Commandant’s 2018 Reading List

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft

Our world is not exactly breaking out in tranquility, and given this volatile, increasingly complex and uncertain time, sound leadership is even more critical to our collective success. In October, the Department of Homeland Security declared fiscal year 2018 as the DHS Leadership Year. This year offers opportunities for every component to reinforce a culture of excellence and highlight the importance of leadership at all levels. I reflected on my own Leadership Philosophy and selected books to inspire and challenge you to help lead the Coast Guard through this world of accelerating change.


Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek . My leadership philosophy starts with “Know Your Purpose” – your purpose is your “why,” and Sinek details its power through stories of successful leaders who have exercised it with clarity, discipline, and consistency. My purpose is Service to Nation. It is the common thread that binds me to the country I serve and the communities in which I have lived. In the Coast Guard, it’s easy to tell people what we do – from our 11 statutory missions, to the stats of what we do on an average day – or even how we do it. But our true power lies in the Coast Guard’s collective why: protecting America’s national security and economic prosperity.


Lead Yourself First by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin. I try to abide by a daily 3-2-7 rule: eat three nutritious meals, find two hours for mental and physical fitness, and get seven hours of sleep. Kethledge and Erwin, a federal judge and an Army veteran respectively, focus on the “two” in that equation by exploring how solitude builds wise, creative, and effective leadership. It’s easy to think that making time for yourself is selfish, particularly when the operational pace is high or when you have seemingly endless responsibilities at home. Yet, taking time for yourself is a powerful tool to reflect and refocus your energy.  Erwin says, “lead others, yes, but lead yourself first” – both you and our service will be better for it.


Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World. By Adm. William McRaven. I was struck by Adm. McRaven’s simple, yet powerful, use of stories to demonstrate how seemingly little things can have dramatic impact on your overall effectiveness. The 10 lessons learned during his career as a Navy Seal, starting with the title Make your Bed, highlight the importance of standards for you and those you lead. Upholding standards is a hallmark of military service and foundational to leadership, which is why the second tenet of my own philosophy is Standards Matter. McRaven’s book offers valuable food for thought as you build your own leadership toolkit.

Never to Return: surviving the Worst Combat Loss in the History of the US Coast Guard
 by Randall Peffer, Col. Robert Nersasian, (Forward by Rear Adm. D.A. Neptun). This story details the USS Leopold, a U.S. Coast Guard commanded destroyer operating during WWII. While escorting a convoy of merchant ships carrying war materials to England in 1944, it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and broke apart in the North Atlantic. Just 28 of the 175 aboard survived. This chilling story of courage and tragedy is part of the heroic narrative of our 227-year history as an armed force.



Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Whenever we are tested, resilience helps return to the previous state. Antifragility builds on stress and actually makes us stronger. Taleb’s Antifragile provides a way to for us to think about recovering after the historic 2017 hurricane season. Our response was outstanding, but it came at a cost: we consumed future readiness and displaced nearly 10 percent of our active duty workforce. While we succeeded in our mission, we know that we can become even stronger. In the wake of this hurricane season, we are capturing lessons learned and incorporating them to help us grow as a service. Our end state is an innovative and “antifragile” organization – one that maximizes Service to Nation in an uncertain world.


On the Edge by Alison Levine. Levine has climbed the highest peak on every continent, served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, and skied to both the north and south poles. What I appreciate most about her leadership advice is her emphasis on building up team members and acknowledging their contributions as leaders, and her belief that risk is always present and must be considered. Regardless of your operating environment – trust and empower your people and remember that even the routine is not risk free.




Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy. Code Girls is a story of the female cryptologists who served in WWII, ultimately contributing to the U.S. victory and the evolution of modern military intelligence. As a member of the intelligence community, our involvement in WWII is shared through the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the Coast Guard’s first female intelligence officer and “the government’s secret weapon.” This snapshot of our shared history reinforces the third tenant of my personal leadership philosophy -Trust and Empower your People. Our diverse workforce stimulates innovation, encourages new approaches, and offers fresh perspectives to solve complex organizational challenges – empower them and great things will happen!

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly. Cyberspace is the Coast Guard’s newest operational domain, and technology is inextricably linked to all aspects of Coast Guard mission performance. The Inevitable describes how our world will continue to be shaped by technology trends already underway. These 12 trends will undeniably transform Coast Guard operations. Every Coast guard member, not just cyber experts, must recognize and harness these technology trends in order to maintain superiority over our adversaries and safeguard our nation’s critical maritime infrastructure.



Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison. China’s resurging economic and military influence is reshaping the global balance of power. Allison assesses the hypotheses of an Athenian historian, Thucydides, that war is inevitable when a rising power challenges an existing power. By examining 16 case studies throughout history, 12 of which led to war, Allison sounds a warning about the rise of China. But he argues, war is not inevitable. As the Coast Guard operates around the globe as an agile military service with unique abilities and authorities, we must always consider the forces that shape our operating environment.


This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History by T.R. Fehrenbach. The last tenant of my personal leadership philosophy is Take Decisive Action, which starts with Know your Mission. The lesson from this classic Korean War account: be prepared. Just like the Coast Guard contributed valiantly to every war in the last century, we are sure to be involved in every future conflict as well. As the destabilizing actions of North Korea’s dictatorial regime continue to raise the risk of conflict, we must not take being Semper Paratus for granted; we must work to be ready, investing in our people to lead in this volatile and complex time.


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