Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis & Bing West

As you can tell, I’ve really enjoyed reading this book. LOTS of great experience and lessons learned in a fascinating life well lived.

Mattis is one of those “Warrior/Monks”.  Has read thousands of books about history and people and, though a Marine through and through (one of his most publicized quotes was “Be polite, be professional, but be ready to kill everyone you meet”) he has studied history, and understands that there is not much new under the sun—that people, no matter how advanced technology has become—are still people, so there are lessons in history that we can learn from to avoid making some of the same mistakes we have made in the past. It is a fascinating read.

One of my favorite concepts he has (and something I learned years ago, though in business—not warfare) is “dispersed leadership”—the idea that you have to empower the officers and the troops to make decisions and act.  I recognized that when we first started LP with the GE Routing Center 23 years ago—managing all the inbound domestic transportation for GE Rail.  I realized that if I told each person which carrier to use for every shipment, then there was really no pressure on them to have it deliver on time.  I had told them what to do, and if it didn’t work out, not their fault.

So, just instinctively, it made sense to say “go online/see all the options you have/balance money and speed of delivery (and other factors) and YOU make the best choice”.  That way THEY own the decision. They knew what the goal was:

Deliver on time, in good shape for the best price.

And while that didn’t always mean choose the cheapest option, it meant: what was the best VALUE for GE.

So “dispersed leadership”.  That’s why we like our ops folks to be THINKERS, and not just “monkeys” pushing a button over an over.  We want folks who OWN what they do, rather than shrugging their shoulders or pointing fingers if things go wrong.

But, conversely, from my end, if something does go wrong you can’t just jump down their throat and second guess them. You have to find out “what were you thinking?”  If that makes sense, and something went wrong, that’s life. Shit happens. So, you then have to 1. Step up and own it  2. Fix it 3. Let the customer know.  4. Learn the lesson.

However, if there was NO thought involved (earning a well deserved WTF?) that is a different story. Can’t have folks who don’t take ownership, who don’t “give a shit” (GAS) and want to blame others. To me it’s like a wide receiver—it he dives for the ball and can’t hold on when he hits the ground, that’s one thing. When he comes to the bench, maybe you slap him on the back of the helmet and say “hold onto the ball, man!”  But if he doesn’t even try for it—if he shortarms it, or misses it to avoid the hit—then find a different player.  Can’t have that attitude. That’s not someone you want on your team.

In Mattis’ book, this is all much more important because it is life and death, not missed deliveries or passes.

If the mission is to “take that city” and YOUR job is to “take that hill” you can’t be running back to HQ for instructions on how (you should have been practicing that already).  And, when you run into shit (if you think shit happens in transportation, imagine the shit that happens in warfare!) you can’t come back with: “It’s raining and the hill is slippery” or “they’ve dug holes in the dirt and put IEDs in there” or “they’re shooting at us” or “the radio is out”.  it is on YOU, and not the commander, not HQ, not IT, not anyone but you, to TAKE THAT HILL.

As Mattis points out, you need courage and ingenuity and flexibility and smarts to figure out how. You have to think and react on the fly.  And you have to do it fast.  You have to “make decisions at the speed of relevance”, not sit and dither about it. You have to ACT.

And one thing that he stresses maybe a dozen times in the book is that “dispersed leadership” ONLY works when everyone understands the COMMANDER’S INTENT and acts accordingly. The mission (whatever it is) has to be clear and understood by all.

For Mattis, it might be “Kill Bin Laden” or  “take Baghdad”. For LP, I try to keep it real simple: GROW (although in parentheses, we should probably say “Grow PROFITABLY”. Some people forget that part 🙂

But you can tell that we don’t want to micromanage people. We want everyone to understand the vision/mission—GROW—and then want you to take the lead on that, to be bold, to make decisions, to be aggressive, to find solutions.  And with a team around you and supporting you that can help if needed.

Like I’ve said before, when I drove trucks at Red Star, the sign I saw leaving our terminal gate was “outside of this terminal YOU are Red Star Express”.  My customers knew ME/a truck driver. They did not know my dock foreman or my dispatcher or the terminal manager or the President or the owner. They knew me.

In battle it is the soldier who does the fighting, not the General.  At LP it is the ops person who the customer deals with who is “LP” to them. So YOU should be the one to develop and grow that relationship.  That has been, and is, key to our success. It is the job of all of us to take charge and to help us grow.

And, one other thing that Mattis mentions over and over is how we treat people. You saw my quote of the day this week, “Praise in public, criticize in private”.  You need to treat EVERYONE with respect. Even when they f up. (You may decide that someone who messes up or doesn’t GAS is not LP material, and that happens. But even then, you don’t demean or embarrass them publicly. We just separate them out—not their fault. Just not what LP needs).

One simple idea—we have very few rules here—but the Golden Rule is a good one to apply in any situation. “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”.  We all do that, that alone can get us 90% of the way there.

In the end, it’s all about people, and trust. Everyone needs to know that ALL of us have the same goal and we are all working our very best to get there. If that’s the case, when there are honest disagreements (as there always will be—NO ONE is right all of the time) we all know that it’s not a matter of ulterior motives, we just happen to disagree. Not the end of the world.  But we listen (2 ears and one mouth, as they say 🙂 we show respect, we make a decision and then everyone tries to make it work—whether it was their idea or not. That is critical to success in business, just as it is in warfare.

I think you will love this book. Again, my gift to anyone who wants to read it.


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