Recently at dinner with a Marine friend of mine, the discussion around the table came down to President-elect Trump’s prospective appointment of retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis. Everyone got quiet, waiting for his thoughts on the matter. After a short moment to think, the Marine responded, “Well, understand that I’m going to be biased from the get-go — he’s basically a legend to all Marines.”
Having never served a day in the Marine Corps, although working with Marines throughout my time in the military, I can definitively say that that opinion isn’t just held by Marines. Ask most anyone who’s spent time in uniform and what you get is this similar response. He isn’t only a Marine legend — rather, he’s an icon hailed for his straight-talk, his willingness to share the burden of risk with the lowest ranking Marines on the front lines of multiple theaters and the concern which he has always displayed for every service-member under his command.
So what are the factors that make General Mattis such a military-renowned badass? What are the pieces that everyone, whether in the military or even in civilian life, can take away from his command style and legendary leadership? Well, let’s dive into them.
1. He leads from the front.
We hear this term all the time. It’s mentioned so often that it’s almost a sort of cliche about leadership. “Lead from the front” has come into common usage by corporate America. But rarely is its true meaning driven home. And even more rare are the bosses and leaders that actually embody this sentiment.
This is one of the most important elements of leadership that has an unquestionable tie to being a badass leader because it demonstrates a willingness to share in the risk.
Retired Major General Hal Moore, of We Were Soldiers book and movie fame, was known to say that his junior leaders’ position of authority did not free them from the burden of risk. Business Insider bothered to pull a few instances of this and compiled them into a list about the heroic acts of this General.
When one of General Mattis’ platoon commanders, 2LT Nate Fick, recalled his own personal experiences with the General, he remarked that he had set up a patrol base and ordered two Marines awake in each fighting position while the rest slept, a sensible precaution for any platoon operating out in sector.
When 2LT Fick went around to check on his perimeter security at around two or three in the morning, he noticed one of the fighting positions had three heads in it. At first, he was frustrated, as he was concerned that that meant there was a Marine who wasn’t getting rest. But then, he got closer and noticed that it was General Mattis who had accompanied them, out there in the fighting hole with the junior soldiers and NCOs of the platoon.
In order to lead from the front, you must actually walk the line.
2. He’s an Avid Reader.
When many people see this, they think, “what’s so great about that?” It’s understandable, since his reputation is one that will kill you with a glance. But a huge component of what’s made General Mattis successful is that he has made sure to stay up-to-date on everything related to his job as a supreme commander of a major military force.
There’s a point in any service member’s career in which the job becomes less about the details and minutiae surrounding “shoot, move, communicate,” and more about how all of the pieces fit together on the whole board. This means anything from military history to biographies of effective and influential leaders who get things done. He has been praised on this issue from politicians throughout the spectrum, as well as military and civilian leaders alike.
Why is being an avid reader such an important thing in a “badass” leader? General Mattis answers this directly when he speaks about how, independently of reading, lessons can only be learned by individual experience. And in the business of killing, he said, “by reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”
In short, books have the ability to teach lessons that others often have to pay an enormous price to learn — which for military service members on the battlefield could be disastrous. He notes that books don’t teach him everything he needs, but they offer illumination to a dark path.
3. He isn’t just a “yes man.”
We’ve mentioned that General Mattis’ straight talk is one of his better qualities. This is part of what makes him so outstanding for the position of being the chief military advisor to the President. Often times in the modern era, Presidents come with a great deal of political know-how, but often come up short in knowing how to direct the military.
Even for Presidents like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, their service in the military didn’t necessarily train them to think on the larger scale that is necessary for a Commander-in-Chief. Thus, the President needs to rely on Generals for information and advice. Sometimes, this also means that the advisor needs to state the truth and reality of the situation, regardless of the career cost. In fact, this can be a very dangerous position for a “yes man” to occupy.
General Mattis is anything but a “yes man.” In fact, even during his own command, he had disagreements with President Obama about various policy details involving the military. But now, there’s another possibility of a showdown in terms of the General’s view of Russia, which contrasts a great deal from President-elect Trump, who has stated on several occasions his support for President Putin.
In any sense, this shows us that General Mattis would likely not be just some pushover in terms of policy. This is the third, and often the most difficult, element of being a badass leader — the willingness to put your career on the line for what’s right. General Mattis has made a career out of doing the right thing for his people. We look forward to seeing that trend continue.
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