What leaders can learn from General Mattis?

Even before accepting his current position as Secretary of Defense General Mattis USMC (ret.) was one of the most widely recognized figures in uniform. While his following has certainly grown since becoming SecDef. it was almost cult-like in veteran circles before others had even heard his name.

Some would have you believe that “Mad Dog” had singlehandedly wiped al-Qaeda from the face of the earth. But of course he is not the only high-profile military leader of the recent conflicts so why is he so much more popular than the others? More importantly, what can you as a young leader learn from his widespread popularity?

1. He stays connected with the troops. Mattis actually started his military career as an enlisted member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves while attending college, later obtaining a commission thought the ROTC. Throughout his 44 year career, he has repeatedly demonstrated a connection with those under his command from Private thru General. Whether it is visiting fighting holes in the middle of the night or taking duty on Christmas so a junior officer could spend time with his family Mattis is famous for never forgetting where he came from and how he got there – due to the hard work and sacrifice of those under his command.

2. He never stops learning. The General has three nicknames, including the most widely known “Mad Dog”. But it is “Warrior Monk” which is most fitting and I would venture a guess the proudest. He has never married, never fathered any children and has dedicated the majority of his life to the service of his country. He has also never stopped learning or encouraging those around him to do the same. He has repeatedly discussed his love of reading and his known to carry a favorite book on deployment. Rumors state his personal library contains over 7000 titles. He has also done much to encourage others to keep learning as well, including developing a reading list for those in his command.

When he learned his unit was deploying to Iraq he began studying the culture and even hired consultants to teach his troops about the Iraqi people. All this was done to help ensure he and his unit members would better understand the people they were being sent to fight- and how to tell the good guys from the bad.

3. He does not place his own ambitions above what he thinks is right. One of the reasons Mattis is so widely known is because he does not shy away from saying what needs to be said, even while other high-profile leaders as saying “No comment “. Of course, he is not the first military leader to do this but he also has the ability to do so in a manner which allows him to avoid self-destruction. No small feat if you consider the fate of previous high rising stars such as Patton or MacArthur, each of whom lost favor after disagreeing with the powers to be.
During the recent elections, he was a regular figure on television and the Internet. Even though he was not running for office (despite cries for him to run as an Independent) his face seemed to be everywhere. Why? Because some people were silly enough to ask his opinion and he gave it! But he did not answer questions based on how it would impact his future; he did so based upon how it would impact America. There is an often repeated story concerning his time at General Dynamics following retirement- he had been hired under a condition restricting his involvement in a specific program and its potential sale to DOD. Along the way, he became convinced that the new technology would save lives on the battlefield so he called the Pentagon and asked what needed to be done to cut through the red tape. When questioned about violating the terms of his employment he responded ‘It needed to be done”.
Not sure if it’s true or a” Mattisism” but it sure does sound like him.

The list could go on and on. But everyone wants to know how what Mattis does could be passed on to the next generation.

1. Don’t forget that everyone started as “one of them”. Too many leaders lose sight of the fact they were not born with eagles on their collars. At some point in time you were just as young, just as much a know it all and even just as dumb as the rawest recruit you have. It is your job to provide the guidance, instruction and even desire to do what is asked – to those below you and they down the line.

2. Stay at the top of your game. Just as Mattis never stopped learning, even studying his new enemy prior to deployment, you must also stay on top of the latest in your field. Sure, explaining how it was done 20 years ago makes for a good segway into training or sea story after hours. But as a means of providing instruction or direction it does nothing but show how irrelevant you are to today’s profession. You need to stay current with the latest trends and methods. You do not need to know everything, but you need to know more most of whom work for you. Plus, for those subjects you are not an expert on you should at least have the ability to discuss it intelligently with those who are the experts. Facing a new challenge? Do what Mattis did and hit the books, ask the experts.

3. Right thing, right time, right reason. No one wants to be a martyr, going down in flames as they fall on their sword. But this doesn’t mean that you can never stand up and speak out against the popular or party line. Many leaders forget that part of their job often includes advising those above them on pertinent matters- good and bad alike. When you find yourself facing the possibility of tell someone above you something they do not want to hear, especially when in the defense of a troop, ask yourself something- “Am I doing this for the right reason? At the right time? For the right reason?”

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell
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