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Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead


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Call Sign Chaos’ central theme is the primary author’s pursuit of leadership and his maturation as a leader. Unlike many leadership books where personal stories are used to reinforce foundational leadership principles, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and his co-author, Bing West, write of Mattis’ odyssey from “carefree youth” to the highest levels in the Department of Defense (DoD), while sharing nuggets of leadership wisdom along the way. Divided into three sections, the authors share Mattis’ journey from a young second lieutenant with direct platoon leadership to increasingly broader leadership positions in the USMC and DoD.  

James Mattis; Bing West

While the stories are enlightening and leadership principals worthwhile, the reason this book should be on every acquisition professional’s reading list is its link to the foundational changes we are experiencing in our DoD acquisition world driven through the Adaptive Acquisition Framework (AAF).

Although the AAF was just published in January 2020, its roots can be found in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), written by Mattis, and the acquisition reform legislature of the past several National Defense Authorization Acts, most notably FY16’s Section 804, Middle Tier of Acquisition. In reading Call Sign Chaos, the acquisition professional can quickly grasp the leadership origins driving what the Honorable Ellen Lord, USD (A&S) calls the “most transformational acquisition policy change we’ve seen in decades.” Early in his command, Mattis cultivates a bias for action, referred to as “developing a culture of operating from commander’s intent demand[ing] a higher level of unit disciple and self-discipline than issuing voluminous, detailed instructions” (p. 44). He further explains that personal initiative, aggressiveness, and risking-taking is installed by a culture that has cultivated and inculcated these characteristics over years, where mistakes are tolerated and risk-takers rewarded, akin to what today’s acquisition professionals are being told by DoD leadership.

As Mattis reached the highest levels of the USMC, he recognized that the essential asset of speed is “the least forgiving, least recoverable factor in any competitive situation” (p.238), including inter-state strategic competition, the primary concern outlined in the NDS. To achieve speed, Mattis learned to “prize smooth execution by cohesive teams over deliberate, methodical, and synchronized efforts that … squelch[ed] subordinate initiative” (p.238). That attitude permeates the current drive towards employing different acquisition pathways to give our warfighters a sustained technological edge at the speed of relevance. Mattis establishes trust as the foundation of achieving that speed.  Trust, that subordinates can sense, enhances their sense ownership. This may include relying on strategic plans versus briefings of every detail for a fluid situation, such as one might readily find in the Urgent, Middle Tier and Software Acquisition pathways.

Reading Call Sign Chaos is well worth the acquisition professional’s time. It provides a better understanding of the roots of our culture shift towards speed, as well as providing insight into the AAF’s maturation. It sets the stage to further the progression towards delivering weapon systems at “the speed of relevance” by providing “streamlined, rapid, iterative approaches from development to fielding” (NDS).

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. Beige cover, man with blue eyes mid-speech on black background in the middle.