Call Sign Chaos

Learning to Lead


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  • ISBN: 978-0812996838
  • My Rating: 5/10

In Call Sign Chaos Jim Mattis talks about his career in the U.S. Army – where he became a four-star general – and the leadership lessons he learned along the way in the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.

I found Call Sign Chaos an informative book that gave me a little insight into how a general thinks. However, I didn't like the writing style: it was often dry and with a lot of military jargon and patriotism. And sometimes I had to fight against falling asleep...

My notes


The Marines teach you, above all, how to adapt, improvise, and overcome. But they expect you to have done your homework, to have mastered your profession. Amateur performance is anathema, and the Marines are bluntly critical of falling short, satisfied only with 100 percent effort and commitment. Yet over the course of my career, every time I made a mistake – and I made many – the Marines promoted me. They recognized that those mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right.

In any organization, it's all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most in selecting others for promotion or critical roles were initiative and aggressiveness. I looked for those hallmarks in those I served alongside. Institutions get the behaviors they reward.

[...] the Marines reward initiative aggressively implemented.

Direct Leadership

A Carefree Youth Joins the Disciplined Marines

My fall on the ice had driven home to me that I wanted to spend my career among men like that: men who dealt with life as it came at them, who were more interested in living life fully than in their own longevity. I didn't care about making money. I wanted to be outdoors – and in the company of adventurous people. For me, the Marines had the right spirit and the right way of looking at life. My fall would serve as a metaphor for my subsequent career in the Marines: You make mistakes, or life knocks you down; either way, you get up and get on with it. You deal with life. You don't whine about it.

A life is not important except in its impact on other lives.

From that wayward philosopher I learned that no matter what happened, I wasn't a victim; I made my own choices how to respond. You don't always control your circumstances, but you can always control your response.

We were evaluated and molded by corporals and sergeants fresh from Vietnam battlefields, determined that we aspiring lieutenants would make good officers – or be sent home. Those sergeants never accepted that we were giving our best effort; rather, they always pushed us to do more. Either you kept up with them on the steep, muddy hill trails, completed the obstacle course in the allotted time, and qualified on the rifle range or you went home. They dangled airline tickets home to entice us to quit, to take the easy way out.

Have faith in your subordinates after you have trained them.

My early years with my Marines taught me leadership fundamentals, summed up in the three Cs. 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. [...] Second, caring. To quote Teddy Roosevelt, "Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care." [...] Third, conviction. [...] 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.

Recruit for Attitude, Train for Skill

I had learned in the fleet that in harmonious, effective units, everyone owns the unit mission. If you as the commander define the mission as your responsibility, you have already failed. It was our mission, never my mission.

"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.

Partial commitment changes everything – it reduces the sense that the mission comes first. From my first days, I had been taught that the Marines were satisfied only with 100 percent commitment from us and were completely dissatisfied with 99 percent. You can't have an elite organization if you look the other way when someone craps out on you.


We rehearsed each drill and contingency ad nauseam, until my troops were glaring at me as if I thought they were idiots. We all knew one another's jobs so well that we could adapt to any surprise. My intent was to rehearse until we could improvise on the battlefield like a jazzman in New Orleans. This required a mastery of the instruments of war, just as a jazz musician masters his musical instrument.

Combat involves a level of intensity that is difficult to prepare for even with the most grueling training. How do you prepare your men for the shock of battle? For one thing, you need to make sure that your training is so hard and varied that it removes complacency and creates muscle memory – instinctive reflexes – within a mind disciplined to identify and react to the unexpected. And once your men have been trained, you need to ensure that they are in the same unit long enough to know their brothers and develop trust and confidence in one another.

The key to preparation for those who hadn't yet been in battle was imaging. The goal was to ensure that every grunt had fought a dozen times, mentally and physically, before he ever fired his first bullet in battle, tasted the gunpowder grit in his teeth, or saw blood seeping into the dirt. I wanted my troops to imagine what would happen, to develop mental images, to think ahead to the explosions, yelled orders, and, above all, the deafening cacophony. Battle is so loud that it is hard to hear – let alone make sense of – what someone is trying to direct you to do in the midst of the chaos. At that instant, the muscle memory of training and rehearsals must kick in; swift decisions have to be made with inadequate information. Every warrior must know his weapon, his job, and his comrades' reactions so well that he functions without hesitation.

I've found this imaging technique – walking through what lies ahead, acclimating hearts and minds to the unexpected – an essential leadership tool.

All this preparation gave me confidence in my men, but no less important was making sure they had confidence in me.

To maintain my emotional equilibrium, I knew I couldn't be informed about casualties, let alone their names, while fighting. I instructed my staff not to report the names or the number of casualties to me unless their mission was jeopardized. The doctors and corpsmen, with the cooks as stretcher-bearers, would care for the wounded and swiftly evacuate them. I would remain focused on accomplishing the mission. On some level, I knew every one of my men, and I didn't want to think of his face if he was hit. As the leader, anticipating heavy casualties, I had to compartmentalize my emotions. Otherwise I would distract myself from what had to be done. The mission comes first. Personal solace must wait for another day. I knew my limitations.


Reading is an honor and a gift from a warrior or historian who – a decade or a thousand decades ago – set aside time to write. He distilled a lifetime of campaigning in order to have a "conversation" with you. We have been fighting on this planet for ten thousand years; it would be idiotic and unethical to not take advantage of such accumulated experiences. 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. Any commander who claims he is "too busy to read" is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.

Reading sheds light on the dark path ahead. By traveling into the past, I enhance my grasp of the present.

In drafting my intent, I learned to provide only what is necessary to achieve a clearly defined end state: tell your team the purpose of the operation, giving no more than the essential details of how you intend to achieve the mission, and then clearly state your goal or end state, one that enables what you intend to do next. Leave the "how" to your subordinates, who must be trained and rewarded for exercising initiative, taking advantage of opportunities and problems as they arise.

Subordinate commanders cannot seize fleeting opportunities if they do not understand the purpose behind an order. The correct exercise of independent action requires a common understanding between the commander and the subordinate, of both the mission and the commander's intent of what the mission is expected to accomplish.

If a commander expects subordinates to seize fleeting opportunities under stress, his organization must reward this behavior in all facets of training, promoting, and commending. More important, he must be tolerant of mistakes. If the risk takers are punished, then you will retain in your ranks only the risk averse.


If you can't talk freely with the most junior members of your organization, then you've lost touch.

When you are in command, there is always the next decision waiting to be made. You don't have time to pace back and forth like Hamlet, zigzagging one way and the other. You do your best and live with the consequences. A commander has to compartmentalize his emotions and remain focused on the mission. You must decide, act, and move on.

Executive Leadership

The March Up

Note to all executives over the age of thirty: always keep close to you youngsters who are smarter than you.

We carried only a few cots; these were for the sick or wounded. Everyone else slept on the ground, regardless of rank. [...] Every Marine – from general to private – carried his home in his rucksack. No extras for anyone; all hands lived with the same level of discomfort as the lowest-ranking infantryman.

To win a dogfight, Boyd wrote, you have to observe what is going on, orient yourself, decide what to do, and act before your opponent has completed his version of that same process, repeating and repeating this loop faster than your foe.

When things go wrong, a leader must stand by those who made the decision under extreme pressure and with incomplete information. Initiative and audacity must be supported, whether or not successful.

A Division in Its Prime

[...] leadership can't depend on emails or written words. Leaders are not potted plants, and at all levels they must be constantly out at the critical points doing whatever is required to keep their teams energized, especially when everyone is exhausted.

We learn most about ourselves when things go wrong.

Your troops must be confident about how much you care about them before they can commit fully to a mission that could cost them their lives.

As the commanding general, you concentrate on outsmarting and outmaneuvering the enemy. But you cannot outmaneuver the odds. No matter how ferociously you study, plot, and attack, some of your brave young troops will die. You try your best to make that number as small as possible. But you can never drive it to zero.


You don't order your men to attack and risk death, and then go wobbly, stopping the attack and allowing the enemy to resupply and to recover his fighting spirit. He will be tougher when he next fights you, and your troops could understandably lose confidence in your leadership.

Cascading Consequences

The press rightly plays a devil's advocate role and doesn't have to be right or accurate in that capacity. But whether you're a general or a CEO [...], you have to fight a false narrative or it will assuredly be accepted as fact. In the information age, you can't retreat to your office and let your public affairs officer take the tough questions.

My directive was to let reporters go where they wanted. [...] If there's something you don't want people to see, you ought to reconsider what you're doing.

Fighting While Transforming

Regardless of rank or occupation, I believe that all leaders should be coaches at heart.

Hold the Line

[...] a leader's role is problem solving. If you don't like problems, stay out of leadership.

The grunt makes instant, difficult choices in the heat of battle. He may open a door and hesitate, and a week later be buried six thousand miles away. Or he may open a door, perceive an immediate threat, and open fire, only to kill a noncombatant.

The most important six inches on the battlefield are between your ears.

Essential NATO

Conviction doesn't mean you should not change your mind when circumstance or new information warrant it. A leader must be willing to change and make change. Senior staffs sometimes need pruning. It's easy to get into a bureaucratic rut where things are done a certain way because they're done a certain way. That seems absurd when you read it in print – but it's the norm in large organizations. Every few months, a leader has to step back and question what he and his organization are doing.

Disbanding Bureaucracy


Strategic Leadership

Central Command: The Trigonometry Level of Warfare


Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

It's frustrating to listen to any leader blame his predecessor, especially a political leader regarding a situation that he knew existed when he ran for office.

A wise leader must deal with reality and state what he intends, and what level of commitment he is willing to invest in achieving that end. He then has to trust that his subordinates know how to carry that out. Wise leadership requires collaboration; otherwise it will lead to failure.

Unless you want to lose, you don't tell an enemy when you are done fighting, and you don't set an exit unrelated to the situation on the ground.

Friend or Foe

There is no shortcut to taking the time to listen to others and find common ground.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the decision of going to war is too great a matter to stumble into or to half-step toward once the decision is taken.


[...] I believe now that everyone needs a mentor or to be a mentor [...]. At the same time, there's no substitute for constant study to master one's craft. Living in history builds your own shock absorber, because you'll learn that there are lots of old solutions to new problems. If you haven't read hundreds of books, learning from others who went before you, you are functionally illiterate – you can't coach and you can't lead.

Allowing bad processes to stump good people is intolerable.

Leaders at all ranks, but especially at high ranks, must keep in their inner circle people who will unhesitatingly point out when a leader's personal behavior or decisions are not appropriate.

Epilogue: America as Its Own Ally