Professional Reading Program

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The WFLDP announces the 2022 Professional Reading List! The four books chosen for this year are: The Hero Code by Admiral William H. McRaven (USN Ret.), The Stress Effect by Henry L. Thompson, Fully Present by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston, and Bringing Columbia Home by Michael D. Leinbach and Jonathan H. Ward.

The intent of the challenge is to promote the reading and discussion of the books throughout the year. Discussions are encouraged on the WFLDP Facebook page and anywhere you can find two or more people willing to chat about books and leadership.

Discussion guides are provided for these titles and for the book selections from previous years. A video overview and introduction to the Professional Reading Program (PRP) are found below.

All branches of the United States military have professional reading programs and a key part of those programs is the recommendation that every leader read at least two books a year. Many corporations have required readings for their supervisors and managers. For several hundred dollars, a fire organization can put together a good library from the titles on this list and implement a reading program on their home unit. How many of our young firefighters know what happened at South Canyon? How many have read anything that discusses the principles of sound leadership? How many have read stories from other disciplines or endeavors that describe leaders in action?

This is not busy work; this is not drudgery. These readings will provoke reflection, discussion, and debate. The selected titles have been chosen for their intrinsic excitement as well as their content. Many of the books will be hard to put down. Let this be your roadmap to an enjoyable and rewarding reading program.

How to use the Reading Program

There’s no right or wrong way to read or to use this program. It’s a tool available for anyone to use as they see fit. Most professional organizations maintain some sort of reading program, and reading followed by reflection is a valuable tool for leadership development.

You don’t need to read all the books on the list, although that’s great if you do. For each of this year’s titles, we’ve put together a basic “why should I read this” document with some simple questions meant to spark discussion. Feel free to use these discussion questions or come up with your own. You don’t have to agree with the authors, or even like what they have to say. The important part is to read, think about it, and talk about it!

This year we are working to integrate the Wildland Fire Leadership Levels with the reading list. Each book will be associated with the leadership level that would most benefit from the information and topics in the book. However, this shouldn’t limit the reader’s choice of books, as all of the books on the list can be useful at all levels of leadership. Some might be more relevant and applicable at the identified leadership level.

Self-development is an important part of being a leader, and reading and reflection are valuable tools in the kit that can help you improve your leadership skills. Leadership skills need to be continuously learned, refined, and practiced, and there is a mental component as well as a physical component. Reading and reflection are two of the ways we can work on the mental aspect of leadership and get better at implementing the physical aspects of being a good leader.

Many local libraries offer digital access to digital books and audio books to their members. There are also many options for purchasing the books in hard copy or digital format.

Local units are encouraged to solicit ideas from local personnel about implementing the Professional Reading Program. A professional reading program can be developed on your local unit in a few easy steps that require very little effort or expense.

Start a Library

Start by establishing a central book cache or library in your break room or training room. Designate a bookcase specifically for leadership. For several hundred dollars, a fire organization can put together a good library from the titles listed in this reference. There are many possible avenues for the acquisition of books. You can ask the region/district/department to purchase them or apply for continuing education grants. You can solicit books from the local community or contact service groups for assistance through monetary or book donations. You can also check local or online used bookstores for books or books on tape.

Promote the Program

Promoting the reading program is an ongoing endeavor and can be done in many ways. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Give books from the reading list as awards and appreciations.
  • Buy enough copies of one of the books for your whole crew or fire organization to read. Consider assigning your crew or staff to read one of the books and discuss its salient points at a crew meeting, training day, or safety session.
  • Have topic discussions about books from the reading list. This will allow one person to relate the main topics and points of a book to a group or allow a group to compare their ideas about a single book.
  • Topics can be assigned or selected by the participants. Assign each person a chapter(s) or book to read and brief the rest of the group.
  • Propose a topic and have people find articles from magazines, newspapers, etc., or other books that are relevant to the topic. Have crew members present their findings at a crew forum.
  • Tie the reading program to employee Individual Development Plans (IDPs); e.g., read a certain number of books in a given time period. Designate specific books based on the employee's qualifications.

Keep it fun, but emphasize the importance of the program in developing a commitment to a lifetime of learning and to stronger leadership at all levels of our fire organizations. The starter list below is included to give suggestions to help young employees get started in developing a habit of continuing education and self development.

The NWCG Leadership Committee invites individuals to submit suggestions regarding new titles, removal of titles, or corrections to the Professional Reading Program. New title suggestions must include the information provided below.

  • Your name and contact information
  • Title
  • Author
  • Publication company
  • Publication date
  • Description (limit to 50 words or less)

Please use our book suggestion form to provide this information.

If you have questions regarding the Professional Reading Program, send an e-mail to

Happy reading!

The 2022 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Professional Reading List

image of the book jacket for the hero code

The Hero Code by Admiral William H. McRaven (USN Ret.)

Best Wildland Fire Leadership Level to read this book:

  • Level 1, Follower
  • Level 2, New Leader

This is an excellent and easy to read book about the importance of simple actions and virtues in leadership, and it takes a look at ten traits that contribute to the heroic leadership we see around us every day. The author is a well-respected leader who served in many leadership roles throughout his career, including serving as the Commander for all Special Operations Forces.

Link to The Hero Code discussion guide
image of the book jacket for the stress effect

The Stress Effect by Henry L. Thompson

Best Wildland Fire Leadership Level to read this book:

  • Level 3, Leader of People
  • Level 4, Leader of Leaders
  • Could be a good read for level 1 and level 2 leaders who want to take a deeper dive

Leaders in the wildland fire service are required to make important decisions quickly and while under stress. It’s critical to understand how a leader’s cognitive and emotional intelligence are affected by stress, and what you can do to mitigate the effects of stress on your ability to lead others and make good decisions. This book contains information that’s valuable for anyone who wants to better understand and manage stress in their lives.

Link to The Stress Effect discussion guide
image of the book jacket for fully present

Fully Present by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston

Best Wildland Fire Leadership Level to read this book:

  • Any, but earlier is better since mindfulness is a tool that can be used at all levels

All leaders and followers should have a toolkit of skills and knowledge that go beyond the technical aspects of the work and of leadership and can be applied in other parts of life. An understanding of the concept of mindfulness is a valuable addition to any leader’s toolkit, and the practice itself can be hugely beneficial personally and professionally. Many respected fire leaders have advocated for firefighters to practice mindfulness, and it can be valuable at any level of leadership.

Link to Fully Present discussion guide

image of the book jacket for bringing columbia home

Bringing Columbia Home by Michael D. Leinback and Jonathan H. Ward

Best Wildland Fire Leadership Level to read this book:

  • Level 4, Leaders of Leaders
  • Level 5, Leaders of Organizations

While this is not a book that has a primary focus on leadership, you can see many examples of leadership in action throughout this book. This is an especially good read for leaders of teams or organizations that can be expected to provide leadership in new or unfamiliar settings (the wildland fire community was a huge player in the response to disaster.) The lessons learned from NASA's experience in responding to the event could be scaled and applied to any organization that conducts operations in the wildland fire environment.

Link to Bringing Columbia Home discussion guide


The books chosen as the primary focus for 2021 year included:

The 2021 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Professional Reading List

image of book jacket for Sailing True North

Sailing True North by Admiral James Stavridis (USN Ret.)

This is an excellent book about the importance of character in leadership, and examines the lives of ten Admirals from various backgrounds and times in the context of character and leadership development. The author is a well-respected leader who served in many leadership roles thought his career, including serving as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe for NATO.

Link to Sailing True North discussion guide
image of book jacket for Wherever You Go There You Are

The Thirtymile Fire by John Maclean

One of the best ways to make sure the lessons of the past are passed on to the next generation is to read the stories of those who went before. This book is an in-depth examination of the Thirtymile Fire of July, 2001, in which 4 firefighters perished. Since 2021 is the 20th year since this fire, it’s an excellent time to revisit the events and the lessons learned in order to honor those who lost their lives. While not a leadership book per se, it's a book that covers an important part of our cultural history as wildland fire managers and leaders, and should be on every fire leaders reading list.

Link to The Thirtymile Fire discussion guide
image of book jacket for Call Sign Chaos

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff

Leaders and followers should have a “toolkit” of skills and knowledge that should extend beyond the technical aspects of fire management and leadership. An understanding of the concept of self-compassion is a valuable addition to any leaders toolkit, and the practice of self-compassion can be hugely beneficial both personally and professionally.

Link to Self-Compassion discussion guide
image of book jacket for Hal Moore on Leadership

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

While this is not a book that focuses on leadership explicitly, if you pay attention you can see that the subject of the story, Virginia Hall, exhibited a wide variety of leadership skills in very challenging situations. As an example of applied leadership in extremely adverse and chaotic conditions, her story offers a number of lessons for astute leaders and followers to learn from and apply in their own lives.

Link to A Woman of No Importance discussion guide

The books chosen as the primary focus for 2020 year included:

The 2020 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Professional Reading List

image of book jacket for Presence

Presence by Amy Cuddy​

This is a great book to use to tie into the 2020 Wildland Fire National Leadership Campaign – “Do You Know Who You Are?” ( as it focuses on many things that a leader can use to better understand themselves and develop command presence. You may have seen the TED talk associated with this book, as it’s been hugely successful and widely shared.​

Link to Presence discussion guide
image of book jacket for Wherever You Go There You Are

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

It has long been recognized that mindfulness training and practice is a valuable skill for firefighters and other fire managers, with fire leaders like Paul Gleason and Ted Putnam advocating for mindfulness practice in the fire organization. This is an excellent introduction to the concept and practice of mindfulness, and contains many helpful tips and ideas that can be applied anywhere.​

Link to Wherever You Go There You Are discussion guide
image of book jacket for Call Sign Chaos

Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis and Bing West

In this book, Jim Mattis shares leadership lessons earned over decades of service as a leader in the U.S. Marine Corps, at every level from early leader to a senior advisor to the Commander in Chief. This memoir is a gold mine of ideas and lessons for leaders of all levels in an organization, and many of the concepts found inside can be directly transferred to leadership in the wildland fire setting.​

Link to The Call Sign Chaos discussion guide
image of book jacket for Hal Moore on Leadership

Hal Moore On Leadership by Hal Moore and Mike Guardia

Hal Moore is probably best known for his book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, and this book contains his ideas and lessons on leadership developed over a long and active career in the U.S. Army. While some of the language in the book is from another era, the leadership concepts and advice are still valid today, especially in the wildland fire service.​

Link to Hal Moore on Leadership discussion guide
Image of book jacket for The Leader's Bookshelf

The Leader’s Bookshelf by James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell

A books on books that contains some basic ideas about the value of a reading program in leadership development, and a list of 50 books recommended by over 200 military leaders. Each book on the list has a section on why it was recommended, what the author’s background was, what the book was about, and what leadership lessons can be learned from reading it.​

Link to The Leader's Bookshelf discussion guide

The books chosen as the primary focus for 2019 year included:

The 2019 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Professional Reading List

image of book jacket for The Dichotomy of Leadership

The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

The follow up title to Extreme Ownership, this is another book that is full of practical leadership concepts and tools that can easily be applied to all levels of wildland fire leadership, from firefighter two to area command. This is a great read as a standalone title, and it’s even better if you’ve read Extreme Ownership. The leadership skills described in the book are field tested, and born of experience.

Link to The Dichotomy of Leadership lesson plan
image of book jacket for Dare to Lead

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

This is a must-read for fire leaders. It’s a book that takes a deeper dive into the leadership skills and behaviors that are absolutely essential for high-quality leadership, but are often ignored or misunderstood. Definitely a book that will spark discussion and reflection.

Link to Dare to Lead lesson plan
image of book jacket for The Culture Code

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

In this book, the author explores what kinds of culture contribute to successful organizations across a variety of disciplines, and examines the mindsets, actions, and behaviors that make them work. This is an excellent book to read for leaders and followers who want to work on creating or sustaining a leadership culture in their organization, whether that’s a squad, crew, department, or agency.

Link to The Culture Code lesson plan
image of book jacket for Thinking in Bets

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Not a leadership book per se, but one that really takes a different look at decision-making, which is a fundamental skill for wildland firefighters and leaders at all levels. This is a book that examines some of the ways that we make decisions, and offers some tools for making better decisions in situations where we don’t have all the facts, which of course is relevant to leadership in wildland fire.

Link to Thinking in Bets lesson plan

The books chosen as the primary focus for 2018 year included:

The 2018 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Professional Reading List

image of book jacket for You Don't Need a Title to be a Leader

You Don’t Need A Title To Be A Leader by Mark Sanborn

A great little book full of ideas about leadership at all levels, with lots of potential applications in the fire environment. It’s a quick and easy read, and the concepts described are easy to transfer to the workplace and personal life alike.

Link to You Don’t Need A Title To Be A Leader lesson plan
image of book jacket for Tribe

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

A book that’s not about leadership per se, but is about how we as humans are wired to interact in small groups, and how modern society has changed how we interact. It’s also a great study into how individuals cope with traumatic events from warfare to natural disasters. It’s a book that should make most of us think about those around us and how we interact with each other in the fire community.

Link to Tribe lesson plan
image of book jacket for Make Your Bed

Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Ret.)

While the title seems like it should belong to a children’s book, this is actually a great read for fire leaders at every level. Based on a commencement address from 2014, it takes some simple, actionable ideas from the authors experience as a Navy SEAL and applies them to the bigger picture in leadership and life. As is to be expected, there are plenty of ways to apply these ideas in the fire world.

Link to Make your Bed lesson plan
image of book jacket for Brothers Forever

Brothers Forever by Tom Sileo and Colonel Tom Manion, USMC (Ret.)

A great book that doesn’t so much tell us how to be leaders as it does show us an example of what leadership can look like. A moving story about two friends and their families who paid the ultimate price leading from the front. It’s a book that can inspire us all to be better leaders and individuals.

Link to Brothers Forever lesson plan

The books chosen as the primary focus for 2017 year included:

image of book jacket for Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willinks and Leif Babin

A great book on leadership with lots of applications in the fire environment, at the personal and organizational level. A must read for fire leaders. If you read only one book on leadership this year, this should be it.

Link to Extreme Ownership lesson plan
image of book jacket for Team of Teams

Team of Teams by retired Army General Stanley McChrystal

A book on leadership that focuses on changing from top-down traditional leadership to dynamic leadership that’s more effective in the modern “information” era. Focused on organizational leadership with many applications for fire leaders at any level.

Link to Team of Teams lesson plan
image of book jacket for the Art of Authenticity

The Art of Authenticity by Karissa Thacker

While it’s focused heavily on the corporate business environment, it also has many ideas and concepts that translate well into the fire world. Authentic leadership matters regardless of who you are or where you work.

Link toThe Art of Authenticity lesson plan
image of book jacket for Resilience

Resilience by Eric Greitens

Leadership starts with leading of self, and this book is a great tool for self-improvement as a leader and a person. Leadership starts with you, and as the author says, you need to get yourself right before you lead others.

Link to Resilience lesson plan
image of book jacket for The Invisible Gorilla

We also recommended a handful of other titles in addition to the focus books, including:

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Not a leadership book per se, but leadership is made better with understanding of how we perceive the world around us, and how our brains interpret what we perceive. A wonderful book on how we see, or don’t see, the world around us.

image of book jacket for Leaders Eat Last

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

A book that examines what it means to be a good leader, and why we instinctively follow some leaders and not others. Many of the ideas will be familiar to wildland firefighters.

image of book jacket for Between Two Fires

Between Two Fires by Stephen Pyne

For anyone wanting to dive deeper into fire policy and history, we highly recommend reading Between Two Fires by Stephen Pyne. It explains quite well many of the reasons we got where we are today.  A very thorough history of the American fire scene from the early days until recent events. Closely examines the events, policies, and agencies that shaped American fire management. A lot to absorb, but well worth it for those looking to really think about how and why fire is managed the way it in America.

image of book jacket for The Southwest:  A Fire Survey

In addition, we're recommending that folks pick one of Stephen Pyne's Fire Survey books (currently California, Florida, the Southwest, and the Northern Rockies are available), and read it with a mind toward thinking about how different fire and fire cultures can be in different parts of the country.

Florida: A Fire Survey by Stephen Pyne
California: A Fire Survey by Stephen Pyne
The Northern Rockies: A Fire Survey by Stephen Pyne
The Southwest: A Fire Survey by Stephen Pyne

A combined series of essays and short stories about the people, places, and organizations that shape each fire region. A great way to learn more about the cultures and natural process of places you may not have experienced.

The books chosen as the primary focus for 2016 year included:

image of book jacket for Yes to the Mess

Yes to the Mess by Frank J. Barrett

Leading well in dynamic, complex environments, where conditions are frequently changing, chaos and confusion are common, and innovation in the face of adversity is needed.

Link to Yes to the Mess lesson plan
image of book jacket for Brain Rules

Brain Rules by John Medina

Leadership is at its core a human interaction. Understanding human factors, including the way our brains work to interpret what happens around us, is an important part of being a competent leader.

Link to Brain Rules lesson plan
image of book jacket for Yes to the Mess

It Worked For Me by Colin Powell

Colin Powell shares leadership and life lessons, notes, observations, and insights that he has acquired over a lifetime of experience in the military, the State Department, and his personal life.

Link to It Worked For Me lesson plan
image of book jacket for Turn the Ship Around!

Turn the Ship Around! By L. David Marquette

The author explores how he empowered his followers to be leaders at all levels in the high-stress operating environment of a modern nuclear submarine.

Link to Turn the Ship Around! lesson plan
image of book jacket for Smokejumper

Smokejumper by Jason A. Ramos

The author takes readers alongside his personal journey as a wildland firefighter, from his early years in California to his time spent as a smokejumper in the Washington Cascades.

Link to Smokejumper lesson plan
image of book jacket for Unbroken

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand.

The book is focused on the story of Louis Zamperini during World War Two, but also looks at his life before and after the war, and the tragedies, challenges and triumphs that he experienced. As a value-added feature, readers are encouraged to venture into the Leadership in Cinema realm and watch and discuss the film version.

There are several themes in the book that carry over into our realm of leadership and wildland fire. Two in particular spring to mind: Resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity; and being a leader, even when you have nothing to lead but yourself. This theme, of leading oneself, ties in to the WFLDP’s 2015 campaign of “Followership is Leadership.” Even when we’re not in command or even in control, we can still lead ourselves. To quote William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

The books chosen as for 2014 year included:

Category Entry Leader Emerging Leader Primary Leader Leader of Leaders Leader of Organization
Fire History and Culture Hellroaring: The Life an Times of a Fire Burn
(Peter M. Leschak)
Ghosts of the Fireground
(Peter M. Leschak)
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
(Timothy Egan)
Fireline: The Summer Battles of the West
(Michael Thoele)
Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires
(Stephen Pyne)
Human Factors The Go Point
(Michael Useem)
Isaac's Storm
(Eric Larson)
Friendly Fire
(Scott A. Snook)
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
(Malcom Gladwell)
Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents
(James Reason)
Lessons Learned Young Men and Fire
(Norman Maclean)
Fire on the Mountain
(John N. Maclean)
Beyond Tranquillon Ridge
(Joseph N. Valencia)
The Thirty Mile Fire:  A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal
(John N. Maclean)
Wildfire and American:  How to Save Lives, Property and Your Tax Dollars
(Roger G. Kennedy)
Leadership and Management You Don't Need a Title To Be A Leader
(Mark Sanborn)
The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell
(Oren Harari)
First In, Last Out
(John Salka)
The Leadership Moment
(Michael Useem)
Leading Change
(John P. Kotter)
Case Studies Endurance:  Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
(Alfred Lansing)
Into Thin Air
(Jon Krakauer)
The Last Stand
(Nathaniel Philbrick)
Failure Is Not an Option
(Gene Kranz)
Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
(Doris Kearns Goodwin)

This is a list of books and other resources included in the reading program prior to 2014, and includes Director’s Choices, selections on Culture, Human Factors, Lessons Learned, Leadership and Management, as well as case studies that examine the importance of leadership in wildland fire community.

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