A U.S. Marine’s Lessons on Leadership

james mattisIn my third post on leadership, I’ll share insights from Former Secretary of Defense and Retired General James Mattis’ book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. In addition to his civilian posts, General Mattis held command positions in three Middle Eastern wars. He led the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, a specialized unit that ensures the combat-readiness of the Corps. And, he was a Supreme Allied Commander for the US Joint Forces Command. In short, he knows how to lead.

My Dad was a proud Marine. From the Corps, he gained a profound sense of duty, his commitment to always being prepared for what was expected of him, and a dedication to mastering his profession. As a new recruit, he learned that “you can be a quitter, or you can be a Marine.” Dad was no quitter. He described his leaders as “tough son-of-a-guns” – as tough (or tougher) than the men in their charge. (Yep, it was all male in those days.) He admired them through and through, never hesitating to follow them into battle.

General Ulysses S. Grant characterized leadership in three words: humility, toughness, and single-mindedness. General Mattis adds three more:

  • Competence – brilliant in the basics and committed to continuous improvement (no one is excused from studying!)
  • Caring – knowing the men and women in your command, being respectful, providing direct and forthright feedback, and showing no favoritism
  • Conviction – being clear on what you want and what you will and won’t stand for (albeit with flexibility to change your position should conditions warrant)

While quite a bit of the book addresses the military, a large number of his precepts find resonance in any organizational setting:

  • For any operation, establish and communicate an intent that is consistent with the mission of the unit. Make sure that it is achievable, clearly understood, and capable of delivering what the unit is tasked with accomplishing.
  • Build a cohesive team with a centralized vision and decentralized planning and execution. Have faith in your subordinates once you’ve trained them. Delegate aggressively to the lowest capable level, matching personalities to the tasks at hand. Measure your effectiveness as a leader by how well your unit can function without you.
  • Choose the toughest threat against which to train. Practice, practice, practice. Make your moves second nature. Be like jazz musicians who are so familiar with their band mates that they know how to improvise together. Ask yourself daily: What have I overlooked? Where are the choke points in my plans?
  • Operations move at the speed of trust. Provide latitude for action without orders so long as it’s within the overarching plan. Provide coaching and feedback. Reward initiative; tolerate mistakes. Encourage; never berate.
  • Work with what you have; don’t whine about what you don’t have. Don’t get bogged down. If something isn’t working, shift gears. Don’t lose momentum.
  • Keep your superiors informed about your ground-level insights. Don’t assume that they see what you see. Articulate options and consequences, even when unpopular.
  • Spend time with the troops to find out what they’re thinking and feeling.

General Mattis learned from others; he was always a voracious reader of military history. As he says: “By traveling into the past, I enhance my grasp on the present.” So, he offers these words of wisdom from General George G. Marshall:

“The leader must learn to cut to the heart of a situation, recognize its decisive elements, and base his course of action on them. The ability to do this… is a process of years. He must realize that training in solving problems of all types… are indispensable requisites for the successful practice of the art of war… It is essential that all leaders… familiarize themselves with the art of clear, logical thinking.”