Learning to Lead: Avoid Incompetence By Reading A Lot

Leadership is all about literacy. The more you've read, the less you'll be caught off guard

August 2, 2020 | 5 minute read

If you’re not an avid reader, then Jim Mattis has some choice words for you:

If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.

Former Marine general and Secretary of Defense Mad Dog Mattis does not mince words.

This is another of the many lessons I took from Call Sign Chaos, a book I picked up and read on a whim as a way of venturing outside my comfort zone. I had very little context on Mattis or the Marines and was blown away by the book – it is one of the best leadership books I’ve ever read. The first lesson in leadership I rook from Call Sign Chaos is this idea of being Brilliant at the Basics, which you can read here.

I was shocked at the emphasis Mattis put on reading. Weaved throughout the book is this assumption that when you’re faced with a new challenge, the first step is always to pick up every book you can find on it. In describing every new stage of his career, Mattis starts by describing the books he read to prepare for that new role. Some chapters of Call Sign Chaos literally have pages that read like a literature review.

I never would have expected a Marine general to be such an avid reader, much a determined advocate for reading. But I also didn’t know that each level of the Marines is assigned an annual reading list and being promoted depends in part on your ability to discuss and apply the ideas in that list of books.

What ever your chosen career track, reading is an essential part to mastering your craft. Here we’ll look at how Jim Mattis approached reading and how it can help you. And if you feel like you don’t have time to read more don’t worry, Mattis has thoughts on that too.

Leadership Literacy

Reading is an honor and a gift from a warrior or historian who - a decade or a thousand decades ago - set aside time to write. He distilled a lifetime of campaigning in order to have a “conversation” with you.

Whenever faced with a new challenge, Mattis’ first step was to collect all the books he could find on the subject.

When he became Secretary of Defense, he read every book published by a former Secretary of Defense.

When assigned a leadership role in NATO to help the organization transform and modernize, he found every book he could on military transformation and change management. He also read widely on NATO’s history and the military history of some of the other NATO leaders he’d be working with.

Before setting up Marine bases in Afghanistan, he read every book he could find on the country, its terrain and people, and previous military campaigns there. He went back to books published hundreds of years ago on the region, its people, and wars that had been fought there.

His thinking was that by reading history, he would develop a repertoire of ideas that he could pull from. The goal was always to learn what other people had tried, what worked, and what didn’t:

If we needed “new ideas” to help us construct our plan, old books were full of them.

It apparently worked. In Call Sign Chaos, he says that, thanks to his reading, he was never caught “flat footed.”

While I think we all see reading as important, Mattis saw it as necessary. Without reading, you’re relying on just your own personal experience, which you often gain the hard way. By reading widely and deeply, you can learn from those who came before you. You can avoid their mistake and learn from their triumphs:

[T]here’s no substitute for constant study to master one’s craft. Living in history builds your own shock absorber, because you’ll learn that there are lots of old solutions to new problems.

There’s something to the scale at which Mattis read that’s really interesting. Many people who would consider themselves avid readers would pick up one book on the problem in front of them. With a personal library of more than 7,000 books, Mattis would go through tens of books on a subject.

For his role as Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, he created a list of 22 books to read and digest and help him command in that role. When I transitioned from being a software engineer to teaching, I read 3 books (A Mind for Numbers, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). I’d been walking around thinking I knew my shit and now I feel sophomoric.

Developing Literacy

By reflecting on Mattis’ reading habit, I realized just how much could be gained by expanding what I thought it meant to read widely on a topic. For example, I’ve long been interested in starting a company, and have read a few books on doing so. But the reading has been narrowly focused on the act of starting a company (think books like Zero to One and the Art of the Start). I haven’t, for instance, read any biographies of someone who started a successful company.

An implicit point here that is worth making clear is that you have to get off the beaten path. Books that are currently on the New York Times best seller list or recommended by the Harvard Business Review are only going to get you so far.


Mattis famously sent a memo to a peer that included this line: “Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.” With stakes that high, Mattis’ argument to read extensively becomes very convincing. You and I can still take this more or less at face value, even though we’re probably not working under such extreme conditions.

What is appealing about Mattis’ argument is the comfort he expresses, because of his bookishness. If reading extensively can give him confidence in a war zone, then surely it can give you and I confidence in our work.

Moreover, this is coming from someone who became a four star general. So what is perhaps even more appealing than the confidence Mattis gained from his extensive reading is the competence he developed. I want to become a much more competent manager and programmer, but I also want everyone in my industry to become more competent at these things.

So the next step for you is to think about your work, and the skills you need to improve, and go find the books to help you do that. Lots of books.