Learning to Lead: Brilliant at the Basics

Learn how and why to drill your team on the fundamentals

July 19, 2020 | 8 minute read

This is the first part in a series of articles that dives into some of the leadership and management lessons from Call Sign Chaos, by Jim Mattis.

Last year, I went out on a limb and picked up Call Sign Chaos from the bookstore. It was a $20 gamble on a book that is way outside the normal collection of books I read. The gamble really paid off, as Call Sign Chaos was by far one of the most interesting books I read last year.

Mattis’ biography is full of insights on leadership, management, and organizational transformation. These insights and principles are weaved into the story of Mattis’ time in the Marines and as Secretary of Defense.

In this article, I explore one of the many interesting leadership tools that Mattis developed in his time in the Marines: brilliant at the basics. I also explore how you can apply this to your team by seeing how I’m thinking of applying this with my team.

I manage a team of instructors who teach people how to code. We already have new instructors practice delivering lessons and answering questions from students. But now I can see how we could dramatically improve our performance by adopting a more intense focus on the fundamentals.

Brilliant at the Basics

Mattis developed and tested this idea throughout his time in the Marines - from his first leadership position to his most senior. The idea is simple: figure out the essential set of skills your team needs to be successful and drill them until those skills second nature – until your team is brilliant at them. The idea of practice and rehearsal may not sound new, but Mattis took this concept to an extreme

His units would drill their fundamentals in all different conditions and with all kinds of different constraints. It reminded me of coaching drills from sports, taken to an extreme. Like a basketball coach drilling their team in the rain and snow, in addition to on the court.

Under Mattis, the Marines hired a movie set team to build a small village where units would simulate drills and exercises. They hired actors to be villagers and enemy combatants. They made the village look, feel, smell, and sound exactly like what Marines would experience in Afghanistan. Units would drill exercises and experience real scenarios that soldiers had encountered while out on patrol. His goal was literally to have his Marines “die” in the simulation multiple times before shipping out into a combat zone.

How crazy is that? They built an entire replica village. They had Marines simulate exercises over and over again in a warehouse. It’s crazy, but it’s also absolutely brilliant.

How can you do something like this with your team?

Making Your Team Brilliant

Brilliant at the Basics is something that can be applied to any line of work.

If I managed a sales team, I would have fake “accounts” new hires had to win before they started talking to real prospective clients. If I managed lawyers, I would hire a bunch of people off Craigslist to act as a jury and have them drill their arguments before a big case. If I managed a team of DevOps engineers, I would create a production-like environment and simulate a DDoS attack to see how quickly the team could identify the attack and bring the site back up.

For my team of instructors, we already do what we call a Sample Teach, where an instructor delivers a lesson to a group of other instructors. But in thinking of brilliant at the basics, I see how we can take our simulated lectures a lot further and focus better on the individual skills required to deliver a lesson well.

Making your team brilliant at the basics starts by identifying all the skills, big and small, required to do exceptionally well in their role. Once you have the list, rank them and come up with creative ways to test and practice those skills in a realistic but high-feedback environment.

Skill Definition

The first step in making your team brilliant at the basics is identifying what the basics are. What is the fundamental set of skills everyone on the team needs to perform reflexively? These skills will probably fall into groups, or clusters, and some will be more important that others. Define that list of skills, rank them in order of importance, and identify a way to measure your team’s progress.

The goal of Mattis’ simulation was to make his Marines confident they could handle situations as they arose in the field. Units drilled plays like a football team, developing a sharp sense for the battle field. One very important skill Mattis identified was identifying insurgents, who often hid in crowds of innocent people.

Mattis wanted his troops to be able to read cues and see insurgents before they initiated contact and to exercise drills without losing any civilians. This is where the actors came in. Units would practice their exercises and often fail the first few times in the simulation. But with practice and repetition, the Marines would develop that sixth sense.

Applying this to my own team of instructors, I can see that there are a lot of skills involved in being an effective teacher: preparing for and delivering lessons, giving students feedback, explaining complex technical concepts. Each of those skills could be further broken down into a list of even smaller skills.

Delivering a lesson involves skills like:

  • Annunciating clearly in front of an audience,
  • Projecting your voice to the back of the room (without losing your voice),
  • Speaking in clear sentences so the lesson is easy to follow,
  • Varying your tone to emphasize an important point

Now that I have that list, I can rank them in order of importance:

  1. Projecting your voice to the back of the room
  2. Speaking in clear sentences so the lesson is easy to follow
  3. Annunciating clearly in front of an audience
  4. Varying your tone to emphasize an important point

And once I have the list in order of importance, I can figure out ways to drill them with my team.

Can you think of a similar list for your own team? Note that coming up with this list could be a great exercise to do with your team.

Skill Practice

There were two models for Mattis’s simulation:

  1. Chess masters who have such a repertoire of games and moves in their mind that they can glance at a board and know who will win
  2. Football players who reflexively know what to do when a play is called

The common thread is the pattern matching the brain is capable of after a lot of repeat exposure. The simulation Mattis created was intended to build up that pattern matching in his Marines and to make decisive response automatic for his Marines. He called it “the cognitive equivalent of muscle memory.”

So with your list of skills identified and ranked, it’s time to practice them. This part is really fun.

The most important skill my instructional team needs to nail is projecting their voice to the back of the room while they’re teaching. If half your students can’t hear what you’re saying, then your expertise with the other skills just doesn’t matter. Additionally, you need to project without having to think about it.

Most new instructors speak in their normal voice when they start teaching, meaning students in the back half of the classroom can’t hear what they’re saying. You can’t just point this out to someone, you have to show them and make feel the consequences. Remember, in Mattis’ Marines simulation, you often “died” when you didn’t perform a skill well enough, meaning your probably “died” in your first few runs through a simulated exercise.

I can make the problem clear to my instructors by placing a camera in the back of the classroom and recording one of their lessons. When they watch back their lesson, they wont be able to hear anything they said.

Once an instructor sees how bad they are at projecting, a funny thing happens: they remember that they need to project their voice, do a good job at it for 30 seconds to a minute, then slowly sink back into their normal volume of speaking. After a few minutes, they realize they’re not projecting anymore and they raise their voice again for another 30 seconds to a minute, before once again slowly falling back into their baseline.

Here again, a camera in the back of the room works wonders. The first few times a new instructor watches back one of their practice lessons, they either wont be able to hear anything, or only be able to hear pieces of the lesson here and there.

They need a way to practice projecting consistently. I’ve come up with two ways to practice this that are really effective.

First, I can sit in the back of the room and raise up a red piece of paper as soon as the instructor starts to slip back towards their normal volume. I had a teacher in high school who would use a bike horn anytime someone said ‘um’ or ‘like’ in a speech. It was pretty aggressive, but also very effective.

Second, I can have a conversation with my team where everyone sits in a different corner of a classroom. The distance forces everyone to project. That will help instructors establish their “teaching voice,” a consistently loud way of speaking that doesn’t sound like yelling.

Repeat these until projecting their voice to the back of the classroom is automatic.

We’ve identified the most important skills for my team to practice and figured out ways to drill them. Now it’s a matter of drilling them consistently until the skills are second nature, until everyone on the team is brilliant at each skill.


Brilliant at the Basics is a concept that Mattis repeats throughout Call Sign Chaos. It’s something he instituted in every mission and in every organization he worked on. It meant that, as a leader, he as could feel confident that his team would execute their roles well.

The way to get there involves identifying the skills your team needs to master, based on the circumstances they can expect to find them selves in (and that you expect them to excel in). Now that you have that list in hand, what are ways you can drill and practice those skills?

Mattis’ confidence in his team wasn’t the only big benefit to Brilliant at the Basics. It also helped his team exercise what he called “intelligent initiative,” or taking the initiative to respond to novel situations in creative ways without having to stop and seek guidance. In that way, Brilliant at the Basics supported and even allowed some of Mattis’ the other leadership principles like Command & Feedback and Decentralized Execution, both of which we’ll explore in future articles in this series.