Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Posted September 30, 2019 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights, Leadership, What We're Reading

By: Jim Matthis and Bing West

Reviewed by: Susan MacKenzie

The Premise:

At the Roundtable, leaders notice an increase in navigating a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment.  This is a military term and who better to share his leadership philosophies and best practices in that VUCA world than Jim Matthis.  If his name is familiar, it’s because he recently resigned after two years as Secretary of Defense in the current White House.

This memoir is about how four decades in the Marines in increasingly senior roles shaped his leadership and prepared him for the White House role.   From leading a small platoon to his role as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander to surviving Operation Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq, he takes us through his stories and lessons learned.

“It doesn’t matter how operationally brilliant you are, if you can’t create harmony based on trust, your leadership is obsolete”. This is one of the so many great quotes that I jotted down.  At every step of the way, he was focused on building trust with his teams and stakeholders.  Rather than a “Command and Control” style, his was “Command and Feedback” inspired by George Washington’s “listen, learn, help, then lead”.  Trust starts with ensuring that your intent for any mission is crystal clear as well as clearly understood right down to the front line.

The Bottom-line:

I really enjoyed this book, in two ways. First, Jim Matthis was front and centre in a lot of recent history that evolved from U.S. foreign policy. It explains how situations evolved and how it was managed on the ground. Secondly, it reinforces how those foundations of leadership including trust-building, listening, coaching, feedback, reflection (I could go on and on) have to be executed and then adjusted according to the situation.

There are some good stories of how he created teams that could function in the harshest of situations. Whether it involved creativity with Lego, endless rehearsals, honing verbal clarity and really knowing your people, he prepared teams that could think on their feet – without him. He also ensured he had communication ‘funnels’ through to the front-line so he always knew the situation on the ground.

An added bonus at the back is a sampling of “letters of intent” to his troops, favourite reading list and even a written exchange between General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Halsey who could teach us all a few things about manners and kind words.


Is this relatable to your corporate (or not-for-profit) world? Although there’s nothing really new here, I think the value is to reflect on where you are now and what might be missing from your leadership behaviour or toolkit. Jim Matthis is a little old school, but I agree with his opinion that “PowerPoint is the scourge of critical thinking”.

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