Leadership Lessons From General James Mattis

In late August, General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, shared valuable leadership lessons with our 2021 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholars at their third module convening.

In late August, the 2021 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program convened in Dallas for its third module on vision and communication in leadership. Secretary Bob McDonald moderated a conversation with General James Mattis, where he provided our Scholars with an abundance of valuable lessons on leadership. Below is a recap of the discussion. 

“A leader’s number one responsibility is to define reality.”

“When you give your word on something, you live up to it as a leader.”

“Don’t listen just to listen; listen with a willingness to be persuaded.”

“Listen, learn, help, and then lead…that’s how you build trust.”

“Difficult is the job description for leadership. That’s just the way it is.”

“A country doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth fighting for; it just always needs to be improving.”

“If a society isn’t built on the concept of women and children first into the lifeboats, if it’s not built on a sense of fairness and navigating everyone toward a more perfect union, then you’ll lose the sense of civic awareness. You’ll lose the sense of commonwealth and common concern for each other as human beings.”

“As a leader, every time you’re talking, you have to be talking values.”

“We all need a model in our mind of what kind of leader we are going to be, and I learned early on that I could be a coach to my Sailors and Marines. My idea of ambition at that level is that I’m going to be the best coach I can be.”

“Ambition is good if your ambition is to be a servant leader. If the ambition is to get a bigger tent when you’re a Colonel, that’s not ambition. You must be rooted in being a servant leader.”

“Only your troops can determine if you are a leader. You don’t get to determine that. You cannot let your passion for excellence wipe out your compassion for your troops and then wonder why they don’t think you’re a leader.”

“There’s a difference between a mistake and a lack of discipline, and a leader needs to recognize that. Mistakes are a way of finding what ‘right’ looks like.”

“You want to be like a neutron bomb— blow away the behavior but leave the man standing.”

“Leaders can’t just do their best; they have to do what is required.”

“You have to change and adapt to the leadership position you are in— you can’t keep doing the same thing.”

Meet the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Class of 2021.