Reflections on Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

General Jim Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, has just published his memoir, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, written with Bing West. This is one of the best books on leadership I have read. 

I have spent a good deal of time studying the qualities and characteristics of effective organizational leadership, most recently in the case of NYU Langone Health’s incredible turnaround from an underperforming medical center to a thriving world class institution (you can learn more about that here). And over the last 10 years I have built organizations that are active on the ground in India, China, Singapore, Philippines, as well as in Northern Europe, to try to influence people of good will who are trying to make a change, and give them the tools to be more effective. I have also served as the CEO for a successful pharmaceutical company, and served on the board of directors of several profit and not for profit companies. Thus, as I read Call Sign Chaos, I reflected on the lessons I have learned and gleaned, and found myself agreeing with much of General Mattis’s leadership philosophy. He offers many detailed accounts throughout the book of how he developed his approach, and a few elements in particular stood out.

First, Mattis highlights the importance that every individual in an organization understands intent–the purpose and goal of the work they are doing together. This is essential no matter the size or undertaking of your organization. Whether a small business, a large hospital, or the U.S. Marine Corps, accomplishing a goal depends upon each person trusting that everyone involved fully understands the intent of the mission. General Mattis provides this illustration:

Trust up and down the chain must be the coin of the realm…To instill that trust, the Marine Corps demanded that, as young officers, we learn how to convey our intent so that it passed intact through the layers of intermediate leadership to our youngest Marines. For instance, you may say, “We will attack that bridge in order to cut off the enemy’s escape.” The critical information is your intent, summed up in the phrase “in order to.” If a platoon seizes the bridge and cuts off the enemy, the mission is a success. But if the bridge is seized while the enemy continues to escape, the platoon commander will not sit idly on the bridge. Without asking for further orders, he will move to cut off the enemy’s escape. Such aligned independence is based upon a shared understanding of the “why” for the mission. This is key to unleashing audacity.

Freedom to act is a second crucial point. A leader is wise to leave space for individual initiative to adapt to the circumstances at hand. Tight control, or “command and control” limits creativity, initiative, and action. General Mattis writes:

“Command and control,” the phrase so commonly used to describe leadership inside and outside the military, is inaccurate. In the Corps, I was taught to use the concept of “command and feedback.” You don’t control your subordinate commanders’ every move; you clearly state your intent and unleash their initiative. Then, when the inevitable obstacles or challenges arise, with good feedback loops and relevant data displays, you hear about it and move to deal with the obstacle. Based on feedback, you fix the problem. George Washington, leading a revolutionary army, followed a “listen, learn, and help, then lead,” sequence. I found that what worked for George Washington worked for me.

Individual initiative that facilitates the intent is rewarded. I have found this to be true in my experience both personally leading organizations as well as professionally studying effective and deficient leadership models. 

Learning to lead requires study, patience, a willingness to fail, and through lessons learned, to grow. Call Sign Chaos is a good place to begin for young leaders, and an important refresher for leaders long into their careers. General Mattis offers this in the book trailer:

Leadership is a world in which just giving orders is not sufficient. You’ve got to create a sense of ownership and an embrace of the mission by everyone on the team . . . This book is my contribution to all leaders, in all domains, but especially to young leaders coming into their own, who are trying to learn how to be the best leader possible.

I urge anyone in leadership, or aspiring towards leadership, to read this book.

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.