For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a reader. As a child, I could usually be found reading, whether it was the latest issue of Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos or the back of a box of Captain Crunch. The local library’s summer reading challenges fueled my appetite for the written word, and I read voraciously to keep pace with the escalating reward system – usually food from McDonalds or ice cream from Dairy Queen. Growing older, my tastes evolved from fantasy and science fiction to history and political science.

Even as I write this, I’m surrounded by books. On one side, three bookcases overflow with a mix of military history, classic literature, and strategy, along with an eclectic collection of unique mementos of uniformed service. On the desk beside me stands a stack of books that seems to grow faster than I can read them. Michael O’Hanlon’s Military History for the Modern Strategist arrived yesterday and assumed a place of prominence at the top of a pile that includes Joshua Medcalf’s Chop Wood Carry Water, Admiral Sandy Winnefeld’s autobiography, and a well-worn copy of the Guy Sajer classic, The Forgotten Soldier.

I read, and I read a lot.

A List for you, a list for you…

Then I discovered reading lists. Or, should I say, reading lists discovered me. Shortly after signing into my first duty station as a newly minted second lieutenant, my brigade commander hosted the first of a series of professional development sessions focused on reading. He had his own reading list, most of which was focused on the merits of long-distance running. Which, oddly enough, was something he neither did nor had done at any time in the past. But the Army was an organization that often equated distance running with leadership ability, so here we were.

In the years since, I’ve seen professional reading lists at every turn. Each service chief maintains a reading list of some type, from the Army Chief of Staff to the Chief of Space Operations. The U.S. Navy’s professional reading program is rooted in a 200-year-old tradition, dating to a time when the service ordered each ship to maintain a library of 37 books for training and education. Some lists include detailed discussion of why certain books are included and how they contribute to professional growth (the list from the Chief of Naval Operations is, in my opinion, the standard), while others simply offer an alphabetized list without any further information.

But a reading list is only as good as the follow through. Reading is only fundamental if it’s followed by some sort of discourse. Who was the author and why does it matter? Why was the material relevant and timely? How did it shape your thinking? What were the key takeaways? What stood out to you most and why? What will you do with what you’ve learned? And, of course, my personal favorite, what will you read next?

The Achiever’s bookshelf

If the reasoning behind professional reading lists is growth, then it only seems right that it might start with that outcome as a primary goal. The leadership ranks of the armed forces tend to be populated by Type A personalities and goal-driven achievers, so it makes sense that honing those leadership skills begins with a sharp focus on personal achievement. And that starts with a reading list.

1. Atomic Habits, by James Clear.

I have gifted this book more than any other, typically to people looking to build the types of habits that fuel high achievers. Because that’s where achievement begins – positive habits. Clear also maintains his own selection of reading lists, which help to strengthen those positive habits.

2. Iconoclast, by Gregory Berns.

In his groundbreaking book, neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author Gregory Berns explores how the “best and brightest” leverage perception, imagination, fear, and social intelligence to transcend the competition. Berns’s research underscores the importance of the intangibles that separate high achievers from everyone else.

3. How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

The fact that this book remains a best-seller nearly 90 years after it was first published is impressive. The fact that this book sits on the shelf of every high achiever is significant.

4. Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull.

High achievers don’t just show up one day at the top of the heap. They work their way through trial and error, experiencing failure and humility on the road to success. Catmull understands how to get the most from people, including yourself, how to genuinely thrive in the face of adversity.

5. Influence Without Authority, by Allan Cohen and David Bradford.

The best high achievers learn how to leverage their influence to advantage, regardless of whether they’re in a position of authority. Cohen and Bradford demonstrate how those achievers build collaborative networks and relationships to gain results where others see barriers.

6. Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.

The currency of a high achiever is rooted in ideas, ideas that transform organizations and reach unimaginable heights. But those ideas have to “stick” before they matter. Made to Stick explores the principles of winning ideas and the high achievers behind them.

7. Surge, by Richard Lorenzen.

Lorenzen, the founder of Fifth Avenue Brands, picks up where James Clear leaves off, demonstrating how high achievers leverage their personal habits and goals to gain remarkable success. The entrepreneurial mindset the fuels a high achiever takes them places others can only dream about.

8. The Art of Action, by Stephen Bungay.

Success in a complex world often comes down to agility. Where others might stall out in the face of obstacles, high achievers lean into their resilience to adapt, overcome, and get results.

9. Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin.

You can be the most talented individual in an organization and get nowhere fast. High achievers aren’t simply talented, they possess a work ethic, discipline, and focus that translates to a blueprint for success.

10. The Potential Principle, by Mark Sanborn.

Tapping into their true potential is what separates high achievers from everyone else. Sanborn’s book provides a framework for unlocking that potential to become the best version of yourself possible. From there, you’re only limited by your imagination.



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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.