“You must think until your head hurts” – Jim Mattis

“Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms, and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I would encounter in my journey through multiple commands, dozens of countries, and many college campuses”, writes former SecDef Jim Mattis in the prologue of his gripping book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (Random House).

In itself, this quote encapsulates the content of the book. Anyone interested in military affairs knows that the US Marines are the shock troops of Uncle Sam. But beneath the pugilistic façade and Spartan aptitudes, these warriors are also tireless thinkers. “You must think until your head hurts », says the author whose intellect is notably evident in the fact that I counted no less that 132 references to books or historical references in the space of just 249 pages of text. You can easily imagine the former Marines General carrying tomes in his backpack during exercises and military operations.

But what’s more impressive in Mattis’ account is the trouble he always took thinking outside the box and broadening the reach of his antennas. “Using a technique I had found in my reading, I intended to gather information that bypassed normal reporting channels by means of “focused telescopes.” I copied this technique from Frederick the Great, Wellington, and Rommel, among others.” Mattis wanted to make sure he stayed grounded on those who shoulder any effort on the battlefield, the foot soldiers.

For the military leader, it is vital to listen “to the young guys”, keep “the risk takers and mavericks at your side”, unleash “initiative rather than suffocate it” and surround yourself “with bright subordinates”. From experience, I know that Jim Mattis is right on the mark when he writes that “Leaders must shelter those challenging nonconformists and mavericks who make institutions uncomfortable; otherwise you wash out innovation.” I once observed a creative thinker who worked with a business leader. All the great ideas she submitted were killed by other employees who were insecure and afraid for their job. Eventually, the collaborator called it quits and brought her ideas somewhere else.

One of the main qualities Mattis is gifted with is humility (a quality notably inspired by Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant). That trait permits someone to use unconventional tools to achieve goals. Before heading to Iraq, commanding the Marine 1st Marine Division, Mattis needed to evaluate the traffic generated by the advance of a fully mechanized division. To that end, he “[…] needed a method to display this challenge without disrupting their urgent training.” On his own initiative, one of his subordinates “[…] purchased seven thousand Lego blocks. The NCOs glued them to sheets of cardboard in numbers reflecting the varied composition of each unit and laid them out on our parade deck. Each commander then dragged his sheet of Legos across a map of Iraq marked out on the parade deck, in accord with our assault plan. We watched as dozens of sheets became entangled. Presto—we had identified the choke points from our Kuwait jumping-off positions to bridges deep inside Iraq, stacking up and resulting in massive traffic jams even without fighting an enemy.”

Say what you want about it – and I can tell you that my two young sons were quite impressed that a two stars US Marines General used one of their favorite toy to prepare a military operation – but it takes a pretty high level of self-confidence and to take inspiration from Legos to orchestrate military planning.

And, in case you need another representation of this quality, Jim Mattis also convinced his superiors to disband the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) he was commanding, writing “Disband JFCOM – Mattis” on the back of a napkin to his boss because he saw no positive output to this structure. It was the first time I read about someone advocating for the disappearance of his or her job. What a jaw-dropping affirmation.

Needless to say, Call Sign Chaos is a must for any military history enthusiast, but this is also an excellent roadmap for leaders in any sector of activity. Whether you are opening up a new restaurant or in charge of a political operation, you always need people who will show a capacity for creativity and adaptation. “Battlefields are unforgiving of mistakes”, says the former Secretary of Defense. So are many other fields of activity. You seldom have a second chance to take the right turn.

While regretting I did not put my nose in this book before the last couple of weeks, I am nevertheless assured that the lessons it contains will be useful to me in the next chapters of my life. Particularly the capacity to acknowledge and learn from mistakes, the determination to make the most out of any situation and the desire to be constantly teachable through books and those from whom one can learn through their experiences and insights.


Jim Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, New York, Random House, 2019, 320 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the exceptional Cristina DaPonte of Penguin Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this excellent book and to Rachel Parker from Random House in New York City for her generous assistance.

One thought on ““You must think until your head hurts” – Jim Mattis

  1. Pingback: The bookworm, the martyr, and Xi’s longtime friend – BookMarc

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