By Bill Bray
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on June 15, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday was grilled about his reading list. Watching the Navy’s top admiral defending some of the books on his reading list, particularly Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, while the Congress struggles to fund the Navy the nation needs, was a spectacle to say the least and not the funny kind. But it did raise questions in my mind: who needs or cares for a reading list? And how does becoming a deep reader make for becoming a better military leader?
Reading Lists and Subjective Reads
There have been many reading lists for military leaders. To me, they always radiated a whiff of the haughty, didactic proclamation, even though I trust that was never the intent. To be a good leader, thou shalt read these 20 books. Many books on these lists are worth reading, for sure. A few are terrible, especially the ghost-written leadership pablum by former CEOs, a few who a decade or so later wind up embroiled in scandal or even in prison. But when I was a young officer and finally out of school, I found immense pleasure finding my way to books for just about any reason except being told to read them. Natural curiosity leads to discovery, and even more curiosity. Something catches our interest, something we see or hear or read, and it points us to a book. We cultivate a taste for good books. We read about the authors and how the books were conceived. This suggests other books we feel we must read. And so forth.
I have never read a book because it is on a reading list. I have no idea why I read the books I do. There is no method to choosing them, no overarching purpose beyond wanting to be challenged. I love reading great prose. I find it immensely rewarding. Much of it is difficult, although as with anything, one becomes a better reader by reading better material. A mentor once advised that when it comes to reading, when given a choice (and one always has a choice—the best books cost no more than the lousy ones), “read up.” That is good advice.
Many books should not only be read but reread. The experience one has with a book is different with each reading because, in engaging with the text, a reader brings the sum of their knowledge and experience to bear. This is why, for example, a military leader reading Crime and Punishment at age 40 after years of leading troops or sailors and dealing with the military justice system has a much different experience than he or she did reading it at age 20. However, there is seemingly never enough time to read while pursuing a career, so rereading a book usually takes a back seat to knocking out the next one. Even so, rereading is a habit I cannot recommend strongly enough.
A few thoughts about literary writing (fiction and nonfiction). There should be little patience for arguments that no such thing exists, that good writing is no more than a matter of taste. If something cannot be empirically measured, as the arguments sometimes go, any claim on its value is necessarily subjective.
Curiously, no one who ever said as much to me so quickly applied the same caveat to anything else in the world they cared about—architecture, automobiles, clothing, or what have you. When it comes to so many things and issues we encounter in the world each day, discriminating between the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, tactful and coarse, and so forth seems grounded in a deep belief that these distinctions are not hopelessly subjective. Why is writing any different? I do not listen to operas, but I surely accept that a good opera is beautiful music and better than what my middle school band was belting out. Surely, we can agree a similar judgment can be made about writing. That does not mean we cannot disagree about a single book or author or find what many consider good art to be pretentious garbage. We can and should from time to time. Be a harsh critic. But if we don’t enter the discussion accepting and appreciating that such a thing as excellent literary writing exists, we have very little to discuss.
The military is a highly technical business that demands leaders with technical aptitude and educational foundations. But technical aptitude coupled with a strong science and math foundation is one thing, while over-specialization at the expense of a well-rounded humanistic education is quite another. Much of the latter in life is self-acquired and not absorbed while sitting in a classroom. Yet, reading lists appeal to the technical mind. Technicians like checklists and checking off books instills a sense of certitude in one’s knowledge. Read these 30 books and you’re certified to lead. Sure, the list can be a starting point. But even in that sense, a reading list seems unnecessarily constraining. The best leaders I have known read widely, deeply, and continuously. Their independent curiosity and imagination were their guides, not lists.
In August of 1988, three months after I was commissioned, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle A. H. Trost spoke at the Superintendent of the Naval Academy’s change-of-command and said this on the subject of technical education:
“To compete in the world, to serve as a naval officer, today you must have a technical background. If you become an inveterate reader, if an idle moment never finds you without a book in your hand, the broad knowledge will come to you. But without a background in deep technical knowledge, and without the resulting confidence that moves you to unravel technical complexities wherever you find them, you will always be a wallflower in the ballroom of progress, and your success in our profession will suffer accordingly.”1
I agree with much of this. But what always troubled me was Admiral Trost’s nod to inveterate readers that always have a book in their hands. It begs the most important question: which books? Do the type and genre matter? Just history and books on current events? Or was he relying on technically educated officers to cultivate a habit of reading the best literature and philosophy as well? I cannot tell, but in perusing the many CNO reading lists over the years I can speculate that he was not.
Deep Reading and Strengthening Leadership Qualities
After reading books like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I find myself thinking about the story for a long time. The experience deeply resonates, as if I did not just read about something, but rather lived it in some way. I become invested in these characters as if they are real and their fates somehow matter to my fate, or even how history will unfold in the future. Only the very best writers can achieve this, and I am grateful for their gift. After reading so much of it from very early in my career, I believe it helped me be a better naval officer and leader. I fail to see how it couldn’t have.
Can reading literary writing help one be a better leader? It absolutely can. Reading literary writing nurtures thoughtful introspection, which in turn helps leaders police their profession for ethical and honorable behavior. The best writers are experts on the human condition, and reading them enlarges and enriches self-awareness, humility, and empathy, and a genuine respect for one’s fallibility as a leader. Pride alone is the source of many a leader’s downfall, and there isn’t anything to learn about pride in a course on thermodynamics (for the record, I enjoyed and did well in thermodynamics at Annapolis).
Thinking back on my nearly three-decade Navy career, the hardest problems were always leadership problems—human problems. The issues I dealt with are the same that future leaders will deal with, and in these books they are all there—integrity, honor, fairness, justice, courage, loyalty, accountability, greed, bias, deceit, sex, adultery, false piety, careerism, discrimination, race, ethnicity, culture—the list is long. At a minimum, reading good books will ensure one is never surprised at the human failures of military leaders beneath and above them. Art complementing real-world experience is the best recipe for a textured appreciation of human nature and all its mysteries.
Admiral Gilday was right to defend the books on his list against ridiculous partisan political attacks. Military leaders should be open to reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist and other books that challenge conventional thinking. Military leaders are responsible for the lives of Americans of all backgrounds and viewpoints. They should read widely and never be afraid to read an author with whom they might disagree. That is how one nurtures a genuine curiosity—and learns. But don’t read Kendi’s book, or any book, just because it is on a reading list, as if completing a chore. Read good books to be a deep reader. And become a deep reader to become a better leader.
Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain and the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.
Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 9, 2020) Sailors prepare for a fueling-at-sea aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Mo Bourdi)