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The officer as manager: A reading list

The officer as manager: A reading list

By Michael Cummings

Best Defense guest columnist

A few weeks back, a friend from my ROTC days asked for my thoughts on reading lists for his platoon leaders. I instantly banged out a list of my favorites from military history, doctrine, and leadership, including the standard titles like A History of Warfare, FiascoLearning to Eat Soup with a Knife, etc.

As I stared at my finished list (on my blog here), I realized it was a boring list. I mean, what junior lieutenant hasn’t heard of The Defense of Duffer’s Drift?

So I asked myself, "If I could go back and read something before I took over of a platoon, what would it be?" So I wrote that list. None of the books had to do with the military; they had to do with management.

Last fall, I started business school at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. While "management" gets a bad rap in the Army (which prides itself on "leadership"), most officers are managers, sitting at desks managing people, paper, tasks, and information. Though military officers need to become masters of their craft — be it intelligence, maneuver, or firepower — they also need to become masters of management.

So here’s my list of the management texts every officer should read:

Getting Things Done, by David Allen. While often billed as a "time management" how-to book, it’s actually a "task management" book. Getting Things Done helps managers or anyone with too many things on their plate organize and prioritize their tasks. I’d already read this book when I joined the Army and bought copies for the first staff section I led.

To paraphrase a review I once read, you’ll get more out of the first chapter than most books. A classic. (Plus, it’s short and easy to read.)

The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. If you practice intelligence, you must read this book. If you work in any other field, then you should almost definitely read this book. Silver takes an interesting starting point — that virtually every decision is a prediction — then analyzes how different people and organizations make (and hopefully track) these predictions. Basically, if you decide X over Y, you predict that X will have better outcomes than Y.

Since the U.S. Army (and every branch) makes predictions about the enemy, they should read this book.

The Cartoon Guide to Statistics. Consider this simple textbook on statistics with cartoon graphics the companion piece to Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. If you don’t know basic statistics, read this short primer on the subject. If you do intelligence, read this book, then take an advanced course. Actually, any organization managing inputs and outputs (that means S-1 doing HR, S-4 doing logistics, S-6 doing tech support, and especially the S-3s managing all training) should take advanced statistics to track and analyze their work.

The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. The Goal brings operations research — a field developed by the British and U.S. Armies in World War II to apply mathematical rigor to battlefield operations — to the modern audience, following one factory manager through a complete reorganization of his company’s manufacturing process. Every unit/department/section in the Army which turns inputs into outputs could learn from this book. (Again, every staff section turns inputs into outputs.)

Ever wonder why your paperwork takes so long to get processed? Read The Goal and learn how the four-star general who must sign every award is the bottleneck. Ever complain about Tricare’s waiting process? Read The Goal and understand how throughput works. Ever wonder where "hurry up and wait" comes from? Just read The Goal already.

Manager-Tools.comThis isn’t a book, but a website with the single best collection of podcasts on management on the web. I specifically recommend the podcasts on (in order):

  • Résumés (Don’t know how résumés help in the U.S. Army? They help you track goals, that’s how.)

Excel. The most used tool in modern business (after PowerPoint), and few Army officers know how to use it like experts. Yet, by learning a few simple tricks and techniques, Excel transforms into a powerful data calculator and analytics engine. The best resource for me, and the best textbook from my first year of classes, was Practical Management Science, by Wayne L. Winston and S. Christian Albright. It combines easy to follow explanations with lots of practice problems.

I also recommend Lynda.com. While it doesn’t have as many practice exercises as I would like, it does have videos on topics ranging from Excel, to PowerPoint, to statistics.

Harvard Business ReviewFinally, the gold standard for management research. Frankly, in most of my classes, we don’t use textbooks but the classic articles from the leader in management research. While obviously most of the articles cover specific business problems, many directly relate to the Army’s operations. Some others require a little creativity, but still have value. (For instance, asking what the U.S. Army’s "Brand Report Card" would look like in Afghanistan.)

Here are a few of my favorites are (subscription required to view the full articles):

My first battalion commander stressed that the two most important ways to improve as an officer were to stay physically fit and constantly read. While I believe most officers wholeheartedly embrace the former, not nearly enough take advantage of the latter, especially when it comes to books outside the traditional military strategy/theory/history/politics realms.

These management texts could help transform the Army more than any new weapon system.

Michael Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs written by two brothers — one a veteran and the other a pacifist. He left the U.S. Army in 2011 after deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. He currently attends UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.