A conversation with General Jim Mattis about leadership…and much more!

World-class speakers and panelists blessed LEN’s just-completed 26th Annual National Security Law conference.  We could not have been more honored to have retired Marine general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis deliver the conference’s leadership address.   I’m pleased to tell you that the video is now available here.

I am a huge fan of General Mattis, and have highly-recommended his (along with Bing West) book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, which just came out in paperback.  This is a “must-have” if there ever was one for anyone – not just those in the military or government – interested in leadership.  In this podcast General Mattis fleshed out some issues he raised in the book, and discussed with more specificity his view of the law and lawyers – so watch/listen-in.

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not wanting to enjoy the full presentation, but if you want to know more before diving in, Duke Law’s Jeannie Naujeck wrote a great summary of the conference (here) that included the following description of my talk with General Mattis:

Mattis offers lessons from the battlefield and the Beltway

Mattis, a four-star general known as the “warrior monk” during his storied career with the Marines, which included leading the U.S. Joint Forces Command and later U.S. Central Command, the military organization responsible for waging the post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East, spent more than an hour answering questions, many of which were submitted by students and military members, asked by Dunlap.

Mattis said the most important advice he could give on leadership was to delegate responsibility to the lowest competent level. Doing so, he said, both rewards initiative and infuses an organization with ownership of the mission. “My young folks always got me out of every jam I got them into because they had the authority to do it … so delegate, delegate to the point you’re almost uncomfortable,” he said. “Keep pushing the authority to make decisions to lower and lower levels and it will reward you. Eventually it will even make you a four star general.”

Asked for advice on dealing with a tough boss, Mattis replied that bad leaders can teach one what not to do. “You have to look in the mirror … and say, ‘What am I doing that could look like that as well?’ As long as you’re learning from it you’ll be okay. Don’t let somebody set your internal climate, keep your own locus of control.”

Mattis, selected by President Donald Trump as Secretary of Defense in January 2017, addressed his high-profile resignation in December 2018, saying he felt compelled by duty to accept the job but disagreed with the commander-in-chief too strongly on certain policy issues to continue.

“When it came a point where I couldn’t do the job in good faith and in full faith, then I said that’s it,” he said. “I quit on the president and I put out a page-and-a-half letter why … and so there was nothing more that I needed to say.”

Asked to describe his most challenging military conflict by Danielle French ’21 T ’18, the battalion commander for Duke University’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps, Mattis identified the April 2004 attack he led on Fallujah, Iraq, after four American Blackwater contractors were killed and their bodies desecrated.

“We were outnumbered. … We lost a lot of lads getting into the city. It was house-to-house fighting and so that was a tough time, a very tough time,” he recalled. “I think it comes as no surprise to most of you that the U.S. military was not for the invasion of Iraq. But you keep faith in the Constitution, you keep faith that we elect the commander-in-chief in this country … and when the decision’s made, you do it.”

Mattis said he couldn’t bear to hear about casualties in the middle of a fight – calling it “one of my weak areas” – and would direct his supporting officers to withhold that information until the end of battle.

“The mission comes first. The mission always comes first,” he said. “You just do the best you can to bring them all home alive and then sort it out on the banks of the river, the ones you lost. No one has ever made money betting against America, and so you’ve got to stay on the mission – and it’ll break your pea-pickin’ heart at times.”

It also cost him friends. Mattis recalled a tough personnel decision that made front page news in the early days of the Iraq war: relieving a respected colonel of his command in the middle of a combat operation because he was too reluctant to advance on his target. “He cared so deeply about his men that he was not aggressive at moving against the enemy. Again, the mission comes first. Leaders cannot say ‘I did my best.’ Leaders must do what is required.”

Asked for book recommendations, Mattis, well known as a prolific reader, said books had literally prepared him for victory in battles.

“I was told you will learn more by reading the enemy’s notebooks than you will by reading your own tactics books … you outfight them based on knowing more than your enemy commanders. And so read, know everything you can possibly know about your adversaries, know their dance and know their poetry, know everything about them because somewhere in there you’re going to find a way to go after them.

“There’s this wealth of experience out there waiting for you and all you have to do is start reading.”

Among his suggestions: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (“It calms you down so you don’t slap somebody”), Ryan Holiday’s website The Daily Stoic, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Defeat Into Victory by British field marshal William Slim, and The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, the basis for the 2020 film Greyhound.

Mattis challenged law students to broaden their view of life and its complexities, and to strive to understand their clients in their “real world” context.

“You can’t be so passionate for the law that you don’t have any compassion for human beings, especially those that that you see at the very edge of sanity, which is what a battlefield is,” he said. “The qualities I liked [in lawyers] were those who could have both legal competence and empathy for this atavistic, primitive environment that our lads were in, and what I disliked were the lawyers who thought they knew better. I don’t like it when people are out of touch with battlefield realities.”

Asked by Dunlap about the nation’s most pressing national security concerns, Mattis said the U.S. must lean on “Allies, allies, allies” to deal with terrorism, and referenced nuclear weapons in the hands of Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, climate change, and the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly authoritarian mode at home, “wolf warrior diplomacy” abroad, and status as the world’s largest creditor.

Urging the audience to seek out those with differing views, Mattis said Americans must start to listen to each other to overcome an environment of “scorching rhetoric, divisiveness, lack of trust and fundamental friendliness, [and] lack of respect for each other.

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Maybe the person you’re talking to might have something to offer. That’s what this country is built on and no one’s beyond the pale; no one’s a socialist or a communist or a deplorable. This is a country that was based on everybody working together, so let’s get back to it.”

You’ll learn even more when you watch the video of the full conversation with General Jim Mattis available here.


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