book came to Zinni while he was promoting one of his earlier books.

      “Almost every place I went I got a comment or question about leadership,” Zinni said. “And it was a crisis question. People wanted to know: where is the leadership, what is missing? What is missing is George Marshall.”

      Not satisfied to rely on anecdotal evidence, Zinni embarked on his own research, which led him to survey after survey that highlighted the public’s growing disaffection with leadership over the past few decades.

      “Honestly, I was shocked with what I found. So I asked myself: is there something about leadership that we don’t understand, is there something different about it today?”

      Zinni decided to study successful leaders in various fields, with an eye to why successful leaders are successful and why unsuccessful leaders are not successful.

      For one thing, Zinni found, good leaders often are ones who have come up through some sort of leadership program or who had a mentor, a person in their lives like Marshall, who took an interest in his subordinates. Zinni said good leaders are introspective, inward-looking, and not afraid of criticism or feedback, and they continue to educate themselves as they move through life.

      To be a leader nowadays is to understand that one is leading a much more diverse group than in earlier times, not only in terms of ethnic background or religion, but by virtue of all the different age groups currently serving in the workforce, Zinni said

      Finally, Zinni found that good leaders understand “the value of values”: “We are finding that it is good business to be moral and ethical, but successful leaders also have instituted a code of behavior, one that asks, what are your moral and ethical beliefs?”

      It wasn’t always like this, so why the regression in American leadership now? Ultimately, Zinni sees it as an across-the-board failure to respond to the new world order that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

      “After that we had no strategy at all, and to this day, since 1989, we have been drifting along in the current,” Zinni said. “What is our policy? It takes leadership; we have to make tough decisions.”

      To summarize his point, Zinni returned to a period in American history he said has received scant attention: the postwar reconstruction of Europe through the Marshall Plan. Zinni said the idea that the victors should pick up the tab to assist conquered nations was unheard of.

      “Why was it successful? Because of the brilliance of George Marshall and his apolitical leadership,” Zinni said.

      Since retiring from the Marines in 2000, Zinni has served as the U.S. peace envoy in the Middle East and as the special envoy to the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He serves on the boards of several corporations, universities and other organizations. Zinni joined the Marines in 1965, did two tours in Vietnam, and eventually rose to the rank of four-star general, serving as commander of U.S. Central Command.
      -VMI-

      © 2009 Virginia Military Institute | Lexington, VA 24450 | Contact VMI | Support VMI

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