Book Review: Call Sign Chaos

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Here’s the short version of this review. I expected great things from Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead and it exceeded my expectations. Details follow.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade or so, you know who Jim Mattis is. He’s the Marine general with the nicknames “Mad Dog” and “The Warrior Monk.” He’s known for his blunt statements and his extensive reading. You may not know who Bing West is. He’s a Marine combat veteran who has written several books. I’ve read two, The March Up and The Village. They were both excellent. The two men make a great team.

Call Sign Chaos isn’t a leadership textbook or a treatise on leadership development. It’s the story of Jim Mattis developing from a “carefree” young man to a seasoned and savvy leader. Here’s his statement of the book’s purpose.

“My 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.”

The book is divided into three parts. The first is called “Direct Leadership.” Next is “Executive Leadership.” And, finally, there is “Strategic Leadership.”

Direct Leadership is about leading face-to-face. It’s the kind of leadership where you know all the people you’re leading. In business direct leadership is first-line supervision and most of middle-management.

The second section is Executive Leadership. That’s leadership when it’s no longer possible to know every person under your leadership umbrella. For me, that occurred when I was promoted from being the manager of a regional service center to the manager of all my company’s service centers.

If you want to be an effective executive leader, you must change the way you lead. If I’d had a book like this, I would have known that I needed to make a transition and learned what I needed to do differently. You can’t know every individual person under your umbrella. You must learn to lead them all through the limited number of leaders you encounter on a regular basis. You must also develop independent sources of information and stay in touch with the men and women on the front line. Business leaders make this transition when they move into general management.

The third section is about strategic leadership. Mattis describes his challenges as a military leader with civilian bosses. He describes how political concerns are as important as operational ones. There’s no real analogy to this for most business leaders. It’s interesting to read. There are insights scattered throughout. But this will probably not be part of your learning environment until/unless you reach the top of a large corporation.

Be prepared to make lots of notes. Make sure you’re well-stocked with highlighters and sticky notes. There is a lot of wisdom scattered through the book, as well as pointers to other resources.

Movie directors talk about “through-lines.” This book has lots of “through-lessons.” Here are three that stood out to me.

Reading really is fundamental. Leaders really are readers. They don’t call him the Warrior Monk for nothing. There are two things in the book about leadership and reading that will make a difference for you. First, there is the example. You will witness Mattis pulling books out of his rucksack to study, check a fact, or make a point.  You’ll also get pointers to lots of individual reading resources that are relevant for you, even if you aren’t a military leader.

One of the things I learned in the Marine Corps was the purpose and practice of the after-action review. That’s another lesson that runs through the book. Jim Mattis describes his personal after-action reviews for situations that didn’t work out as he’d hoped. Instead of blaming others, he focuses on his actions and what he could have done differently. The lesson is excellent, and it’s repeated several times.

It’s all about the front line. My friend, Mel Kleiman, likes to say, “Without the front line, there is no bottom line.” Mattis expresses the same thought in different words. He says that if you can’t talk to the people at the very front line, you’re out of touch. He stresses the importance of concentrating on doing things that will help those front-line folks. Here’s how he puts it on one occasion.

“Much of what I carried with me was summed up in a handwritten card that lay on my Pentagon desk these past few years, the desk where I signed deployment orders, sending troops overseas. It read, ‘Will this commitment contribute sufficiently to the wellbeing of the American people to justify putting our troops in a position to die?’”

In A Nutshell

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead is an excellent book about one man’s leadership development. Whether you’re in the military or in business, there are lots of lessons for you. You’ll learn that direct leadership is different than executive leadership, what to do in each case, and how to adapt from one to the other. You’ll come away with dozens of notes, pithy quotes about leadership and life, and pointers to a boatload of resources. If you are serious about leadership, you must read this book.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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