Call Sign Chaos

Call Sign Chaos Book Cover Call Sign Chaos
Jim Mattis, Bing West,

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER - A clear-eyed account of learning how to lead in a chaotic world, by General Jim Mattis--the former Secretary of Defense and one of the most formidable strategic thinkers of our time--and Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine. Call Sign Chaos is the account of Jim Mattis's storied career, from wide-ranging leadership roles in three wars to ultimately commanding a quarter of a million troops across the Middle East. Along the way, Mattis recounts his foundational experiences as a leader, extracting the lessons he has learned about the nature of warfighting and peacemaking, the importance of allies, and the strategic dilemmas--and short-sighted thinking--now facing our nation. He makes it clear why America must return to a strategic footing so as not to continue winning battles but fighting inconclusive wars. Mattis divides his book into three parts: Direct Leadership, Executive Leadership, and Strategic Leadership. In the first part, Mattis recalls his early experiences leading Marines into battle, when he knew his troops as well as his own brothers. In the second part, he explores what it means to command thousands of troops and how to adapt your leadership style to ensure your intent is understood by your most junior troops so that they can own their mission. In the third part, Mattis describes the challenges and techniques of leadership at the strategic level, where military leaders reconcile war's grim realities with political leaders' human aspirations, where complexity reigns and the consequences of imprudence are severe, even catastrophic. Call Sign Chaos is a memoir of a life of warfighting and lifelong learning, following along as Mattis rises from Marine recruit to four-star general. It is a journey about learning to lead and a story about how he, through constant study and action, developed a unique leadership philosophy, one relevant to us all.


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.

the Marines reward initiative aggressively implemented.

Slowly but surely, we learned there was nothing new under the sun: properly informed, we weren’t victims—we could always create options

Part I: Direct Leadership

Lee’s Lieutenants, by Douglas Freeman, and Liddell Hart’s Strategy

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. If you’re not running three miles in eighteen minutes, work out more; if you’re not a good listener, discipline yourself; if you’re not swift at calling in artillery fire, rehearse. Your troops are counting on you. Of course you’ll screw up sometimes; don’t dwell on that

Fire and maneuver—block and tackle—decide battle.

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

Third, conviction

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.

Marines believe that attitude is a weapon system

I said to each recruiter, “have a clear goal: four recruits a month who can graduate from boot camp. Anything you need from me, I’ll get you. We will succeed as a team, with all hands pulling their weight.”

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. The thirty-eight recruiters were my subordinate commanders. “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.

It’s all about clear goals and effective coaching.

You can’t have an elite organization if you look the other way when someone craps out on you.

Finally, I understood what 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.”

When tasked with supporting other units, select those you most hate to give up. Never advantage yourself at the expense of your comrades.

I adapted a technique used by Roman legions, which built rectangular camps. I organized our camp (or laager) in a triangular shape so that every man knew where he fit. The triangle always pointed north toward the enemy. Day or night, regardless of where we made camp, everyone knew the exact locations of the mortar pits, the communications tent, the fuel compound, and his command element. We were oriented toward the enemy, so all hands could roll out in battle formation at a moment’s notice

Men who are familiarized to danger meet it without shrinking; whereas troops unused to service often apprehend danger where no danger is.”

Every commander and chief executive officer needs tools to scan the horizon for danger or opportunities. Juliets proved invaluable to me by providing a steady stream of dispassionate information. I chose men who I was confident would maintain trust. What kept the Juliets from being seen as a spy ring by my subordinate commanders was their ability to keep confidences when those commanders shared concerns. They knew that information would be conveyed to me alone.

Read the ancient Greeks and how they turned out their warriors,” he said

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. The consequences of incompetence in battle are final. History teaches that we face nothing new under the sun. 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. Even generals are assigned a new set of books that they must consume. At no rank is a Marine excused from studying. When I talked to any group of Marines, I knew from their ranks what books they had read. During planning and before going into battle, I could cite specific examples of how others had solved similar challenges. This provided my lads with a mental model as we adapted to our specific mission.

at the executive level, your job is to reward initiative in your junior officers and NCOs and facilitate their success. When they make mistakes while doing their best to carry out your intent, stand by them. Examine your coaching and how well you articulate your intent. Remember the bottom line: imbue in them a strong bias for action.

By decentralizing authority to take full advantage of opportunities on the broader front, we maneuvered faster than the enemy, getting inside his decision-making loop.

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.” “It really is the commander’s coup d’oeil,” Clausewitz agreed, “his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.”

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

we drastically cut down staff size by employing “skip-echelon,” a technique I learned in discussions with a voluble English-speaking Iraqi major my battalion had captured in the 1991 Gulf War. In most military organizations, each level of command—or echelon—has staff sections with the same functions, like personnel management, intelligence gathering, operational planning, and logistics support. As the Iraqi major explained, such duplication wasted time and manpower and added no value

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. Using skip-echelon meant trusting subordinate commanders and staffs. I chose to build on cohesive teams, support them fully, and remove those who didn’t wind up measuring up.

Business management books often stress “centralized planning and decentralized execution.” That is too top-down for my taste. I believe in a centralized vision, coupled with decentralized planning and execution.

The amphibious landing,” MacArthur explained, “is the most powerful tool we have to employ. We must strike hard and deep into enemy territory. The deep envelopment, based upon surprise, which severs the enemy supply lines, is and always has been the most decisive maneuver of war.

Part II: Executive Leadership

I pulled books off the shelves, and began studying campaigns in Mesopotamia, starting with Xenophon’s Anabasis and books on Alexander the Great—working my way forward.

What Hagee saw was what Xenophon faced when he marched deep into Mesopotamia 2,400 years ago. Xenophon’s ten thousand soldiers were a tiny minority among the people. He recognized that they must quickly gain control or the countryside would rise up against them.

Ripping out an authoritarian regime leaves you responsible for security, water, power, and everything else. Removing Saddam will unleash the majority Shiites, defanging the minority Sunnis, who won’t take lightly their loss of domination.”

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was my constant companion

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.

I knew I needed an organizing principle, and to the commanders I made it clear that the success of the mission depended on speed: speed of operations and movement would be prefaced by speed of information-passing and decision-making. Armed with this intent, my troops would keep punching through before the enemy could react.

Our campaign’s success was based on not giving the enemy time to react. We would turn inside the enemy’s “OODA” loop, an acronym coined by the legendary maverick Air Force Colonel John Boyd. 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. According to Boyd, a fighter pilot didn’t win because he had faster reflexes; he won because his reflexes were connected to a brain that thought faster than his opponent’s. Success in war requires seizing and maintaining the initiative—and the Marines had adopted Boyd’s OODA loop as the intellectual framework for maneuver warfare. Used with decentralized decision-making, accelerating our OODA loops results in a cascading series of disasters confronting the enemy

Field Marshal Slim wrote in World War II: “As officers,” he wrote, “you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.”

Operational tempo is a state of mind. I’ve always tried to be hard on issues but not on spirits. Yet I needed unity of commitment, from every commander down through the youngest sailor and Marine. Once across the Tigris, my spread-out division could face two Republican Guard divisions. I needed the entire division on the same tempo. We had to be all in, all the time.

“No better friend, no worse enemy” was in play, and I sent a smile of thanks to General Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman soldier who, two thousand years ago, had those words inscribed on his tombstone and passed it on to me

It is not the young man who misses the days he does not know,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “It is the living who bear the pain of those missed days.”

The central question was how to kill or capture the insurgents while persuading the population to turn against the insurgent cause. If we needed “new ideas” to help us construct our plan, old books were full of them. I reminded my men that Alexander the Great would not be perplexed by the enemy we faced. In 330 B.C., he first conquered the country, then instituted fair laws and orderly practices. It
wasn’t a bad model to consider.

My command challenge was to convey to my troops a seemingly contradictory message: “Be polite, be professional—but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

Anyone who has studied history knows that an enemy always moves against your perceived weakness, and this enemy had chosen irregular warfare. Now we had to adapt faster than they could, getting inside their OODA loop. Having watched how swiftly Islamist terrorism was spreading, I believed we would be fighting for years. Accordingly, irregular warfare had to be a core competency, but without the Marine Corps’s developing tunnel vision and ignoring other kinds of threats. My approach in adapting our warfighting to this enemy was to insist on the pervasive implementation of decentralized decision-making.

Situational recognition isn’t unique to battle. Notice how often a college quarterback calls out the wrong signal, resulting in a broken play. To cut down on those mental mistakes, former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer devoted team meetings to hands-on simulation exercises, demanding that his players respond to confused situations. The goal was the assimilation of knowledge to take with them into the next game so that they would recognize the same situation when it occurred.

For me, “player-coach” aptly describes the role of a combat leader, or any real leader.

Peter Drucker, the business guru, criticized business executives for devoting too much time to planning, rather than understanding the nature of the corporation itself. As he put it, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The output of any organization, driven by its culture, must reflect the leadership’s values in order to be effective.

thinking, using deception and turning faster inside his decision loop, always assuming that he would adapt

“ The trinity of chance, uncertainty, and friction [will] continue to characterize war,” Clausewitz wrote, “and will make anticipation of even the first-order consequences of military action highly conjectural.”

Part III: Strategic Leadership

I had never gone in front of a hearing without a “murder board,” where I rehearsed succinct answers to complex questions. As long as you are candid and have done your homework, such hearings are not an intellectual challenge.

One of my predecessors at CENTCOM, General Zinni, had taught me to break information into three categories. The first was housekeeping, which allowed me to be anticipatory—for example, munitions stockage levels and ship locations. The second was decision-making, to maintain the rhythm of operations designed to ensure that our OODA loops were functioning at the speed of relevance. The third were alarms, called “night orders.” These addressed critical events—for instance, a U.S. embassy in distress or a new outbreak of hostilities. “Alarm” information had to be immediately brought to my attention, day or night.

keeping me informed following my mantra “What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?” I repeated it so often that it appeared on index cards next to the phones in some offices.

Commander’s intent” has a special meaning in the military that requires time and thought. A commander must state his relevant aim. Intent is a formal statement in which the commander puts himself or herself on the line. Intent must accomplish the mission, it has to be achievable, it must be clearly understood, and at the end of the day, it has to deliver what the unit was tasked with achieving. Your moral authority as a commander is heavily dependent on the quality of this guidance and your troops’ sense of confidence in it: the expectation that they will use their initiative, aligning subordinate actions. You must unleash initiative rather than suffocate it.

By conveying my intent in writing and in person, I was out to win their coequal “ownership” of the mission: it wasn’t my mission; rather from private through general, it was our mission. I stressed to my staff that we had to win only one battle: for the hearts and minds of our subordinates. They will win all the rest—at the risk and cost of their lives. Once the intent was clearly conveyed, the mission was left in the hands of our junior officers and NCOs, and their animating spirits coached our troops to achieving my aim.

Trust is the coin of the realm for creating the harmony, speed, and teamwork to achieve success at the lowest cost. Trusted personal relationships are the foundation for effective fighting teams, whether on the playing field, the boardroom, or the battlefield. When the spirit of your team is on the line and the stakes are high, confidence in the integrity and commitment of those around you will enable boldness and resolution; a lack of trust will see brittle, often tentative execution of even the best-laid plans. Nothing compensates for a lack of trust. Lacking trust, your unit will pay a steep price in combat.

Yet it’s not enough to trust your people; you must be able to convey that trust in a manner that subordinates can sense. Only then can you fully garner the benefits. From mission-type orders that left subordinates with freedom of action to declining to take detailed briefs if I thought it would remove subordinate commanders’ sense of ownership over their own operations, my coaching style exhibited confidence in juniors I knew were ready to take charge. I had also found, in Tora Bora’s missed opportunity to prevent Osama bin Laden’s escape, that I had to build awareness and trust above me.

While processes are boring to examine, leaders must know their own well enough that they can master them and not be mastered, even derailed, by them. In competitive situations, a faster operating tempo than your adversary’s is a distinct asset. A smoothly operating team can more swiftly move through the observe/orient/decide/act loop, multiplying the effectiveness of its numbers. Left untouched, processes imposed by unneeded echelons will marginalize subordinate audacity.

All hands had to be thinking all the time: What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them? Additionally, by reducing the size of headquarters staffs, we reduced demands for information flow from subordinate units, which could then principally focus on the enemy rather than answering higher headquarters’ queries.