(For Veteran’s Day) – Call Sign Chaos by General Jim Mattis – Here are My Six Lessons and Takeaways

Call Sign ChaosMy purpose in writing this book is to convey the lessons I learned for those who might benefit, whether in the military or in civilian life.
“Does,” he asked, “the Colonel Have Another Outstanding Solution?” Thus did Chaos become my call sign.
“Be polite, be professional—but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

Jim Mattis, Call Sign Chaos


Today is Veteran’s Day.  And, this month at our First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of a fine book by a truly revered veteran.  This is not the first book I have presented written by veterans, but one would be hard pressed to find a better exemplar than General Jim Mattis, US Marine Corps (Ret.).

The book I presented is Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by Jim Mattis and Bing West, Random House. 2019.  It is an exceptional book.

I realize that this is quite subjective, but this is the impression that I had as I read this book:  this man took his life and work assignments very seriously.  Which is exactly how it should be when a person leads others into life and death conflict.  Jim Mattis is a man worthy of the highest respect.  His substance, his gravitas, oozes from every page of this book.

I always ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This book will give you a pretty good history of recent decades of American military conflict, and action.  It is worth reading for this alone.
#2 – This book will help you understand the kind of decision-making that a leader is required to make.  And, it will help you know how to make better decisions.
#3 – This book will make you examine your own reading/studying habits.  We all need to study more thoroughly.

Here are just a few excerpts directly from the book; the best of my highlighted passages:

• In my view, when the President asks you to do something, you “just do it.” So long as you are prepared, you say yes. Whether asked to serve by a Democrat or a Republican, you serve. “Politics ends at the water’s edge.”
• It now became even more clear to me why the Marines assign an expanded reading list to everyone promoted to a new rank: that reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead. … the Marine Corps’s insistence that we study (vice just read) history, paid off.
• Everyone needs a friend, a purpose, and a chance to belong to something greater than themselves.
• Everywhere we sailed, at every landing and every exercise in foreign countries, I was introduced to the enormous value of allies.
• The first is competence. Be brilliant in the basics. Don’t dabble in your job; you must master it. …That applies at every level as you advance.
• Analyze yourself. Identify weaknesses and improve yourself. …if you’re not a good listener, discipline yourself. Your troops are counting on you.
• Third, conviction. This is harder and deeper than physical courage. Your peers are the first to know what you will stand for and, more important, what you won’t stand for. Your troops catch on fast. State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. They shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
• At the same time, leaven your professional passion with personal humility and compassion for your troops. Remember: As an officer, you need to win only one battle—for the hearts of your troops. Win their hearts and they will win the fights. Competence, caring, and conviction combine to form a fundamental element—shaping the fighting spirit of your troops. Leadership means reaching the souls of your troops, instilling a sense of commitment and purpose in the face of challenges so severe that they cannot be put into words.
• Nick’s example stuck with me: When tasked with supporting other units, select those you most hate to give up. Never advantage yourself at the expense of your comrades.
We have been fighting on this planet for ten thousand years; it would be idiotic and unethical to not take advantage of such accumulated advantage.
• If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps maintains a list of required reading for every rank. … All Marines read a common set; in addition, sergeants read some books, and colonels read others.
At no rank is a Marine excused from studying.
• I knew from their ranks what books they had read.
• As Churchill noted, “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”
• I don’t care how operationally brilliant you are; if you can’t create harmony—vicious harmony—on the battlefield, based on trust across different military services, foreign allied militaries, and diplomatic lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete.
• Note to all executives over the age of thirty: always keep close to you youngsters who are smarter than you.
• As S. L. A. Marshall, the noted Army historian, wrote, “It is by virtue of the spoken word rather than by the sight or any other medium that men in combat gather courage from the knowledge that they are being supported by others….Speech galvanizes the desire to work together. It is the beginning of the urge to get something done.”
• PowerPoint is the scourge of critical thinking. It encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener.
• Dick Stratton, who was held in the Hanoi Hilton for 2,251 days as a “prisoner at war,” had taught me that a call from the field is not an interruption of the daily routine; it’s the reason for the daily routine.

Here are a few of the lessons from the book, that I highlighted in my synopsis:

  • Coach the people you lead:
  • You are not their friend. You are their coach and commander
  • Build morale…
  • Were the troops comfortable speaking in my presence? Did they nudge one another in appreciation of a wisecrack or incorrect remark? Did they feel at ease with their immediate superiors?
  • Point people to the lessons of history – which means, of course, that you must really know the lessons of history. 
  • Yes; yet again, work ethic. In both preparation, and execution.
  • the Marines threw rocks at Amtracs, simulating shrapnel
  • I and the assault element leaders practiced mechanized maneuvers until we could do them in our sleep.
  • My intent was to rehearse until we could improvise on the battlefield like a jazzman in New Orleans.
  • Make the Leader’s Intent clear – crystal clear – and communicate it to all the troops very clearly!
  • For this reason I came down hard on anyone who said, “Sir, my mission is to bring all my men home safely.” That’s a laudable and necessary goal, but the primary mission was to defeat the enemy, even as we did everything possible to keep our young men and women alive. 
  • Identify, and execute, your basics:
  • Regrettably, too many of the men I’ve seen killed or wounded failed to perform the basics.
  • You have to win with the team you have!
  • The battalion sergeant major told us lieutenants to focus on training the young Marines we had, not worry about the ones we didn’t have. — I would make do with what I had, and not waste time whining about what I didn’t have.
  • Throughout my career, I’ve preferred to work with whoever was in place. When a new boss brings in a large team of favorites, it invites discord and the concentration of authority at higher levels.
  • Cultivate your allies…
  • diplomats; other branches of service; military personnel from other countries – you need them all!
  • be willing to learn from the “others”
  • Look ahead… cultivate the ability to look ahead…
  • “There is a gift,” Napoleon wrote in his memoirs, “of being able to see at a glance the possibilities offered by the terrain….One can call it coup d’oeil [to see in the blink of an eye] and it is inborn in great generals.”

And here are my six lessons and takeaways from this book:

#1 – You need to read more. No; more than that…you need to study!
#2 – You need allies. Welcome them; embrace them; respect them; praise them; learn from them.
#3 – Go in, fully equipped, to fully accomplish the task at hand.
#4 – You need to spend lots of time with the “grunts.”  Listen to them.
#5 – People do best when they get to make their own decisions.  Set the vision (the “intent”), and then set the people doing the work a little more free.
#6 – Morale really matters.  Monitor the morale of your team.  Improve team morale in every way, every chance you can.

I have read, and presented synopses of, many, many books dealing with leadership issues and challenges.  This book by Jim Mattis may be one that I move to the top of my recommended list.  He described how he started at the bottom, and kept taking his preparation, his opportunities, and his assignments, seriously.  He learned to lead.  And, now, he shares what he has learned.  This is simply a terrific book!

My synopsis of this book, which includes the audio recording of my presentation, along with the pdf of my multipage, comprehensive handout, will be available soon from this web site  The “buy synopses” tab has a search box to search by title  And you can always check the newest additions by clicking here.


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