I recently read Call Sign Chaos, the memoir by Marine General and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Although primarily about military matters, the lessons Mattis draws from his long career apply to any leadership position. I took away three primary points from my reading, nothing new or revolutionary (and Jim Mattis would be the first to say so) but useful reminders that we rarely do that which is so required. Sometimes looking at things through the lens of war, where life is literally in the balance, is useful to gain a necessary perspective. 

1. Open space for reflection

In our military, the lack of time to reflect is the single biggest deficiency in senior decision-makers. – Jim Mattis

Leaders at all levels in modern businesses are booked solid. Ironically their time is not their own. Meeting after meeting, without time to reflect on decisions and look into the future and gather information. I’m reminded of a January meeting a few years ago with a member of the senior staff. We were talking about a new approach to projects that would require her participation in regular working sessions. She said; “we need to get these meetings on my calendar, my dance card is already filling up for this year.” She wasn’t kidding either. This was January and yet all the time was filling up, which meant by definition she didn’t have time to reflect and it meant her staff didn’t have time to reflect (being required to prep for the meeting Tetris she herself was engaged in). In today’s fast-paced, changing business environment lack of time to reflect, study and game scenarios is a major disadvantage.

2. Read & study because there is nothing new under the sun

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. – Jim Mattis

Mattis makes clear throughout the book that reading and study was a constant during his career in the Marines and later than Secretary of Defense. This was both a result of the Marines specific requirement that readings were required as officers moved up the ranks and his individual understanding that not taking advantage of this knowledge, long distilled and thoughtfully prepared, was leadership malpractice. 

Mattis said, “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 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. 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.” 

Mattis views command as a craft that must be practiced and studied and continuously improved. Just as in the military, business leadership and management is also a craft that requires no less study and practice to improve. All too often however, those who move up the ranks in businesses fail to recognize that they also take on an obligation to those whom they lead, to learn and improve. How many have had readings assigned when promoted through the ranks? I know for myself, I can’t recall ever being asked to read anything at any company I’ve worked for as a part preparation for promotion. Occasionally, as a part of some specific initiative, books were assigned but overall the rigor of this exercise was weak (meaning books were assigned but it was clear few people actually read them) This is a sad testament to the lack of curiosity in business and rigor in study. 

Mattis says there is nothing new under the Sun. Alexander the Great, if transported into a present battle, would not find the enemy unfamiliar. The same can be said of business issues. Nothing new under the sun – therefore the lack of study is all the more disturbing. 

Mattis paints a harsh picture of those in leadership positions who do not study rigorously. I’m of the same view. I find often that business leaders lack the historical context for their craft and therefore fall victim to simplistic ideas or implement policies that do damage to their organizations, which was forceable if grounded in the knowledge passed down from prior leaders and thinkers.

3. Build resilient feedback networks in your organization.

A senior leader must develop networks in the organization at all levels to ensure timely and relevant feedback occurs. He mentioned several ways to accomplish this. 

First, by use of what he called focused telescopes. These are trusted people who can be sent to various units or departments and become the voice of the strategy, the face on the leadership. They can help the local team and ensure that information flow is direct and unvarnished back to the senior leader. These focused telescopes cannot interfere with the local team; However, they must be helpful when necessary and trusted by both ends. 

Second, by nurturing mavericks in the organization. Those who think differently or are always willing to speak truth directly to your face. Leaders must protect these mavericks because they are rare in hierarchal organizations. Without mavericks, Mattis warned that any organization is likely to find itself “at the same time dominant and irrelevant.”

Third, by being able to interact with all levels in the organization and talk freely with anyone. If you lack this relationship in your organization, you will never know the truth. Upon being promoted to General Officer Mattis was informed by a Vietnam Veteran “…once you made general, you never had a bad meal and you never again heard the truth.” 

Forth, ensure a centralized vision but decentralized planning and execution. Because things change so quickly no plan developed on high can survive for long and the feedback loops at the planning level are too long to survive many trips up and down the hierarchy. Everyone in the organization must feel ownership over the mission and understand what the vision is from leadership at all times, in clear and concise terms. If this isn’t the case, then the leader has failed.