Leadership Lessons from General James Mattis USMC

Toxic Leadership is everywhere. The article I wrote on the subject has been widely read and shared reaching several thousand people. This got me thinking. What practical advice can I offer for people suffering under a toxic leader? How can I share an example of a role model working for a toxic leader – someone that we can all learn from?  

This article will be in two parts. The first will give you a sense for the character of General Mattis highlighting why he is such a strong leadership role-model. The second will be an insight into how he is handling the US President, arguably the most famous toxic leader in the public eye.

These articles are not meant to be political, although they are bound to generate criticism from Trump supporters. I am more interested in what we can learn from General Mattis and how his example can shape our own behaviour.

General James Mattis USMC

The US Defence Secretary, General James Mattis is a former US Marine Corps Officer. Typically, a former serviceman has to have been outside of the military for more than seven years before they can be selected for the post. Mattis had to be voted into the position by both houses. The senate voted him in by a margin of 98-1, an unusually high vote of confidence for President Trump’s first appointment.

Mattis entered politics with an incredible reputation. He is known to be an exceptional leader; a well read intellectual with a strategic mind. He is also known to be direct and aggressive when necessary as well as someone who is comfortable rubbing shoulders with Heads of State and the men on the ground.

There are a few stories that I want to share that highlight him as a great leader and one that we can all learn from.

Servant Leadership

In One Bullet Away, Nathanial Fick shares a story about General Mattis which demonstrates his commitment to the Marines under his command. Fick’s platoon had stopped for the night. As you would expect, they posted sentries on the perimeter of their position, two men in a foxhole to keep watch whilst the others slept. One of the responsibilities of an Officer is to check the line and make sure the men are settled and have what they need. It’s an informal leadership opportunity to pass on the latest information on what is going on at a higher level and what they can expect over the next couple of days. It’s also a chance to check the morale of the men and find out what is on their minds.

Agile Consultation

When Captain Fick got to one of the foxholes, he was initially irritated to find three men in it. Why was someone out of place? he thought. On closer inspection he realised that the third man was General Mattis doing the same as he was, checking the line, making sure the guys were okay and just talking to them.

Mattis understands servant leadership. He knows that his role as a leader is to serve the men under him. We know this because his behaviour supports what he says is important. The men are his priority – everything else is secondary to their needs.

Leading by Example

This isn’t the first time he’s been known to focus his attention on the men under his command. Whilst stationed in Washington over Christmas, General Mattis replaced a Major over the holiday period so the Major could spend it at home with his family.

Mattis, who doesn’t have children, just quietly took the duty, no fanfare, no sharing on social media. Just quietly doing his duty on behalf of someone else.

The only reason we know about this is because the USMC Commandant, General Krulak, happened to be visiting all the Marines on duty in Washington with his wife. To his surprise, he found Mattis on duty having relieved an Officer far junior to him. The full story can be found here.

Humility, Respect and Service

Veterans Day in the US is a public holiday. Many people will go to Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects to fallen US servicemen. One former servicemen tells the story of a single man walking alone around the gravestones of the servicemen who had lost their lives in the war against terror.  On closer inspection, he realised it was General Mattis quietly paying his respects.

No press, no entourage, just a moment of quiet personal reflection of the sacrifices these men had made. Full story.

Role Models shape our behaviour by providing us with examples to emulate. 

Stoic philosophy talks about the concept of ‘The Sage’, the perfect individual who does the right thing every time, who acts with complete integrity. The Sage doesn’t exist, because we’re all human and we all make mistakes. However, when faced with a decision a stoic will ask themselves ‘what would the sage do, what would a better person do?’

The idea is to get you to think about an example you want to emulate and act in accordance with that. We often know what the ‘right thing to do is’.

We know that we should exercise and eat healthily, spend time really focussing on the needs of our children. But knowing what to do and doing it are two different things. The concept of the sage or the perfect example is designed to get you to reflect on your own behaviour and raise the bar.

General Mattis is a great example of a leader because he leads by example. He understands that his behaviour set the tone and culture for the USMC. These annecdotes highlight his understanding that leadership is not about what you say, it is about what you do every single day. It’s about supporting the people you lead above all else and providing them with an example to follow.

Towards the end of 2017, Mattis’ diary was released under a freedom of information request. It gives us an insight into where the new US Defence Secretary spends his time which indicates what he believes to be important.

Next week, I’ll share some lessons on ‘managing up and dealing with a toxic leader’, something I believe General Mattis is doing exceptionally well.



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