Nobody will ever claim a dearth of reading lists for military officers and leaders. Indeed, every combatant commander maintains one specific to his or her theater. Service chiefs continually refine and publish their own on an annual basis. Every major school that is a part of professional military education such as the Command and Staff Colleges, War Colleges, National Defense University and the Joint Forces Staff College produce reading lists of their own. Further, commanders and staff officers at all levels publish their own as a part of internal leader development programs.
The common thread among these lists is the centrality of military centric subjects. The normal gang of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides is always present. Books on leadership by retired flag officers are often present. The more extensive lists include books on the future of war and its related technologies. Even the famous fast food philosopher Malcolm Gladwell makes his appearances. One category that many of these lists lack is sports. Sports books span the range of related subjects to include leadership, critical thinking, and innovation. I offer the following to expand the thinking and reading lists of military leaders:
Best Quote: “the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it”
This is an examination of 16 dynasties of various sports (chosen by the author) with a detailed look at the captains of each team. What the author finds is that the team captain was not always the best or most talented player, nor was it always the player with the alpha type personality. Indeed, talent and leadership are distinct and separate skills. The book provides a nice recognition of quiet leaders who choose to lead by example.
Best Quote: “You never know where you’re getting your best idea. It could be from your rookie player, it could be from your power skating instructor, it could be from the guy who cooks breakfast. You have to be open-minded.”
Behind the Bench is a look at the minds and methods of eleven of the best hockey coaches in the game today. More than a discussion of Xs and Os, Custance takes a unique perspective, and turns a hockey book into a leadership book, similar to what one would find in the business section of the local Barnes and Noble. Custance leadership themes that run throughout the book include the ability to manage talent, the role of luck, and the role of self-reflection, enabling leaders to engage as lifelong students of their profession.
Best Quote: “Great organization is the trademark of a great organization.”
Bill Walsh, former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers offers his thought on leadership. Each chapter or section of the book is no longer than two or three pages. Each is an insight into how he ran his organization. Walsh delivers his lessons learned on leading people, and transforming an organization from a rock bottom loser to a championship dynasty.
In terms of leadership, Walsh discusses how he would demand excellence from everyone in his organization. From the star quarterback to maintenance crews, Walsh wanted perfection from everyone. Further, Walsh identifies that the best leaders know when to put feelings aside, and to make decisions that are best for the organization. These types of decisions come often in military leaders careers when handling men and women who don’t perform to expected standards. Leaders must always balance what is best for an individual against what is best for an organization. Ideally, they align, but often enough they do not.
Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL by Michael Lombardi
Best Quote: “although practice doesn’t make perfect, it gets you closer to perfection each time you do”
In what is more of an organizational leadership book, Mike Lombardi leverages his experience with and knowledge of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots to provide the reader lessons in building winning teams and organizations. Some of Lombardi’s observations include caution in how to judge and acquire talent. Indeed, Lombardi uses anecdotes of former track stars who tried and failed to translate their talent to the gridiron. These failures highlight that individuals should be evaluated on multiple factors, and by multiple people.
Best Quote: “great coaches don’t stick with their trademarks on a no-matter-what basis; they constantly go back to the drawing board, finding new ways to set up their personnel for optimal success”
Doug Farrar’s book is a detailed discussion on how football evolved over the decades. His book begins in the early years of the NFL in the 1920s, and takes the reader on a tour of the major innovations through the modern era. Farrar details how specific individuals from Vince Lombardi to Sid Gillman through Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick.
The lessons I take from this book are the similarities in the evolution of warfare and evolution of professional sports. While the nature of both war and football remain constant, the character, or how they are fought and played continually change. This may be from advancements in technology, changes to the rules, or the rise of an individual who thinks on a higher plane. Further, as a nation or team gains a competitive advantage, other nations and teams soon catch up, which leads to further evolution and innovation.
Secondly, The Genius of Desperation chronicles the innovators of football. In this respect, the evolution of the game was dependent upon men who saw the game differently. Again, I see similarities to evolution in military thought. Military history is often traced back through various individuals who saw the world in a different light than everyone else. Evolution in warfare is more than new technologies. It includes new thoughts on how to fight wars. From Alexander the Great, to Fabian, through Napoleon, Jomeni, and Clausewitz to Grant and Sherman, to the modern day thinkers such as Boyd and Warden.
Best Quote: “Games aren’t always won by the more talented team; they are won by the team that recognizes favorable match-ups and exploits them”
In this book, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback takes a deep dive into seven football games that introduced new offensive and defensive concepts to the league. Examples of these concepts include the vertical passing game of Don Coryell and his San Diego Chargers to the defensive ideas of the Bears 46 defense and those implemented by Bill Belichick to defeat some of the greatest offensive teams ever built. The author provides a background of what led to the development of each concept, and how the coaches in each game he highlights came up with their innovations.
The Perfect Pass chronicles the rise of Coach Mike Leach and Hal Mumme and their innovative design of the Air Raid Offense. What makes this a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf is the details of how smaller, and on paper less talented teams can overcome the odds and defeat larger, better resourced teams. In a way, using brains and innovative concepts to defeat larger powers is how insurgents from the American Colonies to Vietnam to Afghanistan, and Iraq have fought the world’s superpowers.
Best Quote: “it is the players without the puck who determine where the puck is going, by going there themselves”
This book chronicles the 1978-1979 season of the Montreal Canadians. There is one chapter in particular where the author details how the Soviets came to dominate international hockey. By starting with a clean slate in the 1950s, the Soviets were not tied to the history and traditions of North American (Canadian) hockey. The Soviets developed a game plan that emphasized puck control, creativity, and movement. Moreover, the Soviets trained for the sport year round, as opposed to professional athletes in North America who used the pre-season as method to “get back in shape.” This new style of play shocked the hockey world,evidenced by the Soviet performance in the Super Series.
Best Quote: “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
Faster, Higher, Stronger is about the science of sports. The author examines ways in which athletes are using science and technology to increase their performance at the highest levels. At the top, a mere 1 or 2 percent advantage can separate the world champion from the middle of the pack. More than examine current trends, the author looks at previous fads that are now obsolete. Other interesting points the author makes is that sometime (and we hate to hear it), genes do matter. If you are over 6’ feet tall, you won’t be a world class gymnast no matter how much effort and practice you put in. Conversely, genes alone won’t do, effort and hard work are the trademarks of those who do make it. Finally, the author offers advice to the weekend and amateur athletes in all of us.
Other Cultures and Global Perspectives
Best Quote: “Soccer isn't the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community's fabric, a repository of traditions.”
While baseball and football are certainly America’s games, soccer is truly the world’s sport. Foer takes the reader on a tour of various soccer clubs around the world to help explain culture and conflict. His tour includes teams such as the Glasgow Rangers , FC Barcelona, and the Iranian and American national teams. Others include Serbia, Scotland, Brazil, England, Jewish teams, and Ukraine. Foer points out the unique traditions and rivalries of each club to explain aspects of globalization and nationalism.
This list represents a fraction of available books centered on sports that can change our perspectives. My bias towards football and hockey, and more broadly men’s sports clearly come out with these recommendations.
We should never underestimate the role of sports, and its impact on our lives. Within our culture, professional, college, and amateur sports is a multi-billion if not a trillion dollar business. At the individual level, what we learn through sports is applicable in our military profession, and in our broader lives. It provides a way to test resilience and grit. Team and individual sports provide a stage that shows the value of hard work and training often proving that natural talent will only go so far. Recent super bowls have provided the example that the intellectual is just as paramount as the physical. Game planning and innovative concepts can provide an asymmetric advantage to teams and individuals with lesser talent. The field of play often provides us lessons that life is not always fair, and that sometime luck, or the lack thereof can determine winners and losers (Fog, Friction, and Chance if you will).