3 Things that Every Leader Can Learn from Our Secretary of Defense, James Mattis

3 Things that Every Leader Can Learn from Our Secretary of Defense, James Mattis

Regardless of your political affiliation, one thing is apparent from the current presidency that I think many of of us could agree upon: this is a difficult cabinet to serve in. Well, I don’t know that there was ever an easy cabinet to serve in, but there is a political minefield out there for any appointed executive who steps on the wrong toes or who says the wrong thing. And given that the media and blogosphere seems to be irking to scrutinize any member of the Trump Administration who has a misstep, heading any federal department seems like it would be a really tough spot to be in about now.

Yet one man seems to be handling everything in stride, and that man is the Secretary of Defense, James “Maddog” Mattis.  Not a stranger to leadership, Mattis is well known in military circles for his accomplishments as a United States Marine Corps General who led troops into battle in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He obtained cult status amongst Marines for his blunt tone and his leadership style. Now he’s providing a text book case of excellent leadership as the head of the Department of Defense.

Here are three things we can all learn from Maddog Mattis’s leadership since he took over as Secretary of Defense:

The Mission Comes First and Drama Doesn’t Fit Into the Mission

It could be his long military background, but Secretary Mattis does not seem to give a damn about politics. All he cares about is increasing the effectiveness and lethality of the US Military, and he does not care who he needs to work with in order to do it. Recently, he chided Congress for not working across party lines to approve the Defense budget stating,

“I need bipartisan support for this budget request. In the past, by failing to pass a budget on time or eliminate the threat of sequestration, Congress sidelined itself from its active Constitutional oversight role. It has blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative, and placed troops at greater risk. Despite the tremendous efforts of this committee, Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.”

Additionally, Secretary Mattis has gone to great pains to remain apolitical and has rejected even the slightest hint of partisanship. He has rejected offers to appear on more political television news shows, and during President Trump’s first cabinet meeting, nearly every cabinet member went out of his way to praise the President, while Mattis heaped praise on the Department of Defense and the thousands of service men and women currently putting their lives on the line for this country:

“Mr. President, it’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense. And we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength. Thank you.”

Mattis’s position as head of the Department of Defense requires independent analysis of the threats to US National Security, not politics, and Mattis has managed to stay above the political fray rather than getting swept up by it.

Here’s what we can learn from this:

  • For any leader, keeping the mission and organizational success at the forefront above any petty differences is vital to successful mission accomplishment.
  • Perceptions matter here because all the eyes in your department and in the boardroom are on you, and keeping your reputation clean of political innuendo and drama is a necessary facet to any organizational leader. What’s important is getting the job done, not winning petty pissing contests.

Lead up the Chain, and Own Everything

This is one of the leadership principles outlined by Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Lief Babin in their book Extreme Ownership. It essentially means that you are helping your boss to become a better leader. One of the more noticeable aspects of this presidency is that Secretary Mattis has been able to exert a quiet influence over Trump, who sees Mattis as the “General Patton” of today’s military. And to President Trump’s credit as a manager, it seems that he has willingly deferred to Mattis’s superior expertise in the most vital matters of US National Security.

Mattis is most definitely not a “yes man” and has publicly differed from the President on matters ranging from enhanced interrogation to NATO, but he has done so in the most diplomatic ways possible. Additionally, he seems to have influenced the President’s view on torture and his evolving view of Russia, at least in part.

This is probably one of the most delicate aspects of leadership for a man in Mattis’s position. It necessitates a realization that he serves at the pleasure of the President but not the President himself. Basically, Mattis serves the United States of America and the Department of Defense, but President Trump can fire him at any time. If Mattis was a man driven by ego, and he publicly stepped on the President’s toes over policy disputes, he could easily be fired. But as a leader, Mattis knows that this would not do him, the Department of Defense, or the United States of America any good.

To say the least, Mattis has handled this balancing act quite well. If anything, despite obvious differences of opinion, Mattis has helped the Commander in Chief look great when it comes to national security even while he is taking heavy criticism in other areas. President Trump has been able to take credit for a highly effective surround and destroy strategy against ISIL because he has allowed the Department of Defense to take initiatives that past presidents have not, while Secretary Mattis has remained quiet about his role in these successes.

At the same time, when the media disputed the success of Seal Team 6’s raid on an Al Qaeda outpost in Yemen, the President was able to say that the raid was approved based on the “advice of his generals,” and Mattis responded to these reports by standing his ground and disputing clams that “no actionable intelligence was gathered from that raid.” By adding his highly credible voice in disputing these claims, Mattis was able to fend off congressional criticism.

For example, Senator Jim Inhofe, R-Ok, of the Senate Armed Services Committee stated that he believed Mattis’s statement that actionable intelligence was gathered during the raid. Senator John McCain, R-Az, often a critic of the President, went on to dispute a Reuters report that the raid was conducted without sufficient intelligence by saying “I don’t think Mattis would have done that.”

In another example, during his recent Defense Budget Hearing, Secretary Mattis also refused to bite at criticism of the $605 million budget set by the Trump Adminsitration, which many conservatives thought was too low and many Democrats thought was too high. He stated,

“I’m here to defend the budget as it stands because I can defend every priority there,” Mattis said at the hearing, “I have to represent the president’s budget since he’s having to deal with a wider portfolio than just defense.”

Again, Mattis is looking at the overall mission here even though he probably originally wanted more money for the Defense budget. If he criticizes the President and shoots down the plan, the Department of Defense has to wait longer for funding and our troops go unprepared while he puts a giant wrench into his relationship with President Trump.

Instead, he brought his reputation and credibility to the hearing, stating bluntly to those elected officials attending the hearing that Congress has “sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role” by failing to deliver a steady stream of funding to pay for new weapons and other critical gear

Here are some key points for leaders to gain from this:

  • Get rid of your ego. If you have a difference of opinion from your boss as to how something should be done or what should be done, it’s important to remember one thing: you’re on the same team. You should want to help your boss look good, and at the end of the day, if the team wins, you both win. Influence rarely happens successfully as a result of butting heads with your superiors. Rather, influence grows when you build a relationship based off of mutual respect and credibility.
  • Help your superiors take credit, and don’t try to hog all the glory for yourself. The more you help your boss to look good, the more your boss depends on you and the more indispensable you become. This, in turn, will increase your influence and allow you to obtain more of your objectives.
  • If something goes wrong, never run away from it or try to shelter yourself. When the media fallout from the Yemen raid happened, Mattis did not back down. He backed the President’s decision-making process and disputed claims that the raid was a failure with credible counters that valuable intelligence was gathered. In the process, his credibility sheltered the Trump Administration from what could have been far worse criticism from an American media atmosphere that was aching to criticize it.

After the mission, your people come first, last, and everywhere else.

Secretary Mattis’s national reputation may have been characterized by quick one liners like “It’s fun to shoot some people,” but his reputation in the Marine Corps was solidified by the way he treated his Marines. General Mattis was known to never raise his voice, and he often ordered his officers to get down in the dirt with the enlisted men. There are legends of him taking over duty for a junior officer over Christmas and getting cigars for junior marines, but this one stands out from Business Insider:

Nate Fick, a former Marine captain who first served as a 2nd lieutenant under Mattis while he was in charge of Task Force 58 in Afghanistan, recalled to Business Insider the moment he realized “this guy was an incredible leader.”

It was a cold night in Dec. 2001 at the Marines’ patrol base in Kandahar, Fick recalled. They had been patrolling outside of the base, but once they were back, Fick had ordered his Marines to have two men awake in each hole on perimeter security, while everyone else slept.

“I was out walking the lines one night at 2, maybe 3 a.m.,” Fick said, adding that he was coming closer to a fighting hole his Marines were manning. “As I got closer, I saw a third head.”

He was initially angry that there was another Marine either not sleeping or away from the hole they were supposed to be in, but then he realized, “It was General Mattis.”

“He had stopped to talk to the sergeant and the lance corporal.”

Mattis was doing the same thing that Fick was doing: Checking on the junior Marines.

“Nobody would’ve criticized Mattis if he had a lieutenant like me heating up his MREs and if he stayed inside to sleep on a cot,” Fick said.

“But Mattis understood that it all comes down to personal leadership. He’s the classic fighter leader. He’s the player coach. He’s out there with his troops,” he explained.

“You can have all the staff meetings you want, but theres no substitute for walking around and talking to people who do the work.”

Here’s what we get from this:

  • As a leader you need to know your troops, and more importantly, they need to know you. They need to know that they can trust you and that you will be there with them to support and help them to accomplish the mission.
  • Again, perceptions matter. It’s what your troops see you doing that matters, not just what you say. Mattis venturing to the front lines in the middle of the night may not have been a big deal for him, but it made a huge impression on his Marines and on those who heard the legend.


James Mattis is and always has been an enigmatic figure. On the one hand, the media portrays him as a rough around the edges character. On the other, we hear of him as the warrior monk who has 7,000 books in his collection. Regardless of how accurate either of these portrayals is, Mattis has shown himself to be an excellent leader during a time when our country needs leaders more than anything.