Uncategorized What It Takes To Lead Through Chaos

December 28, 2017by Tim Finnegan0

Often the best lessons can be learned from history. All great leaders throughout history share common characteristics and attributes that not only made them unique, but also helped them lead great movements with innovative ideas. These individuals were not born leaders; they developed leadership habits and followed the inspiring example of those that came before them.

Call Sign Chaos – Learning to Lead, by Jim Mattis and Bing West, is a clear-eyed account of learning how to lead in a chaotic world. It’s not about battlefield strategy and tactics. It is a journey about learning to lead organizations and how Mattis developed a unique leadership philosophy.

Direct Leadership

“At Central Washington State College in 1968, I was a mediocre student with a partying attitude. After I caroused too much one night, the local judge ordered me to spend weekends in jail – punishment for underage drinking.” Mattis goes on to tell the story of he and his cellmate. Mattis hoisted himself up to look out the barred windows. His cellmate asked him what he saw and Mattis replied “a muddy parking lot.” His cellmate said “From down here, I see stars in the night sky. It’s your choice. You can look at stars or mud.”

What did Mattis take away from that night? “From that wayward philosopher I learned that no matter what happened, I wasn’t a victim; I made my own choices how to respond. You don’t always control your circumstances; buy you can always control your response.”

Controlling one’s responses is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense, understand and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions to facilitate higher levels of collaboration and productivity. Research shows that successful leaders and superior performers have well-developed emotional intelligence skills. This makes it possible for them to work well with a wide variety of people and to respond effectively to the rapidly changing conditions in their world.

In this story as told by Mattis, he’s demonstrating his self-awareness and self-regulation. It is a key component of emotional intelligence. It’s the ability to understand and control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods and the propensity to suspend judgment and think before acting. It also reflects the ability to act in a way consistent with your deepest held values.

Mattis’ three fundamentals of leadership are summed up in his “three C’s.” Competence. He says to “be brilliant in the basics” of your role. Don’t “dabble” he says, “master it.” Caring – for which he quotes Teddy Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I love that line. Get to know the people in your organization as individuals. Conviction – what do you stand for and more importantly, what you won’t stand for. The three C’s are the foundation of Mattis’ leadership style.

Executive Leadership

Mattis: “It was already my habit, at the close of staff meetings and even chance encounters, to push my Marines by insisting they put me on the spot with one hard question before we finished our conversation. I wanted to know what bothered them at night. I wanted all hands to pitch in, with the value of good ideas outweighing rank. In the infantry, I learned early to listen to the young guys on point.”

Active listening involves asking questions to clarify or confirm as needed. It’s ensuring the person you’re speaking with feels heard.

Mattis: “When things go wrong, a leader must stand by those who made the decision under extreme pressure and with incomplete information. Initiative and audacity must be supported, whether or not successful.”

Audacity – a willingness to take bold risks. Taking risks challenges our comfort zone. For many ambitious people, there comes a time when you eventually bump up against the walls of your comfort zone. You might act complacent, describing your ability to do your work “with your eyes closed” or “with both hands tied behind your back.” Yet these statements most likely expose a person who is becoming constrained, bored, and potentially on the verge of disengaging.

It’s not just a single moment that defines one’s accomplishments, but rather the entire journey. It is the cycle of hard work, obstacles and challenges to overcome which stimulate the mind and the body, awakens your passion and calls upon every ounce of your grit and determination. The reward is a greater sense of self–confidence, learning, awareness and strength. As you navigate your professional journey, remember that life really begins at the edges of your comfort zone. Find a way to stretch your comfort zone. Brush up against it. Poke a hole in it. Or maybe just bust down the wall.

Leaders Are Not Potted Plants

Mattis: “Leadership can’t depend on emails or written words. Leaders are not potted plants, and at all levels they must be constantly out at the critical points doing whatever is required to keep their teams energized, especially when everyone is exhausted.”

Korn Ferry study on emotional intelligence found that highly emotionally intelligent leaders display a few common behaviors:

  1. They listen more than they talk.
  2. They emphasize the “how” and “why,” instead of telling people what to do.
  3. They engage team members and recognize their contributions, rather than continually criticizing and correcting their mistakes.
  4. They resolve disagreements openly and deal with people’s emotions during conflict.
  5. They understand what energizes and engages people on their teams and create environments that foster that energy.


Mattis tells the story of meeting one of his peers in Afghanistan. He told his friend he looked tired and asked if he was alright. This General said he was tired and he was getting “snappish” with his staff. As he was flying home, Mattis reflected on this encounter and his friend’s comment. Mattis too felt that exhaustion. The weight of command. The weight of sending troops into battle. “Was I getting ‘snappish’ with my staff?” Mattis reflected. “What kind of feedback did that encourage? Are my manners deteriorating? Was I becoming an impatient tyrant rather than a coach? The tougher the situation, the more I needed to choose to set a calm example, not allowing long hours and wicked issues to dictate my behavior around a team doing their utmost.”

Mattis goes on to say: “In our military, lack of time to reflect is the single biggest deficiency in senior decision-makers. If there was one area where I consistently fell short, that was it. Try as I would, I failed to put aside hours for sequestering myself outside the daily routine to think more broadly: What weren’t we doing that needed to be done? Where was our strategy lacking? What lay over the horizon?”


Mattis closes his book with how a wise leader must deal with reality, state their intentions clearly and demonstrate commitment to achieving the goals and objectives of the organization. It is a two-way street. A leader then has to trust that their people know how to carry that out. The organization has to trust that their leader will have their back.

“Trust is the coin of the realm for creating the harmony, speed, and teamwork to achieve success” Mattis recounts. “Trusted personal relationships are the foundation for effective fighting teams, whether on the playing field, the boardroom, or the battlefield. When the spirit of your team is on the line and the stakes are high, confidence in the integrity and commitment of those around you will enable boldness and resolution.”

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