Lead with the best version of yourself.

How I Learned to Get the Most Out of Reading

By Joe Byerly

This month, as I transition out of another decade, I’m taking the opportunity to reflect and write on those things I adopted in my thirties that have proved beneficial to me. In this post, I want to share some of the practices that improved my reading habits, my retention of knowledge, and ultimately led to improvements in my overall quality of life. I recognize that last claim is a bold statement, but it’s the truth.

Reading has served me well both professionally and personally over the years, but more recently it has played an even greater role in my well-being. Within the last year, I’ve come across books that brought attention to behaviors I wanted to adopt, while helping me take steps toward stopping the ones that were preventing me from being content in life. Using a combination of reading, writing notes in the margins and in my “green notebook,” and reflecting on how these lessons applied to my own life, I was able to supercharge these changes.

I hope you find something useful in this post.

Read more than one book (just in case one of them takes a little more effort to finish). This method completely changed my reading habits and increased the number of books I read from five a year to more than forty. When I started making an effort to read for professional growth, I only read one book at a time, but found myself starting and stopping the habit because I would hit boring parts of books and lose energy around finishing it. Sometimes I would go weeks without picking up the book again because I couldn’t stand the thought of battling those pages. Now, I read 3-4 books at once which allows me to tackle a tougher book, while concurrently reading some faster-paced titles in the process. If I get tired of one book, I pick up one of the other titles. I no longer beat myself up if it takes me six months to finish a book, because I’m able to finish a few other books in the process.

Seven Books Every Company Commander Should Read

 

by Dan Vigeant

Leaders worth following are readers. This is not an original, or even new thought. Countless General Officers, business professionals, and thriving entrepreneurs laud the benefits of reading for personal and professional growth. From the Green Notebook even publishes a monthly reading list for the sole purpose of developing aspiring leaders (if you’re not already a subscriber, I highly recommend you click here). However, with the number of books dedicated to leader development and the Profession of Arms, knowing what to read can sometimes feel daunting.

To be clear, I am no expert on the subject. I am, however, a student of the Profession of Arms and sincerely believe commanders owe the Americans they serve the best version of themselves. As such, and in preparation for receiving the guidon, I embarked upon an eclectic reading journey focused on one central theme: leadership. The following is a short list of some of those books that prepared me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for company-level command. My hope is that this list will assist in your preparations for what will be the most rewarding, albeit challenging, experience of your career.  

Turning Words into Works: Reading to Remember

By Joe Byerly

Over the years I have collected passages and quotes in small notebooks that I continually refer back to in my writing and in personal reflection. They help remind me why I read in the first place. Two in particular are worth sharing in this chapter.  The first is from the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus who lived in the first century. He writes, 

For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion.

He’s using the sheep as a metaphor for the pursuit of wisdom. The purpose of self-development isn’t to tell everyone we are doing it or to gain knowledge to impress bosses, but to let it show in our actions. And since humans first started writing practical advice for leaders, people have tried to figure ways to remember these lessons and incorporate them into their daily lives. This leads me to the second quote by a Stoic who lived shortly before Epictetus, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca who wrote:  

We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application—not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works.

We all would like to think that by reading books, we become better people, however there is a roadblock that gets in the way: Our memory.  

Why We Should Read Fiction and Nonfiction at the Same Time

image0-7

By Jeroen Verhaeghe

Avid readers will recognize the feeling of guilt that comes with buying ever more books knowing full well that the unread stacks you have at home are more than enough to last you several months of quarantine. Luckily, from time to time I stumble across an article that justifies the occasional buying frenzy, even making me feel good about it. Of course, before a book can get on my “to read” list, it has to go on my “to buy/find/borrow” list, which is a problem of another order of magnitude that I’m not going to discuss here.

Another thing I used to feel guilty about was the fact that I seemed to lack the focus to finish one book before starting another. The three or so books on my nightstand seemed to indicate poor discipline, until From The Green Notebook’s Joe Byerly provided me with an explanation (call it an excuse if you must) that this is not a bad thing either.

An accidental discovery

A couple of months ago, because of this habit of reading more than one book at a time, I discovered something that I want to share here. At the time, I was reading Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate at the same time as the war memoirs of Field Marshall Erich von Manstein. While reading, and especially as the latter’s narrative approached the action near Stalingrad, I noticed something peculiar. I felt a reinforcing effect from reading the non-fiction while I was following the adventures of Grossman’s characters, for example knowing before the characters what their enemy had in store for them. Vice versa, I felt the influence of Grossman’s fictional story while reading Manstein’s account of his campaigns, translating casualty numbers and arrows on maps into stories about people of flesh and blood, worrying about their loved ones.

The Goal of Self-Development: Knowledge vs. Wisdom

The Goal of Self-Development: Knowledge vs. Wisdom

ARTCOVEREPI-759x500

By Joe Byerly

“For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion.” –Discourses of Epictetus

I came across a reference to this quote the other day while reading How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson.

It sparked some thoughts on the difference between knowledge and wisdom and its application to military leaders.

How Writing Books Gave Me an Education

How Writing Books Gave Me an Education

By Joe Byerly

This is the final question, in a five question interview with author Robert Greene.

Joe: Because of writing, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with academics and those with advanced degrees and it can be a bit intimidating. You don’t have PhD. You only have a bachelors in classical studies from UC Berkeley, yet you’ve written several books on some very weighty topics. How has writing contributed to your self-education?     

Robert: Since I started writing these books, my education has gone up to a whole different level. On one hand when I give myself a task to write a book, I want to understand it very deeply so I’m not just spouting bullshit. I read all the books I can get my hands on, and in the process I learn a lot about the subject.

I don’t come to the subject with a closed mind; I come to it with a very open one. I want to learn. I want to see what I don’t know and I want to discover things. By now, I’ve gone through six books and the process six times.  I’ve read thousands of books to write six. So my knowledge level has increased.

On the other hand, knowledge has to have a practical aspect. I’m not into gaining a lot of useless abstract knowledge. I want to learn things I can apply to my life because I’m a practical person.

Leaders Worth Studying: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Leaders Worth Studying: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

By Joe Byerly

This is the fourth question, in a five question interview with author Robert Greene.

Joe: In your books, you’ve examined the stories of hundreds of leaders. Who are some great and bad leaders we should study? And what do you think is the dividing line between these two types?

Robert: In the military, I’m attracted to people who are innovative and creative. I’ve also been a student of Sun Tzu. He advocates the more open creative and East Asian style of battle: Winning Through Maneuver.

If you’ve read The 33 Strategies of War, you know that I’m a great admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte. A lot of young men died under his flag and that isn’t so great. But he’s a genius who revolutionized western warfare. I like to call him the Mozart of maneuver warfare. He was so creative and so ahead of his time and understood the one aspect of war that most people miss: the organizational and structural aspect.   

He understood the importance of an army being structured the right way. In his case, it was structured into these fast moving easily divisible divisions led by field marshals who had a mission statement; that was the key to his success. It wasn’t in some particular strategy, he merely used strategies that had been in warfare for centuries such as the counterattack, the flanking maneuver, etc. What he revolutionized was how you structured the army and the art of letting go of control. He didn’t have to control the army like the Prussian generals who tried to control every aspect of the battle, and he crushed them. He gave a lot of leeway to his field marshals and he unleashed on Europe a kind of maneuver warfare that no one had seen since Genghis Khan.

Why Military Leaders Should Study Human Nature

Why Military Leaders Should Study Human Nature

hannibal-21

By Joe Byerly

This is the first question, in a five question interview with author Robert Greene.

Joe: You’ve spent decades researching and writing about power, mastery, and war. In your latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, you have written what you call the fundamental truths about human nature. How important is the understanding of these truths to military leaders?

Robert: It seems obvious, but today we live in a time of numbers and algorithms where, at least in business, leaders spend more much more time concerned with data. The element of human nature, the psychology of the people you are leading into battle, is absolutely the most critical factor. Knowledge of human nature is essential to do this well.

For a long time in military literature, authors have written about the role that the spirit of team plays in the army. They called it man management back in the day. Carl von Clausewitz called it the ultimate force multiplier. So, an Army that is motivated, that believes in its leader, that has a clear mission, and feels like it’s part of a team that’s moving forward, can operate with twice the force of the disengaged army that feels like they are automatons or robots being used by the general for whatever purpose. The spirit of the team in both war and business is a critical factor.

For instance, in Chapter 15, Make Them Want to Follow You, I talked about authority.  The kind of qualities that emanate authority to human beings is a timeless thing. The same qualities that Hannibal displayed to motivate the Carthaginians fighting Ancient Rome are the same things that motivate people in the 21st century. I discuss what it is that people respond to in a leader, and I make it clear that human nature is designed so that we are relatively fickle in our affections.

Five Army Commanders Worth Studying

Five Army Commanders Worth Studying

grant1.jpg

This post originally appeared at Modern War Institute on January 8, 2019

By Joe Byerly

When we begin our military careers we have choices when it comes to how we’ll develop our leadership abilities. We can, for example, go through our careers stumbling through leadership as we figure it out along the way. The problem with this approach is that we only get the privilege of command for short windows of time, and by the time we start making headway it’s time to move on. Or, we could emulate those leaders who we observe throughout our careers. While there is merit to this approach, it relies on luck. We’re hoping to come in contact with really good commanders worth emulating (or that we will serve with really bad ones who provide an example of what not to do). There is also another choice, though, that brings us into contact with some of the greatest military leaders throughout history. We develop ourselves through reading about leaders who came before us.

Thankfully, we have had a number of Army leaders worthy of study. By studying their leadership we gain an understanding of the problems they faced, the decisions they made, their successes and mistakes, and how they approached the art of command. More importantly we gain points of traction by which to grow our leadership abilities and become the best version of ourselves as leaders.

Below are five Army leaders who I feel are worthy study. While I know there are many others that could be on this list, these are the ones who’ve inspired me over the last fifteen years of service.

Want More Military Leaders Reading? Use The Pabst Blue Ribbon Strategy

peak-pbr_h.jpg

By Joe Byerly

Most military professionals agree that reading plays a critical role in professional development, however, the practice isn’t as widespread as it should be throughout the services. Unfortunately, self-development is about as popular as Pabst Blue Ribbon in the early 1990s.

Back then, the only place you could probably find a can of PBR was in your uncle’s refrigerator who lived in a cabin 100 miles away from civilization. But by 2015, Fast Company named them one of the biggest business comebacks in the last 20 years. PBR is now the official beverage of hipsters everywhere, and suddenly it is fashionable to wear a PBR shirt or hat. How did this brand escape your weird uncle’s cabin and become mainstream again? Through conversation.

According to PBR’s senior brand manager Neal Stewart, instead of spending millions of dollars on national ad campaigns in the early 2000s, PBR’s marketing team started at the bottom and reached out to people in obscure bars in places like Portland, Oregon. They sent reps into these places with the sole purpose of striking up a conversation about Pabst. From there, they began sponsoring cultural events, and the rest is history. Today, you can find a can of PBR in the cooler or on draft at restaurants, and bars across the country.

“We ask our sales people if they have heard of the event, if anybody else has sponsored it in the past. You have to gauge how fun it will be, how much buzz it will drive, how unique it is. That ‘unique’ factor is a big part of it,” Stewart said in an interview with Marketing Sherpa back in 2004.

This case demonstrates that if the military community wants to increase the practice of professional reading, it won’t happen by creating more reading lists or official self-development programs. It’s going to happen through conversation, through buzz. Word of mouth is a powerful force in spreading ideas and behaviors. It has transformed companies such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and been the topic of bestsellers like Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

Here’s a few steps military leadership can take toward embracing PBR’s branding strategy.