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Professional reading and the education of military leaders

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posted on 14.11.2021, 06:32 by McElhatton, Emmet James

Prominent military figures, both contemporary and historical have, through both personal example and their promotion of critical literacy initiatives, emphasised the role of professional reading in the development of the professional wisdom that underpins effective military leadership. While biographical studies hint at a connection between the extracurricular reading habits of notable military figures and the development of their professional wisdom, the majority of studies on military leadership development focus either through the context of experience or on development through the medium of formal educational programmes. Considering the time and resources invested in formal educational programmes, and the highly incremental nature of self-development that makes its utility difficult to measure, it is understandable but not acceptable that continuous, career-long self-development through professional reading receives scant attention. Using a hermeneutically derived conceptual framework as an analytical tool, this research explores the intellectual component of military leadership, as embodied in the idea of the warrior-scholar, and the role the phenomena of reading, text, and canon, play in the development of the cognitive skills – critical, creative, and strategic thinking – necessary for successful leadership in complex institutions and environments. The research seeks to contribute original insights into the role that professional reading actually plays in the intellectual development of military leaders. The research also seeks to determine the extent to which a military canon that embodies professional military wisdom exists, and the relationship that this canon might have on the development of military leaders in the contemporary environment. The research was conducted through an engagement with literatures in multiple disciplines and 18 open-ended in-depth research interviews with 24 emerging and established military leaders, and defence academics, in New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel and the United States on the role reading plays in their professional development. Data have been analysed through literature mapping and the deployment of theme discovery and interpretation-centred analysis methods. In particular, this thesis has examined the artefact of the professional military reading list as used across nations and individual armed services as a component of contemporary professional military education for commissioned and non-commissioned officers at tactical, operational and strategic leadership levels. The research has confirmed the utility of the reading list approach as a means of promoting professional reading, particularly to assist officers: · prepare for a posting or campaign · prepare for formal professional military education courses · aid developmental activities towards promotion · broaden general knowledge, and · cultivate professional military knowledge in breadth and depth. The research has found that reading lists are syllabi for the informal mode of professional military education, particularly to supplement the study, in breadth and depth, of military history, strategy and doctrine, the art of war, and leadership in command. The research has also examined the construction and implementation of the reading lists and developed twenty principles for the development of reading lists for practical use by militaries globally. The research has critically engaged with canon as a concept. While it has not found that the canon concept in its ‘pure’ form as understood in literature studies can be usefully applied to military education, a set of core texts have been identified as being highly valued by militaries globally for the education of officers. Although the research did not seek to prove the link between reading and the development of military leaders, such an approach being inconsistent with the methodological lens adopted, the research does however indicate that professional reading in breadth and depth is as important a component in the development of military wisdom as is training, experience, and formal education.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Public Policy

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Government


Beath, Lance; Jackson, Brad