Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by Jim Mattis

The Marines teach you, above all, how to adapt, improvise, and overcome. But they expect you to have done your homework, to have mastered your profession. Amateur performance is anathema, and the Marines are bluntly critical of falling short, satisfied only with 100 percent effort and commitment. Yet over the course of my career, every time I made a mistake—and I made many—the Marines promoted me. They recognized that those mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right. Year in and year out, the Marines had trained me in skills they knew I needed, while educating me to deal with the unexpected.

The Marines’ military excellence does not suffocate intellectual freedom or substitute regimented thinking for imaginative solutions. They know their doctrine, often derived from lessons learned in combat and written in blood, but refuse to let that turn into dogma. Woe to the unimaginative one who, in after-action reviews, takes refuge in doctrine.

Personal sensitivities are irrelevant.

In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most in selecting others for promotion or critical roles were initiative and aggressiveness.

Institutions get the behaviors they reward.

Slowly but surely, we learned there was nothing new under the sun: properly informed, we weren’t victims—we could always create options.

Create options! Read read read, then create.

My purpose in writing this book is to convey the lessons I learned for those who might benefit, whether in the military or in civilian life. I have been fortunate that the American people funded my forty years of education, and some of the lessons I learned might prove helpful to others. I’m old-fashioned: I don’t write about sitting Presidents. In the chapters that follow, I will pass on what prepared me for challenges I could not anticipate, not take up the hot political rhetoric of our day. I remain a steward of the public trust.

Much of what I carried with me was summed up in a handwritten card that lay on my Pentagon desk these past few years, the desk where I signed deployment orders sending troops overseas. It read, “Will this commitment contribute sufficiently to the well-being of the American people to justify putting our troops in a position to die?” I would like to think that, thanks to the lessons I was taught, the answer to the Gold Star families of those we lost is “yes,” despite the everlasting pain those families carry with them.

Part I: Direct Leadership

“We don’t get to choose when we die,” he said. “But we do choose how we meet death.” My fall on the ice had driven home to me that I wanted to spend my career among men like that: men who dealt with life as it came at them, who were more interested in living life fully than in their own longevity. I didn’t care about making money. I wanted to be outdoors—and in the company of adventurous people. For me, the Marines had the right spirit and the right way of looking at life. My fall would serve as a metaphor for my subsequent career in the Marines: You make mistakes, or life knocks you down; either way, you get up and get on with it. You deal with life. You don’t whine about it.

Years later, I read the epitaph on Jackie Robinson’s tombstone: “A life is not important except in its impact on other lives.” That sentiment captured the credo of the generation that raised me.

I never enjoyed sitting in classrooms. I could read on my own at a much faster rate. Instead of a television, at home we had a well-stocked home library. I devoured books—Treasure Island, Captains Courageous, The Last of the Mohicans, The Call of the Wild, The Swiss Family Robinson…. Hemingway was my favorite author, followed closely by Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Reading about the Lewis and Clark expedition, I was fascinated that they had canoed on the Columbia River and had passed through our neighborhood.

Like anyone who has wandered far and wide, I got into a fair number of scrapes. In Montana, I tangled with three local boys. I was getting the worst of it when a tall sheriff wearing a silver star and a white cowboy hat showed up in a pickup—a figure right out of the movies. He gave me a jail cell and early the next morning drove me to the rail yard to hop an eastbound freight. “Three against one,” he said. “Tough to win against those odds.”

One inmate, Porter Wagner (not the famous singer), had jumped bail in Maryland. One Saturday night he saw me hoisting myself up to look out the barred window, eager to see what I was missing outside. “What do you see, Jimmy?” he said, lying back on his bunk. “A muddy parking lot.” “From down here, I see stars in the night sky,” he said. “It’s your choice. You can look at stars or mud.” He was in jail, but his spirit wasn’t. From that wayward philosopher I learned that no matter what happened, I wasn’t a victim; I made my own choices how to respond. You don’t always control your circumstances, but you can always control your response. The next day I volunteered to sweep the jail, wash police cars, and pick up food at the local restaurant for the other prisoners so I could change my circumstances as fast as possible, getting a day and a half of credit for each day served.

Far from being standoffish because they had seen combat, they were tough and friendly, and they readily shared their combat knowledge. I didn’t have to earn their support; it was mine to lose, not to gain.

You had to be as tough as your troops, who weren’t concerned with how many books you’d read. I tried to work out with the most physically fit and learn from the most tactically cunning.

No one wants to be cast aside as worthless.

Have faith in your subordinates after you have trained them.

Each week in the Fleet Marine Force was considered the last week of peace. As a gunnery sergeant put it, “Be ready. Next week we’ll be in a fight.”

My early years with my Marines taught me leadership fundamentals, summed up in the three Cs. The first is competence. Be brilliant in the basics. Don’t dabble in your job; you must master it.

Second, caring. To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Third, conviction. This is harder and deeper than physical courage. Your peers are the first to know what you will stand for and, more important, what you won’t stand for. Your troops catch on fast. State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. They shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. At the same time, leaven your professional passion with personal humility and compassion for your troops. Remember: As an officer, you need to win only one battle—for the hearts of your troops. Win their hearts and they will win the fights. Competence, caring, and conviction combine to form a fundamental element—shaping the fighting spirit of your troops. Leadership means reaching the souls of your troops, instilling a sense of commitment and purpose in the face of challenges so severe that they cannot be put into words.

IF YOU WANT AN ELITE FORCE, selection is critical.

The Marine philosophy is to recruit for attitude and train for skills.

in harmonious, effective units, everyone owns the unit mission. If you as the commander define the mission as your responsibility, you have already failed. It was our mission, never my mission.

you clearly state your intent and unleash their initiative. Then, when the inevitable obstacles or challenges arise, with good feedback loops and relevant data displays, you hear about it and move to deal with the obstacle. Based on feedback, you fix the problem. George Washington, leading a revolutionary army, followed a “listen, learn, and help, then lead,” sequence. I found that what worked for George Washington worked for me.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Early on, one recruiter walked into my office and said, “Sir, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to work these hours.” His words and attitude had made the rounds. One of my seasoned gunnery sergeants had told me, “The whole station is watching how you handle this, Major.” I told the man, “You can be a quitter or you can be a Marine. But you can’t be both.” I busted him and ended his career. Partial commitment changes everything—it reduces the sense that the mission comes first. From my first days, I had been taught that the Marines were satisfied only with 100 percent commitment from us and were completely dissatisfied with 99 percent. You can’t have an elite organization if you look the other way when someone craps out on you.

“I’ll tell you what leadership is,” he said. “It’s persuasion and conciliation and education and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know.”

If you have multiple avenues of information coming to you and you’re out and about yourself, you develop an enhanced understanding.

To risk death willingly, to venture forth knowing that in so doing you may cease to exist, is an unnatural act. To take the life of a fellow human being or to watch your closest comrades die exacts a profound emotional toll. In Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, Robert E. Lee says, “To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. This is… a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it. That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men.”

As the leader, anticipating heavy casualties, I had to compartmentalize my emotions. Otherwise I would distract myself from what had to be done. The mission comes first. Personal solace must wait for another day. I knew my limitations. Sort it all out later on the banks of the Columbia.

As we hurried on to the second belt, we had opened a path for the twenty thousand Marines behind us. In training, our fastest breach had taken twenty-one minutes. In the actual fight we did it in eleven. The relentless rehearsals had paid off.

At the second belt, a more determined enemy fought harder; mines knocked out several tanks and other vehicles, and we took casualties. Artillery fire slowed us but could not stop us. At one point I flopped into a crater; crouched down inside it, I noticed an ant trying to crawl out. When I scooped away a little dirt, the ant fell back into the hole and resumed climbing. Again, I scooped away some dirt. “Don’t go out there, Mr. Ant,” I told him. “You’re safer in here.”

The ultimate auditor of military competence is war.

Reading sheds light on the dark path ahead. By traveling into the past, I enhance my grasp of the present.

If the risk takers are punished, then you will retain in your ranks only the risk averse.

From Slim to Fulford—both promoted to four-star general—came the same message: at the executive level, your job is to reward initiative in your junior officers and NCOs and facilitate their success. When they make mistakes while doing their best to carry out your intent, stand by them. Examine your coaching and how well you articulate your intent. Remember the bottom line: imbue in them a strong bias for action.

Guided by my intent, they acted, and the feedback loops kept me attentive to anticipated decision points. My subordinates taught me a lot that day.

Feedback loops!

“It really is the commander’s coup d’oeil,” Clausewitz agreed, “his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.”

As Churchill noted, “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

Business management books often stress “centralized planning and decentralized execution.” That is too top-down for my taste. I believe in a centralized vision, coupled with decentralized planning and execution. In general, there are two kinds of executives: those who simply respond to their staffs and those who direct their staffs and give them latitude, coaching them as needed to carry out the directions.

Guided by robust feedback loops, I returned to three questions: What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them? Shared data displays kept all planning elements aligned.

Everyone on my staff, in Marine parlance, filled sandbags. No one was exempt from the simplest tasks. We answered our own phones, brewed our own coffee, and slept six hours when lucky. Meals were operational discussions.

At the end of each day, we’d all discuss how we had done so far. I’d sum up the meeting by saying, “Okay, I like this. Now let’s do that.” The next morning, my Navy and Marine operations officers would inform me, “Here is where we now are.” It was a constant dialogue, and hundreds of fleet exercises were now paying off in real time. Absent those years of integrating Navy and Marine exercises and complex operations, I could not have executed this operation.

We detected no enemy units near our intended insertion point. The Taliban had left their back door open. Memo to young officers: I can appear brilliant if I fight enemy leaders dumber than a bucket of rocks.

The silence was broken by a question about potential friction between the Special Ops Task Force SWORD and TF 58. The TF SWORD commander, quietly watching from his tent, interrupted immediately. “I am in total support of what Task Force 58 is proposing,” he said firmly. “We have deconflicted in time and space. I fully support this operation.” He put it over the top. We were cleared hot to invade.

Operations occur at the speed of trust.

“About last night’s action,” a lieutenant colonel said, “we weren’t informed beforehand. I need details. Someone’s going to answer for this. Corporal, give me the name of the person responsible.” “Mattis,” I said. “Damn, he’s the commanding general…. Who am I talking to?” “Mattis.” A moment’s pause. “Shit, sorry, sir. It was a good kill. SecDef’s happy. But we have no record of authorizing it.” We both laughed. Different folk, different systems. But it symbolized a culture of pre-briefs, orders, reports, and large staffs difficult to navigate.

But I didn’t want one thousand elite mobile troops ashore and thousands more on ships inhabiting a theoretical world; I wanted us turned loose to create chaos.

When you are in command, there is always the next decision waiting to be made. You don’t have time to pace back and forth like Hamlet, zigzagging one way and the other. You do your best and live with the consequences. A commander has to compartmentalize his emotions and remain focused on the mission. You must decide, act, and move on.

Part II: Executive Leadership

The night after my meeting with General Hagee, I dumped my gear in my quarters, pulled books off the shelves, and began studying campaigns in Mesopotamia, starting with Xenophon’s Anabasis and books on Alexander the Great—working my way forward. Taking command in early August, I called my senior officers and NCOs into a conference room. “Spend the weekend,” I said, “putting your domestic affairs in order and make peace with your God. Starting Monday, we focus on destroying the Iraqi Army.”

Attitudes are caught, not taught. I left it to the seasoned leaders to schedule the events they considered necessary for those two objectives. I wanted all training conducted as rehearsals for the coming fight. My aim was to create a restlessness in my commanders and make the learning environment contagious. I wanted them all to be asking, every day, What have I overlooked? It was already my habit, at the close of staff meetings and even chance encounters, to push my Marines by insisting they put me on the spot with one hard question before we finished our conversation. I wanted to know what bothered them at night. I wanted all hands to pitch in, with the value of good ideas outweighing rank. In the infantry, I had learned early to listen to the young guys on point.

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was my constant companion. His advice kept me dispassionate in some of the more infuriating planning conferences. I’m an opportunistic learner. I may not have come up with many new ideas, but I’ve adopted or integrated a lot from others.

I don’t care how operationally brilliant you are; if you can’t create harmony—vicious harmony—on the battlefield, based on trust across different military services, foreign allied militaries, and diplomatic lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete.

I emphasized brilliance in the basics.

When confronted with the inevitable combat challenges, junior leaders armed with my intent reacted swiftly. I could delegate decision authority to much lower levels, because now I knew that the junior leaders were set up for success.

In an age when cynicism too often passes for critical thinking, it’s worthwhile to remember that young men and women who sign up for the military still fight for ideals.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was set to begin with a massive air and ground assault on March 21, 2003. Due to late-breaking intelligence, however, my division was sent across the line of departure in the early evening of March 20. My regimental combat teams adapted smoothly to this change. Just north of the Kuwaiti border, Iraqi soldiers manned an observation post atop a steep rise called Safwan Hill, the sole high ground in all southern Iraq, overlooking Kuwait. “When we kick off,” I had told my staff, “I want that hill a foot shorter.” The CIA was sending a message to the enemy commanders: Don’t fight us and we won’t kill you. By bombing the hill, I would be sending my own message to all the Iraqi soldiers who could see Safwan from a great distance: Go home while you still can walk.

To expect success every time is wishful thinking,

Initiative and audacity must be supported, whether or not successful.

Now more than 130 miles inside Iraq, the enemy was starting to fight harder. A leading light armored reconnaissance battalion was engaged in a sharp fight, to which I directed every element of our air support. We continued to advance. Every Marine lived and fought alongside others in his small team. For months, showers would be a distant memory. From general to private, we had no privacy, swapped for our favorite MREs and slept in holes next to our vehicles. Job, not rank, determined every Marine’s family. I was reminded of a pithy sentiment Field Marshal Slim wrote in World War II: “As officers,” he wrote, “you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.”

Every day during the attack, my fast-moving staff would turn my hurried updates from the leading edge of our units into succinct mission orders to the assault unit commanders. Halfway to Baghdad, I began seeing words like “whilst RCT 5 engages…” When I asked, “Where did this ‘whilst’ stuff come from?” Clarke Lethin explained that the UK liaison officer embedded in our operations shop wrote the best orders, and he was the author.

I knew that foreign units send some of their best officers when given the opportunity and that outside liaison officers, employed well, brought further strength to our operations. So “whilst” I continued to spend my time forward to sense how operations were trending at the front, my now multinational operations staff transmitted my intent more clearly to my tens of thousands of U.S. Marines.

Digital technologies do not dissipate confusion; the fog of war can actually thicken when misinformation is instantly amplified.

Never think that you’re impotent. Choose how you respond.

Operational tempo is a state of mind. I’ve always tried to be hard on issues but not on spirits. Yet I needed unity of commitment, from every commander down through the youngest sailor and Marine. Once across the Tigris, my spread-out division could face two Republican Guard divisions. I needed the entire division on the same tempo. We had to be all in, all the time.

Dunford and I were joined by his lead battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Sam Mundy. Setting up a map board next to my Humvee, I popped open a Coke and gauged the distances separating my three RCTs. Rounds were zipping high over our heads, machine guns were barking, shells were exploding to the front, and several buildings were on fire, the flames leaping high. A squad of Marines, half walking and half trotting, brushed by us. Just another normal day for our young grunts. When the squad leader paused to survey the surroundings, I offered him water from a jerry can on my Humvee’s gypsy rack. He guzzled down a few swallows without taking his eyes off the enemy positions ahead. He wiped his mouth, patted me on the shoulder, and continued on. Absorbed in the fight, he had no idea that I was the division commander. Or if he did, it made no impression. He had a job to do.

“It is not the young man who misses the days he does not know,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “It is the living who bear the pain of those missed days.”

In 300 B.C., Hippocrates, the father of medicine, wrote the oath taken by all doctors: “First, do no harm.” That fit our approach: We would perform our profession with discipline, rigor, and care. Finally, I stressed our heritage: Marines do not fail. When I visited with each of my battalions, I stressed the same principles over and over. Behave with the same politeness you show at home. Remove your sunglasses when talking, and ask permission to enter a house; don’t kick the door down. If a man shoots at you on a crowded street, don’t fire back. Hunt him down another day and kill him.

At one point in Ramadi, I walked up behind a squad in a furious firefight with insurgents farther down the street. When I inanely asked, “Hey, guys, what’s going on?” the squad leader dropped his rifle from his shoulder and smiled. “We’re taking the fun out of fundamentalism, sir!” I laughed. When you have tightly knit squads, fire superiority, and troops keeping their sense of humor, the fight is in good hands.

General Abizaid flew to MEF headquarters, outside Fallujah, to convey the order. I immediately headed for the meeting to find out what they were thinking. But on my way, we encountered a Marine patrol under fire. Working together with helicopter gunships and the patrol, we took out the enemy position. But I had lost time and arrived at the meeting late, sweaty and disheveled, passing a few journalists in the corridor. General Abizaid interrupted the meeting, courteously asking for my input as the division commander. “First we’re ordered to attack, and now we’re ordered to halt,” I said. “If you’re going to take Vienna, take fucking Vienna.” I was repeating Napoleon’s outburst to his field marshal who had hesitated to seize that city. I expected my frontline commanders to speak frankly to me, and I did the same to my seniors. Silence followed. The several dozen officers and NCOs in the room were looking at the floor or gazing into middle space. All recognized that no one in that room, regardless of rank, could change the political decision. There wasn’t anything more to say. Although we were on the brink of at least a tactical success, we were stopped dead in our tracks. I had launched the assault emphasizing only one point: that I not be stopped. You don’t order your men to attack and risk death, and then go wobbly, stopping the attack and allowing the enemy to resupply and to recover his fighting spirit. He will be tougher when he next fights you, and your troops could understandably lose confidence in your leadership.

Every day, John Toolan and I separately made the rounds, checking in with the platoons. By mid-April, whenever a corporal, captain, or colonel asked me when we would attack, I just said, “Hold the line. Our time will come.” I knew that a policy of keeping us frozen in place was not a strategy; the status quo could not last forever. Believing that the assault would eventually resume, we were quietly reinforcing the barbed wire and earthen berms fully cutting off the city. I was determined that there would be no escape for the terrorists. Fallujah would be their graveyard.

In one of the more contentious discussions, a sheik demanded to know when we were leaving. “I’m not,” I replied. “I bought a little piece of property on the Euphrates. I’m going to marry one of your daughters and retire there.” Reporters came in from Baghdad, so my words would sometimes make news. Language is a weapon. In formal circumstances, I’m calculating but I speak pointedly. There’s nothing to be gained by speaking obliquely about important matters. Brought up in the American West, I don’t hide behind euphemisms. As the negotiations turned into a kabuki dance, I warned my interlocutors: “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.”

Reflecting back on the weeks of brutal urban fighting, I thought of a Kipling line: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” For all the dysfunction of the on-again, off-again attack, I was proud beyond words that our Marines kept the faith when they’d had every reason to give it up.

“General, how much time did you consider before authorizing the strike?” He knew from the record that the time from when I was awakened until I authorized a strike had been less than thirty seconds. “About thirty years,” I replied.

The investigative report, issued weeks later, found no evidence that we had struck anything other than an enemy-occupied desert camp. But by then it was too late. The initial false reports had become ground truth; correcting it was not considered news. We had once again lost the battle of the narrative. As Churchill noted, “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on.” In our age, a lie can get a thousand times around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

With a few Marines and some of Suleiman’s National Guardsmen, I drove to the City Hall. John was observing the meeting site from a helicopter, with a battalion on full alert at the edge of town. We were meeting in the sector where we believed Zarqawi was located. I decided that only four of us would go into the meeting room, with the others tactically dispersed outside to ward off any assault. Qwas, two Marines, and I walked inside. “If a fight breaks out,” I told them, “I’ll kill Janabi. You keep firing and empty your magazines until the others break in.” Janabi was seated at the room’s far end, showing off his influence, with forty-odd sheiks seated along the walls, many armed. The atmosphere was tense as I sat down next to Janabi, with my carbine casually lying across my thighs, pointed at him. The words between Janabi and me, with Qwas translating, quickly became blunt. Janabi was acting earnest, playing to the crowd. “There are no foreigners here,” Janabi lied. “You bomb innocent people. We only protect our homes you come to destroy.” He protested that my Marines were the ones causing the city’s problems. At one point he asked, “Do I look like a terrorist?” I cocked my head, halfway smiling, and examined him closely. “Why, as a matter of fact, you do,” I said. “And from reading your sermons, you sound like one, too.” I dropped my hand and double-clicked the carbine selector to automatic. He heard the click. If this escalated, I was killing him first. In May, he had tried to blow me up. There was no way he had walked into this meeting without a similar plan. We sat there for several long seconds without speaking, staring at each other. He broke my stare and was visibly uncomfortable. As Qwas shifted to look alertly around the room, the whump-whump of John’s helicopter could be heard. Whatever Janabi had up his sleeve, he didn’t have the courage to carry it out. “One way or another, we Marines are coming back into Fallujah,” I said as the meeting ended. As we left, I nodded to several sheiks whom I knew, and John breathed a sigh of relief when we reentered Marine lines about ten minutes later.

The fact that this actually happened boggles my mind

My command challenge was to convey to my troops a seemingly contradictory message: “Be polite, be professional—but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” A twenty-year-old corporal is in command of nineteen-year-olds and speaks only a few Arabic phrases. In an atavistic environment, his squad has to act ethically and without lashing out at the fearful and the innocent. But when someone shoots at a Marine, he becomes fair game. I wanted my lads to keep an offensive mindset. If fired upon, their job was to hunt down the enemy and take him out; I wanted no passivity or ceding of initiative to the enemy. “There are some jerks in the world,” I said, “that need to be shot. There are hunters and there are victims. No complacency! Keep your discipline and you will be the hunter. I feel sorry for every son of a bitch that doesn’t get to serve alongside you fine young men.”

“brilliance in the basics.”

Regardless of rank or occupation, I believe that all leaders should be coaches at heart. For me, “player-coach” aptly describes the role of a combat leader, or any real leader.

The brutality and intensity of combat are impossible to grasp for those without skin in the game. The result has been a growing divide in understanding between the 1 percent in the fight and the 99 percent who are not. The families abreast that divide live in America yet have their hearts and minds half a world away. One event in particular drove that disconnect home to me. I was speaking at a San Diego conference, to a mixed audience of sailors and civilian contractors, including dozens of Marines. I knew they had seen hard fighting and were deploying again shortly. When asked about fighting the enemy, I spoke candidly. “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil,” I said. “You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”

There will come another big war, as there will come another big hurricane, and if we want to deter it, we can do so only from strength.

The sea is an unforgiving environment, and dabblers die.

Operations occur at the speed of trust.

Credit those below you with the same level of commitment and ability with which you credit yourself. Make your intent clear, and then encourage your subordinates to employ a bias for action. The result will be faster decisions, stronger unity of effort, and unleashed audacity throughout the force, enabling us to out-turn and outfight the enemy. As always, I did not rely on the chain of command to bring all important issues to my attention. I let it be known that every Friday afternoon I would be at the club for happy hour. As one man explained, when asked why Robert Burns wrote his poetry in taverns, it was in those places that one could hear “the elemental passions, the open heart and the bold tongue, and no masks.”

a leader’s role is problem solving. If you don’t like problems, stay out of leadership. Smooth sailing teaches nothing,

As the senior Marine in the operational chain of command, I spoke out strongly against that mood. Attitudes are caught, not taught. The morale of a fighting force, from corporal to four-star general, must be positive. With the press and in my visits, I seized every opportunity to repeat my touchstones. No better friend: To the one million Sunnis in Anbar, we offered friendship and protection. No worse enemy: To the terrorists, we offered a grave.

The most important six inches on the battlefield are between your ears.

There’s a profound difference between a mistake and a lack of discipline.

“Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the face of an uplifted knife.”

Before flying to Washington this time, I had received phone calls from Jim Conway, now Commandant, and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Secretary-General of NATO. Both told me that Secretary Gates intended to recommend me for a fourth star. I was to take command of the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and concurrently serve as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation (SACT), two jobs traditionally linked together. Of course, it was an honor to be selected for four stars, but I was already in the best three-star job I could have imagined. I was not eager to leave. But the American people had paid my tuition going on thirty-five years, and if this was where my seniors wanted me, I would go. (See Appendix F.)

By now, however, I had learned in the field the value of allies and of America’s leadership role. The sense of purpose that would guide me was taking shape even before I arrived at my headquarters, in Norfolk, Virginia, to commence my duties. NATO, not Joint Forces Command, would be my main effort. Why? History is compelling; nations with allies thrive; those without them die.

Over a lunch in Washington, the Australian ambassador, Kim Beazley, remarked that, following World War II, our nation’s willingness to commit a hundred million dead Americans in a thermonuclear war to defend Europe was the single most self-sacrificial pledge in history. For me, that cut right through the criticisms of NATO that I continually heard in Washington, D.C. Whether we liked it or not, we were part of the world and needed allies, for our benefit as much as theirs. I was determined to leave the alliance in better shape than it had been in when I started the job.

I turned to first-rate minds on military transformation: Professor Colin Gray, Dr. Williamson Murray, Dr. Frank Hoffman, and Australian Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen. I consumed their writings and asked for their guidance. Eventually I settled on twenty-two books to guide me. I expanded my contacts with practitioners of strategic leadership. Most important among them were Generals Colin Powell, Tony Zinni, John Abizaid, Gary Luck, and George Joulwan, as well as others; statesmen like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Newt Gingrich; and former Secretaries of Defense. They gave freely of their time. These three lines of effort allowed me to build a framework within which I could operate in the years to come as I dealt with transformation.

All were disturbed by his conduct, and his subordinates were fearful. I called in the admiral and carefully explained why I disapproved of his leadership. “Your staff resents you,” I said. “You’re disappointed in their input. Okay. But your criticism makes that input worse, not better. You’re going the wrong way. You cannot allow your passion for excellence to destroy your compassion for them as human beings.” This was a point I had always driven home to my subordinates. “Change your leadership style.” I continued. “Coach and encourage, don’t berate, least of all in public.”

“Only the dead have seen the last of war.”

Conviction doesn’t mean you should not change your mind when circumstance or new information warrant it. A leader must be willing to change and make change.

For those who question the post–Soviet Union value of NATO, it was telling that an alliance designed originally for the defense of Western Europe fought its first combat campaign in response to the 9/ 11 attacks on America. It must not be forgotten, in our too often transactional view of allies, that these nations offered up the blood of their sons and daughters in our common defense. As Churchill said, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them!”

force of personality

Peter Drucker, the business guru, criticized business executives for devoting too much time to planning, rather than understanding the nature of the corporation itself. As he put it, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The output of any organization, driven by its culture, must reflect the leadership’s values in order to be effective.

I see a big finger pointing right at me.

Every institution gets the behavior it rewards.

Interestingly, everything I was briefed on regarding EBO came to me on PowerPoint, reinforcing a long-standing concern. EBO played well on PowerPoint slides, but I have always urged the avoidance of “death by PowerPoint.” In that, I was guided by what General George C. Marshall had written: “The leader must learn to cut to the heart of a situation, recognize its decisive elements and base his course of action on these. The ability to do this is not God-given, nor can it be acquired overnight; it is a process of years. He must realize that training in solving problems of all types—long practices in making clear unequivocal decisions, the habit of concentrating on the question at hand, and an elasticity of mind—are indispensable requisites for the successful practice of the art of war…. It is essential that all leaders—from subaltern to commanding general—familiarize themselves with the art of clear, logical thinking.” PowerPoint is the scourge of critical thinking. It encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener. Only a verbal narrative that logically connects a succinct problem statement using rational thinking can develop sound solutions. PowerPoint is excellent when displaying data; but it makes us stupid when applied to critical thinking.

The course of this effort was not easy, but any leader, whether a commander or a CEO, must guide his or her organization around the rocks and shoals. I took JFCOM off the shoals of EBO and steered in what I determined was the right course. If you don’t do that as a leader, you’re along for the ride; you’re not steering the ship.

Part III: Strategic Leadership

When I arrived at the Pentagon, I checked in with the Chairman, Admiral Mullen. He told me I was Secretary Gates’s choice. I went upstairs and reported to Gates. In his succinct fashion, he confirmed that he was recommending me to replace Dave. But the final decision lay with President Obama. I glanced at the picture of Mount Rainier Gates kept as a reminder of our home state. I guessed I wouldn’t be seeing it for a while. When asked to stay in the fight, a Marine has only one answer. I didn’t really have to think about it. I told Secretary Gates I could do the job.

As it is for any senior executive, time was my most precious commodity.

An oft-spoken admonition in the Marines is this: When you’re going to a gunfight, bring all your friends with guns. Having fought many times in coalitions, I believe that we need every ally we can bring to the fight. From imaginative military solutions to their country’s vote in the United Nations, the more allies the better. I have never been on a crowded battlefield, and there is always room for those who want to be there alongside us. Speaking with young generals and admirals, I would explain that in coalitions, I could not give them sufficient military authority to override an ally’s decision. “Nonetheless,” I explained, “your nation expects success from you.” Nothing new under the sun: this was the same challenge Marlborough and Eisenhower had to deal with.

In our military, lack of time to reflect is the single biggest deficiency in senior decision-makers. If there was one area where I consistently fell short, that was it. Try as I would, I failed to put aside hours for sequestering myself outside the daily routine to think more broadly: What weren’t we doing that needed to be done? Where was our strategy lacking? What lay over the horizon? I had fine officers working hundreds of issues, but a leader must try to see the overarching pattern, fitting details into the larger situation. Anticipating the second-and third-order consequences of policy decisions demanded more time than I was putting aside.

“What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?” I repeated it so often that it appeared on index cards next to the phones in some offices. Early on, a staff officer, thinking I was in Tampa, sent me a short email asking if he could come by the office regarding a sensitive issue. I typed back, “Hard for you to pop up to 30,000 feet over Saudi Arabia, where I am now. Understand what you want to do. You are cleared hot. Run with it and next time you know this sort of matter is your call. / M.”

As I had learned, visualization or “imaging” is a critical team-building skill in any command, especially in an age when we anticipate that our communications could be disrupted by the enemy.

Every time I visited, I first asked our ambassador how I could best help his or her diplomatic efforts. In keeping with George Washington’s approach to leadership, I would listen, learn, and help, then lead.

If a democracy does not trust its troops, then it shouldn’t go to war.

My thought was that “exiting” a war was a by-product of winning that war. Unless you want to lose, you don’t tell an enemy when you are done fighting, and you don’t set an exit unrelated to the situation on the ground.

If in a crisis you find yourself without options, you will be pushed into a corner. Always build in shock absorbers.

The tragedy for the Pakistani people is that they don’t have leaders who care about their future.

At the trigonometry level of warfare, with the absence of a clear policy end state and the resources for a strategy to attain it, it was inevitable that nonstrategic exigencies would win the day.

Rebellions, no matter how idealistic in origin, can as often as not produce chaos that often leads to tyranny.

In Jordan, the ever resolute King Abdullah was standing staunchly by us. He assured me he would keep Jordanian soldiers fighting alongside us in Afghanistan. On one occasion, we were meeting alone on his patio discussing what CENTCOM could do to help Jordan with the refugees pouring in from Syria. Always curious, I decided to ask the king about his job. “What’s it like being a king?” I said. “I’ve never been one.” He laughed and waved his hand at a stack of papers. “Actually, I’ve been writing op-eds,” he said. “I have to explain to my people why they should vote independently in a way that supports how they judge their best interest… I can’t just give an order to get things done. I need my people with me.” For those who doubt that reform can happen, here I saw a servant leader in action.

I wanted calculated actions, to restrain the regime so it couldn’t thrust us into a war. If you allow yourself to be goaded and trifled with, one of two things will happen: eventually a harder, larger fight will explode, or you will get moved out of the neighborhood.

In December 2012, I received an unauthorized phone call telling me that in an hour, the Pentagon would be announcing my relief. I was leaving a region aflame and in disarray. The lack of an integrated regional strategy had left us adrift, and our friends confused. We were offering no leadership or direction. I left my post deeply disturbed that we had shaken our friends’ confidence and created vacuums that our adversaries would exploit.—I was disappointed and frustrated that policymakers all too often failed to deliver clear direction. And lacking a defined mission statement, I frequently didn’t know what I was expected to accomplish. As American naval strategist Alfred Mahan wrote, “If the strategy be wrong, the skill of the general on the battlefield, the valor of the soldier, the brilliancy of victory, however otherwise decisive, fail of their effect.”

Acting strategically requires that political leaders make clear what they will stand for and what they will not stand for. We must mean what we say, to both allies and foes: no more false threats or failing to live up to our word. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the decision of going to war is too great a matter to stumble into or to half-step toward once the decision is taken.

“Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it,” Aristotle wrote. “People come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players, by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just. By doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled, and by doing brave acts, we become brave.” Courage as an act of self-discipline can be infused by coaching a team until every member acquires the skills to have and to share confidence. Group spirit binds warriors together in a necessary way that keeps them distinct from the civilian society they are sworn to protect.

The need for lethality must be the measuring stick against which we evaluate the efficacy of our military. By aligning the entire military enterprise—recruiting, training, educating, equipping, and promoting—to the goal of compounding lethality, we best deter adversaries or, if conflict occurs, win at lowest cost to our troops’ lives. The next bullet doesn’t care who it strikes, yet troops charge onto battlefields. When I meet with Gold Star families, I feel that all the fallen were my sons and daughters. They deserve more than “Thank you for your service.”

I have seen no case where weakness promotes the chance for peace.

I learned then and I believe now that everyone needs a mentor or to be a mentor—and that no one needs a tyrant. At the same time, there’s no substitute for constant study to master one’s craft. Living in history builds your own shock absorber, because you’ll learn that there are lots of old solutions to new problems. If you haven’t read hundreds of books, learning from others who went before you, you are functionally illiterate—you can’t coach and you can’t lead. History lights the often dark path ahead; even if it’s a dim light, it’s better than none. If you can’t be additive as a leader, you’re just like a potted plant in the corner of a hotel lobby: you look pretty, but you’re not adding substance to the organization’s mission.

From a leader’s perspective, intent is the starting point. “Commander’s intent” has a special meaning in the military that requires time and thought. A commander must state his relevant aim. Intent is a formal statement in which the commander puts himself or herself on the line. Intent must accomplish the mission, it has to be achievable, it must be clearly understood, and at the end of the day, it has to deliver what the unit was tasked with achieving. Your moral authority as a commander is heavily dependent on the quality of this guidance and your troops’ sense of confidence in it: the expectation that they will use their initiative, aligning subordinate actions. You must unleash initiative rather than suffocate it.

If I were to sum up the leadership techniques I constructed on the basis of the Marine Corps’s bias for action, it would be simple: once I set the tempo, the speed I prized was always built on subordinate initiative. This governing principle drove home the underlying efforts that would make speed a reality. Speed is essential, whether in sports, business, or combat, because time is the least forgiving, least recoverable factor in any competitive situation. I learned to prize smooth execution by cohesive teams (those that could adapt swiftly to battlefield shocks) over deliberate, methodical, and synchronized efforts that I saw squelching subordinate initiative. In fact it was always subordinate initiative that got my lads out of the jams I got them into, my mistakes being my own.

I used “touchstones” such as “No better friend, no worse enemy” and “First, do no harm,” among others, leavened with history’s enduring lessons, to guide subordinates who would face situations requiring them to make instantaneous decisions on their feet. I often chose phrases from antiquity, purposely using broad themes and objectives, leaving maximum opportunity for subordinates to use their initiative and aggressiveness. Clearly stating the operation’s purpose and sparsely outlining the methods we’d used, I closed my intent by explaining our desired end state.

But I was not just addressing their tactical thinking: I was also appealing to their spiritual side: Intangibles like will, cohesion, morale, and affection are more important than tangibles. I strove to be the opposite of the château general. By conveying my intent in writing and in person, I was out to win their coequal “ownership” of the mission: it wasn’t my mission; rather from private through general, it was our mission. I stressed to my staff that we had to win only one battle: for the hearts and minds of our subordinates. They will win all the rest—at the risk and cost of their lives. Once the intent was clearly conveyed, the mission was left in the hands of our junior officers and NCOs, and their animating spirits coached our troops to achieving my aim.

Trust is the coin of the realm for creating the harmony, speed, and teamwork to achieve success at the lowest cost. Trusted personal relationships are the foundation for effective fighting teams, whether on the playing field, the boardroom, or the battlefield. When the spirit of your team is on the line and the stakes are high, confidence in the integrity and commitment of those around you will enable boldness and resolution; a lack of trust will see brittle, often tentative execution of even the best-laid plans. Nothing compensates for a lack of trust. Lacking trust, your unit will pay a steep price in combat.

While processes are boring to examine, leaders must know their own well enough that they can master them and not be mastered, even derailed, by them. In competitive situations, a faster operating tempo than your adversary’s is a distinct asset. A smoothly operating team can more swiftly move through the observe/ orient/ decide/ act loop, multiplying the effectiveness of its numbers. Left untouched, processes imposed by unneeded echelons will marginalize subordinate audacity.

All hands had to be thinking all the time: What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?

In the same spirit, any competitive organization must nurture its maverick thinkers. You can’t wash them out of your outfit if you want to avoid being surprised by your competition. Without mavericks, we are more likely to find ourselves at the same time dominant and irrelevant, as the enemy steals a march on us. Further, calculated risk taking is elemental to staying at the top of our competitive game. Risk aversion will damage the long-term health, even survival, of the organization, because it will undercut disciplined but unregimented thinking. Because maverick thinkers are so important to an organization’s adaptability, high-ranking leaders need to be assigned the job of guiding and even protecting them, much as one would do for any endangered species.

Leaders at all ranks, but especially at high ranks, must keep in their inner circle people who will unhesitatingly point out when a leader’s personal behavior or decisions are not appropriate. In its own way, this too is part of command and feedback, for none of us are infallible. Further, the significant authority granted to military officers requires officers to practice command over themselves, and that is enhanced by maintaining a counterbalance to the obedience required to conduct military operations in high-stress environments.

History is determined by choices made.

History is compelling. Nations with allies thrive, and those without wither. Alone, America cannot provide protection for our people and our economy. At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering. By drawing like-minded nations into trusted networks and promoting a climate of victory that bolsters allied morale, we can best promote the values we hold dear and protect our nation at the lowest cost. A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader; strategic acumen must incorporate a fundamental respect for other nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed. In our past, America has offered the example of coming together to prevent or win wars. Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together. Absent this, we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in a world that as George Shultz said, is “awash in change.”

About the Authors

You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Share your courage with each other as we enter the uncertain terrain north of the Line of Departure. Keep faith in your comrades on your left and right and Marine Air overhead. Fight with a happy heart and a strong spirit.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE 1000 DEFENSE PENTAGON WASHINGTON, DC 20301-1000 December 20, 2018 Dear Mr. President: I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals. I am proud of the progress that has been made over the past two years on some of the key goals articulated in our National Defense Strategy: putting the Department on a more sound budgetary footing, improving readiness and lethality in our forces, and reforming the Department’s business practices for greater performance. Our troops continue to provide the capabilities needed to prevail in conflict and sustain strong U.S. global influence. One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof. Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions—to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense. My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. The end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019, a date that should allow sufficient time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed as well as to make sure the Department’s interests are properly articulated and protected at upcoming events to include Congressional posture hearings and the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in February. Further, that a full transition to a new Secretary of Defense occurs well in advance of the transition of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September in order to ensure stability within the Department. I pledge my full effort to a smooth transition that ensures the needs and interests of the 2.15 million Service Members and 732,079 DoD civilians receive undistracted attention of the Department at all times so that they can fulfill their critical, round-the-clock mission to protect the American people. I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.

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