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Call Sign CHAOS

JUNE 9, 2020

Last night I met with some old friends from the Naval Academy. As we cannot meet in person these days, seeing each other digitally is a good alternative. Many of us have now spread out across cities and countries, and connecting this way actually is quite nice. As most of us went to officer training school and the Naval Academy together, it doesn’t take long to tune in, even though we don’t speak often. Having the same background and having gone through the same challenges create strong bonds.

We obviously discussed the recent events in the world, including the protests we see after the horrifying death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We discussed the ethics, leadership, divergence and the general state of people’s minds.

I shared my thoughts on one of the books I am currently reading, “Call sign Chaos” by Jim Mattis and Bing West. Jim Mattis is a four-star general, and was one of the “adults in the room” serving as Secretary of Defense in the early days of the Trump administration.

General Mattis’ career is impressive, a career firmly built on his thoughts on service, integrity, strategy and leadership. One of the many things I take away from his book is his view on strategic intent, and his commitment to making sure that everyone under his command really understand the purpose of the strategy.

Next, when a clear understanding is achieved, the general lets his subordinate have the authority and the mandate to lead and operate as required. Flexibility and trust within the boundaries of the strategy is what matters.

I think we can learn a lot from this principle. First of all, we sometimes make our strategy too complicated for most of our colleagues to understand. Secondly, we tend to keep our strategy more or less secret from most employees rather than creating common sense of unity and direction.

From my experience we cannot underestimate the need to talk about strategy, frequently and through multiple channels. If the organization doesn’t know the strategic intentions, how can we expect great execution?

And also, if we haven’t allowed for local decision-making and flexibility to adjust and adapt to what’s actually happening on the ground, there will be incoherence and hesitance. Trust is just so much better than control.

I take away three key points:

  • Clear strategic intent
  • The importance of communicating strategy
  • Flexibility and trust within strategic boundaries

I sometimes feel that I talk about the same things all the time. However, I have learnt that repetition is a good thing. If you really want to be good at something, repeating, learning, failing and adjusting is necessary. At one company I used to work for, the strategy and positioning was changed every three to five years. This became very confusing for everyone, and this organization still struggles to excel in what it does, to the detriment of shareholders, employees and customers.

It is clear from the book that General Mattis is a man of integrity. His latest comment on President Trump is crystal clear. In our digital chat my friends and I discussed this, and the reflection is that experienced military professionals like General Mattis base their views on the best analysis there is, a deep understanding of facts, challenges and risks as well as a very clear mission of protecting our democracy, humanity and the values that we hold dear.

General Mattis advocates two other important principles:

  • Make sure to get real feedback
  • Learn

This is an important reminder to all of us wherever we are and whatever we do. There is no such thing as “alternative facts”. We need to be honest and truthful. Since the pendulum tends to find its way back, I hope what we have seen the latest few years creates momentum for a different direction.  

In the meantime, I bring with me some great insights from “Call sign chaos”: strategic intent, clear communication to everyone, flexibility and trust, feedback and learning. Read for yourself.

Kind regards, Klaus-Anders