Five Books for a President Who Doesn’t Read

Five Books for a President Who Doesn’t Read

Dear Mr. President: You are famous for not reading many books, but, ironically, your “own” work, The Art of the Deal, is on many nightstands at the moment as people do their best to understand your approach to governing and leadership. I actually own a signed first edition of it, which I bought years ago at a used bookstore for $19. I consider it a bargain given how things have turned out for you lately. But let’s talk about books and leadership.

Having spent decades in the military serving for a series of terrific leaders, I would offer the simple thought that reading books can make people better leaders. In my time around Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell and Adm. Mike Mullen, I often saw them reading; each was always happy to discuss books. Over the course of my career, I exchanged book recommendations frequently with two of your cabinet secretaries, Gen. James Mattis and Gen. John Kelly — close friends, contemporaries, and dedicated readers. And your good friend and special advisor Stephen Bannon, whom I know from waterfront days in the Navy many years ago, is a voracious reader as well.

May I suggest that, like Bush and Obama, you dive into a few good books? There is certainly no shortage of good works on offer about leadership per se, but I would argue that novels and historical fiction, with an occasional personal history or biography thrown in, can hone those skills the best. This is because by reading about other great leaders — both fictional and historic — we can in effect create a leadership “simulator” that allows us to think through the big decisions we have to make, draw analogies with earlier times, and learn from mistakes and successes in big leadership jobs.

Recognizing there are many books and little time, I would offer five suggestions that might appeal:

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. This brilliant historical novel was mentioned more than any other when my co-author and surveyed over 200 senior admirals and generals about books they would recommend on leadership. It follows generals on both sides of the Battle of Gettysburg and offers a stunning variety of leadership styles, from the quiet intellectual approach of Maine’s Joshua Chamberlain to the religious-based Robert E. Lee to the utter flamboyance of George Pickett. It teaches us that there is more than one way to lead and offers models across the spectrum of personality.

Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Your aides have spoken about building such a team from time to time, and I am told you have had the book on your desk in Trump Tower. Many see that as a signal that you had decided to open your administration to talented outsiders to include those who had not supported you throughout the campaign. I hope you’ve actually read the book, but if not, I highly recommend it. The biggest problem our nation faces is gridlock. Successful leaders are unafraid to reach out to rivals, and doing so consistently would strengthen your team.

Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield. This historical novel of ancient Greece is a page-turner — hard to put down even though you know the tragic ending in which the 300 Spartan heroes are finally overcome by the Persians. In addition to giving you some insight into the character of both Greeks (think the euro crisis) and Iranians (the descendants of the Persians), this novel will help you truly understand the character of the millions of Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen under your direct command. As you face the most difficult task of your administration — ordering them into battle — this is a classic for understanding their lives and ethos.

How, by Dov Seidman. A nonfiction book about ethics and values, How can help you understand the importance of owning your integrity. How we do things, in the end, is often more important than what we do. That may sound paradoxical, but this book can help you think through the way in which you communicate the rationale behind your decisions, and is a kind of moral compass that we all need from time to time — even in the White House.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. And finally, something a bit out of the ordinary: This is a fascinating and highly quirky novel by an American master about an inventor and engineer who travels from the 19th century back to the time of King Arthur and Merlin. What he discovers is that innovation and change are hard work and require not only rhetoric but actual planning and demonstrated accomplishment. Leadership is like rolling the boulder of Sisyphus up the mountain, and the chances of it rolling back down are unfortunately high. Determination matters deeply.

Mr. President, I wish you the best as you continue to take up the mantle of global leadership. And I believe that in some small way these books can help illuminate the path ahead — but only if you read them. 

Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images