James Mattis’s Leadership Philosophy
By The Army Leader
You’d have to have been living in a hole to not have heard of James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. The current Secretary of Defense and former United States Marine Corps General has a legendary reputation in the US armed forces. It’s a reputation built on stories of his no-nonsense combat and peacetime leadership.
Several years ago an email from General Mattis appeared in which he explained the importance of reading to improve your military ability. It included such gems as “The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way”. It was published by Jill Sargent Russell and I’ve reproduced it here. I’d recommend it as a read.
But right now another email about him is circulating US Army and USMC circles. Titled Secretary Mattis’ Leadership Philosophy and Guidance, it is purported to be a list compiled by Mattis. On closer reading, it includes quotes and comments from his earlier writings and publications. That’s not to say it isn’t genuinely written by him. But it’s probably best to consider it a compiled list of Mattis’s leadership philosophy from over the years. Many of these quotes you will only find by trawling his orders, memoranda and letters. Where I have done so and found the source, I’ve linked it.
You may not agree with it all, but it represents a summary of the leadership thinking of a renowned warrior-scholar and leader. There is something in here for every leader.
Secretary Mattis’ Leadership Philosophy and Guidance
- Leadership = Competence + Authentic Character
- Attitudes are caught, not taught.
- Organizations and institutions get the behavior they reward.
- If you mix good people with bad processes, the processes will win nine times out of ten.
- Know what you stand for and what you will not tolerate.
- Protect your mavericks.
- Reconcile natural polarities.
- Don’t resent the problems that come to you. Each one is a normal part of your job.
- Decentralize decision-making to the lowest capable level.
- Define the problem.
- Reward initiative and aggressiveness.
- Know when to apply non-quantitative analysis. Too early, you’re lazy. Too late, you’re mechanistic.
- Do not permit your passion for excellence to destroy your compassion for subordinates.
- As a second lieutenant, I realized my guys weren’t lying awake at night wondering, ‘How can I screw up Lieutenant Mattis’ day?’
- We are masters of our character. We choose what we will stand for in this life.
- Clearly convey your intent, in order to unleash subordinates’ initiative and aggressiveness. [See: Making your guiding principles useful]
- Data not displayed is data not acted on.
- If you do not promote your values, someone else will promote theirs.
- When leading large organizations, use touchstones. Put a human face on the mission, convey your intent, and reach your subordinates’ hearts and minds.
- Share your courage.
- There are three types of information: housekeeping, decision-making and alarms. Of each, ask: what do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?
- Be ethically ferocious. [See: Doing the right thing]
- Be eager to close with and fight the enemy.
- We have no God-given right to victory on the battlefield.
- Combat can lead to post-traumatic growth.
- Learn to fight without a C2 system.
- Fight in accord with our values and you will win trust. Every child in every village you enter should be able to look at you like a parent.
- Every battlefield is also a humanitarian field.
- In the U.S. military, we look forward to closing with the enemy.
- Combat rubs off the thin veneer of civilization. Do not fall into the temptation to work only with those who think, speak, and look like you.
- When we commit our forces to action, it will be the enemy’s longest and worst day.
- In my own command group, 17 of 29 Sailors and Marines were killed or wounded in five months, yet they never hesitated to move against the enemy.
- Run the ethical midfield.
- Keep a firing squad.
- The unit with poor firing discipline in the field is the same as the one with high rates of DUI’s and sexual assault in the barracks.
- The ultimate test of conscience is willingness to sacrifice for future generations whose thanks you will never hear.
- As long as we recruit from an America that objectifies women, this will also occur in the military. Work hard to weed these people out. Recognize you cannot do this fast enough.
- Our competitive advantage is our jointness – our ability to integrate across the services and coalitions.
- Forge vicious harmony across your team.
- If you cannot build trust, your leadership is obsolete, and you need to have the courage to go home. [See: Trusting us and trusting them]
- The services should be integrated, not identical.
- What counts most in war is what’s difficult to count.
- I had the privilege to fight many times for America. I never fought in a solely American formation.
- Even Jesus of Nazareth had one out of twelve go to crap on him.
- Ride for the brand.
- Loyalty only counts when there are a hundred reasons not to be.
On Military Service
- The members of our military look past today’s hot political rhetoric and write a blank check to the American people, payable with their lives.
- We are the sentinels and guardians of our nation.
- We’re the good guys. We’re not the perfect guys, but we are the good guys.
- We represent America’s awesome determination to protect herself.
- Steady as she goes.
- We represent the fundamental unity of our people.
- I wasn’t in the Marine Corps for 40 years, I was in the U.S. Marine Corps.
- We ensure the President and our diplomats always negotiate from positions of strength.
- Our military is a national treasure built on the blood, sweat, and tears of patriots.
- Tell our adversaries: better talk to the Department of State. You don’t want to fight the Department of Defense.
- Our job is to keep the peace – one more year, one more month, one more day, one more hour.
- Our military is unapologetic and apolitical.
- Military service is a touchstone for American patriots of all races, genders, and creeds. It is not a life insurance policy.
- America is like a bank: if you want to take something out, then you must put something in. The members of our military have, without doubt, put something into the nation’s moral bank.
- We will face nothing worse than Valley Forge, Shiloh, Belleau Wood, Ploesti, Midway, the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh, or Falluja.
- Hold the line.
- Problem statement: how do we maintain a safe and effective nuclear deterrent, while at the same time fielding a decisive conventional force and maintain irregular warfare as a core capability?
- The paradox of war is the enemy will always move against perceived weakness.
- There is nothing new under the sun.
- We must not be dominant and, at the same time, irrelevant.
- War is an open system. There is no ‘x + y = z.’
- The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win it.
- Define the problem to a Jesuit’s level of satisfaction.
- Look to the future, knowing you won’t get it 100 percent right, but you must not get it 100 percent wrong.
- Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
- An undefeated army can lose anyway.
- Culture trumps doctrine and tactics.
- Operations occur at the speed of trust. HANDCOM trumps OPCON. [See: Trusting us and trusting them]
- Surprise will be your constant companion.
- Never tell the enemy what we will not do.
- We may want a war to be over. We may even declare it over. But the enemy gets a vote.
- Be brilliant in the basics. Because from the Bataan Peninsula, to Kasserine Pass, to Task Force Smith, we know too well the cost of not being ready.
On Alliances and Partnerships
- History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive; those without stagnate and wither.
- Fight by, with, and through our allies and partners.
- Be willing, not just to listen, but to be persuaded.
- Not all good ideas come from the country with the most aircraft carriers.
- Accept caveats. Do not impose them. We sometimes expect a perfection from other countries that we don’t expect of our own.
- Friends need tending, and we need friends.
- You can’t drink your own whiskey.
- When I became a Marine, my aims were modest. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll make captain.’ It freed me up to not worry about my next command and focus instead on doing the best job I could in the one I had.
- Modesty: believe so completely in subordinates they have no choice but to believe in themselves; act from integrity and authenticity, let your very goodness put ambition out of context. Be brave, honest, humble – be a home-run of a human being.
Gain full value from every taxpayer dollar spent on defense. Earn the trust of Congress and the American people.
You can read more about General James Mattis in the upcoming book ‘No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis‘ by Jim Prosser:
If you enjoyed reading his quotes, you can read James Mattis’s email to a USMC officer about the value of reading as professional military education here. You can also read more about General James Mattis in the book No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis by Jim Prosser