Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offers advice for young leaders: 'Know your troops'

  • Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered some advice for junior officers leading their troops into combat.
  • “Listen to your non-commissioned officers, your chief petty officers,” Mattis said. 
  • Mattis also stressed to leaders the importance of being physically fit — to set an example.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered some advice for junior officers leading their troops into combat, a question he described as one that he gets asked the most by younger service members.

Mattis, who served in the Marine Corps for over four decades and rose to the rank of four-star general, offered his insight to an online audience during a live-streamed talk with the Office of Strategic Services Society on Thursday. 

“Listen to your non-commissioned officers, your chief petty officers,” Mattis said. “They don’t expect you to do everything they tell you … but they do expect to be heard.”

The former defense secretary was briefly an enlisted Marine. He initially enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves when he was 18 years old, before graduating college and receiving his commission as a second lieutenant in 1971.

“That doesn’t mean you walk in and say, ‘Thank you. I’m gonna do what I’ve gonna do now,'” Mattis added. “It means you walk in, listen with a willingness to be persuaded. They were getting a master’s degree in your line of work while you were still in high school. So listen to them.”

Mattis also stressed to leaders the importance of being physically fit — to set an example for those they are leading.

“Be as physically tough as your toughest troops,” Mattis said. “There is no way that you can walk in there and not be physically at the top of your game; and expect that physical, rambunctious young troops are going to respect you.”

“They really don’t care that you’ve read [Carl] von Clausewitz or some other dead German,” Mattis added, referring to the nineteenth-century military strategist. “They’re going to assume you know how to call artillery support. But don’t try to ‘wow’ them with your knowledge if you can’t keep up with them on any run or outrun them.”

Lastly, Mattis encouraged leaders to “know your troops” without crossing the line of professionalism between enlisted and commissioned officers.

“Don’t give up one ounce of your authority, but come as close to the line that must necessarily separate you from your troops,” Mattis said, adding that leaders needed to go beyond knowing “just their name.”

“What are their hopes, what are their goals,” Mattis said. “Do they want to stay in the Army or are they going to get out? Do they want to save money for a car, are they going to college some day?”

“The more you know about your troops, the more they know you care about them as individuals,” Mattis added.

Mattis’ candor and quotability have earned him a celebrity-like status in and out of the military. His resume earned him strong bipartisan support in Congress after he was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as his defense secretary.

At one point he reportedly told Iraqi military leaders: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f— with me, I’ll kill you all.”

Mattis resigned from his post at the Pentagon one year into the Trump administration, citing his differences the president’s foreign policies. According to a book written by a former aide, US Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, Trump’s behavior during his presidency conflicted with Mattis’ recent advice for junior leaders.

During a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting at the Pentagon in January 2018, then-President Trump derailed a briefing by injecting politics into the conversation about the Defense Department.

“You know, I blame everything on the Democrats,” Trump said at one point before glancing at Mattis.

“What about Afghanistan?” Trump said, according to Snodgrass. “How are we doing over there?”

Mattis began speaking and then Trump interrupted again. Trump was “not impressed” by the US’s and allies’ previous efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, Snodgrass wrote in his book, “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.”

“Seriously, who gives a s— about Afghanistan?” Trump added, according to Snodgrass. “So far we’re in for $7 trillion, fellas … $7 trillion including Iraq. Worst decision ever and we’re stuck with it.”

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