Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (and to Read)

Call Sign Chaos Book Cover

I just read Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by Jim Mattis. My biggest takeaway from the book is that I could be a better reader. I read a lot but Mattis seems to be much better at learning from his reading than I am. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. There were a lot of great insights. I haven’t read many “war” books. It was interesting to hear about the Gulf and Iraq wars from a man who was deeply involved in both. Mattis discusses the leadership styles he employed throughout his career. The more responsibility he was asked to take on the more his leadership style had to change to fit the needs of his roles.

With this article, I mostly want to highlight Mattis’s thoughts on reading and share a few of my favorite quotes from the book.

Reading like a Marine General

Mattis is obsessed with reading. When I decided to read this book I was not expecting to gain so much insight about reading. Repeatedly throughout the book, Mattis bluntly says if you don’t read you are doing yourself a disfavor. At one point he says, “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.”

The Marine’s have assigned reading lists for each rank. The reading list includes books on history, war, the U.S constitution, and many other topics. There were also a few books I wasn’t expecting, such as Enders Game, Moneyball, Starship Troopers, Ready Player One, Outliers, and The Innovators. Mattis stresses that the reading lists were crucial to his own learning and development. He said, “reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead.”

Great quotes from the book

“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.”

“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.”

“By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men. Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

Click here to purchase it on Amazon.

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