“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet”
General James Mattis, United States Marine Corps
When civilians who are unfamiliar with Marine Corps culture hear Mattis quotes for the first time, the first reaction is often shock. They sound like something you would hear from Ghengis Khan. For example:
“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all”
But General James Mattis is no Mongul warlord. He is the most revered Marine in a generation who’s cult of personality grows now even more in retirement. To see him as some movie like caricature of a war loving general is to entirely miss the reasons why he is so revered amongst his peers. But it’s also safe to say that many of us who love and respect him also do not fully understand him or his methods. Beyond the memes and the tee shirts, beyond cult of personality, and beyond the Marine Corps, there lies a lesson we can all learn from the greatest military officer in modern history. This lesson applies not only to those of us who continue to serve, but also to those of us who’ve moved on into civilian life. Here are four key points we can learn from this great man to improve our own lives and push toward our goals.
1. Be humble, admit to your shortcomings, and use your mistakes as lessons.
As a battalion commander during the first Gulf War, then Lieutenant Colonel Mattis managed to lead his battalion into an open desert where they were subsequently surrounded by the enemy. Mattis got his battalion out of it successfully of course, but he could have gotten a lot of people killed. Rather than chastise him, his then commander simply asked, “did you learn anything from this?” Mattis would never make the same mistake again, and took this to heart. He never chastised his subordinates for mistakes, because he wanted them to take risks and think outside the box. When they made mistakes, he simply expected them to learn from them and carry those lessons with them.
One article in Business Insider quotes Mattis as saying “As a leader you should tell your subordinates that they just need to focus on their job.” This means that you should not be dumping stress on their shoulders. Rather, you should be handling the stress while they focus on the task at hand and getting better at their purpose in your organization. Acting like a tyrant and making things more stressful for subordinates will only make the environment more toxic and will cause the whole organization to sour.
When he made his own mistakes, he freely admitted to them and sought the input of his subordinates and non-commissioned officers. Leadership is not about being an all seeing all knowing tyrant. Leadership is about knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and giving your subordinates a chance to strengthen their weaknesses. You are only as strong as your weakest link, and the more effort you put into making your weaknesses your strengths, the stronger you and your organization becomes.
2. Speak bluntly, in no uncertain terms, and follow up with actions.
We know that General Mattis certainly speaks bluntly. But it was not just blunt language that got him to where he is. General Mattis also followed up his language with actions. We’ve known many loud mouths who talked a good game when we were in the rear, but when time came to put up or shut up, they crumbled. This was not General Mattis. We’ll get to his knack for leading from the front in the next section, but what made him such an effective commander during the counterinsurgency phases in Afghanistan and Iraq was his ability to convey to the local population exactly what he meant. For example:
“We’ve backed off in good faith to try and give you a chance to straighten this problem out. But I am going to beg with you for a minute. I’m going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years.”
Words like these spoken in no uncertain terms conveyed exactly what the general meant. Those who cooperated with the American military under his command were met with help and resources. Those who kept up with hostilities were hunted and then killed.
The lesson here keep your language clear and keep your actions true to your speech. In life and business, your reputation is your greatest asset and it can only be solidified by both words and deeds. Your language must be clear so that people know what you mean, and your actions must support that language for your words to have any effect. Empty words have no meaning and actions that counter the vision you are trying to convey will only take you further from your goals.
3. Lead from the front.
During the invasion of Iraq, and later while fighting insurgents in Fallujah, Mattis was not sitting back in some command tent smoking cigars with other flag officers. He was out on patrol with his own “jump platoon” visiting his units on the front lines. In fact, his platoon received heavy casualties with 17 out of 27 Marines that he started with either being killed or wounded. This did not keep him from continually visiting his units throughout the war. When tasked with securing Fallujah, General Mattis ordered that a convoy drive through the city to see if it took any fire, it did not take any, but he was with that first convoy, putting his own neck on the line with the Marines he sent.
Never expect your subordinates to do something that you would not. You cannot lead from the rear. They must see you with them working and toiling to accomplish your purpose. A manager who leads from the rear is a tyrant, not a leader.
This final point is something we can all begin implementing, no matter where we are in our careers. General Mattis did not learn by experience. Rather, he learned by simulation through reading the stories of those who came before him. He learned from the mistakes of military leaders before him. Mattis is quoted as saying “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed in any situation, never at a loss for how a problem has been dealt with (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.” Mattis required his subordinate commanders to read heavily and to study for every campaign they ever undertook.
Whether you are preparing to fight an enemy or open a business, there is always someone who’s been there before you. While you often can’t avoid mistakes, you can avoid many of the pitfalls that others fell into by learning exactly where they went wrong and what they did right. Not all of the answers are within you, and it takes a humble personality to understand that you need the insight of others with more experience before venturing off into the unknown.
We love General Mattis and we happily contribute to his cult of personality, but we cannot let this great man pass into history without taking more from his legacy. In his life and his career, there are many lessons that every Marine and veteran should take to heart in his or her own lives to push toward success and make an impact of their own.
“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet”