Book Review: Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead
Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by Jim MattisFrancis J. “Bing” West Jr.

This book was on my “To-Read” list for awhile – Mattis has all sorts of stories that follow his name around, many of them speaking to how great of a leader he was, and how much his Marines looked up to him. I would say this book was a really interesting read, as there is a good mix of leadership lessons learned throughout Mattis’ career, as well as “inside baseball” recounts of recent historical events. This was another 5/5 star book for me.

I try and read a lot of books written by folks in leadership roles in various military’s. I think there is a lot to be learned about leading people into the absolute worst situations – those lessons tend to hone in on the fundamental aspects of leading a person – lessons we can use outside of a battle field. That certainly held true throughout this book.

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.

You don’t always control your circumstances, but you can always control your response.

Whether you were passed over for a promotion, or didn’t get the funding for your project, life is going to deliver blows. No one ever talks about how great it was to hear complaints – often it is quite the opposite. Whatever happened happened – now it is time to figure out a plan to move forward. Any time a discussion comes up around this topic I tend to send folks this video. This also fits in with Mattis’ study of the Stoics. This year is the second year I am reading The Daily Stoic each morning, and the approach to life taken by the Stoics tends to resonate with me.

The first is competence. Be brilliant in the basics. Don’t dabble in your job; you must master it.

Second, caring. To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”


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.

Mattis breaks down successful leadership to three core things. Any leader that is able to show competence in their subject, honestly cares for and about the people they are leading, and is able to “hold the line” with a moral compass is sure to find their way to victory.

President Eisenhower had passed on. “I’ll tell you what leadership is,” he said. “It’s persuasion and conciliation and education and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know.”

One thing I have learned about leadership is that any shortcut or easy solution to a problem is sure to cause a headache later on. Sure, it may be easier to step in and fix a problem for a subordinate, but if you fix it on your own and never explain what you did and why, that person is likely to repeat the same mistakes. Even if you do explain what is happening, they will often absorb the lesson much quicker if they’re allowed to stumble on smaller issues themselves.

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.

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences,

One of the things I hope to accomplish by both writing down some quick thoughts about each book, as well as reviewing highlighted passages (I use readwise.io), is to absorb some of the knowledge from those books. If I can avoid going into a situation blind, when there have been plenty of people there before me, why shouldn’t I?

To see the full list of my notes and highlights click here.

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