National Archives News

General Mattis Discusses Leadership at Ford Presidential Library Event

By Sarah Garner | National Archives News

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., April 29, 2021 —  Competency, caring, and commitment are keys to quality leadership, former Defense Secretary and retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis said during a virtual event held April 22, 2021. 

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Ford Library Deputy Director Joel Westphal and former Secretary of Defense and retired U.S. Marine Corps General Jim Mattis discuss leadership during a virtual book talk event hosted by the Ford Presidential Library on April 22, 2021. (Image from YouTube)

Mattis discussed leadership and passages from his new book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, during the live event, which was hosted by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and the Gerald R. Ford Foundation.

Acting Ford Library Director Brooke Clement gave the opening remarks and introduced Mattis. The discussion was led by Ford Library Deputy Director Joel Westphal, who worked for Mattis at U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013.

Westphal began the talk with a question: “How does one maintain a social and personal distance but still come across as caring?”

Mattis answered with a reference to President Ford’s leadership, saying Ford was “caring in action, and competence, and conviction, all summed up in one man.”

The retired general shared his experiences in leadership development, noting a poignant lesson he gained from seasoned noncommissioned officers during his formative years in the infantry: “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” He said that lesson set the tone for his military career.

Mattis went on to explain that the majority of infantry troops in a platoon or company are young.

“For many of these young folks, especially today, you’re in a role of loco parentis,” Mattis said. “Sometimes, unless they played sports, it may even be the first adults that took a hand in coaching them.

“It’s the caring that really, I think, keeps people together. In my line of work, I thought being a player-coach was the right model for a leader. I can’t show you any team that wins that doesn’t have a coach that cares about them,” Mattis said.

Westphal next brought up ego in leadership, asking Mattis, “When we look at other leaders who had large egos, like a General Patton or MacArthur, and we compare those with maybe an Eisenhower or a Marshall, what can we take away from these different leadership styles, and why is ego such a danger to successful leadership?”

Mattis responded that ego and arrogance are pitfalls to being a good leader.

“Success can be the biggest poison to your own personal character development,” he said, explaining how it’s important to have humility, not let success validate everything about you, and keep people around who will help you stay grounded.

Later in the program, Mattis answered questions from viewers, including how he handles working for leaders who do not share the same values like caring and empathy.

He explained that in those cases, he learned from those he didn’t appreciate—to ensure he was not doing some of the same things, maybe even unaware, and to look more carefully at himself.

“Do not conspire with those who would want you to change your style,” Mattis said. “But always try to be better yourself each day.”

You can watch the entire recorded program on YouTube.

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum is part of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Presidential Library System. View upcoming events hosted by the National Archives and supported by groups like the Gerald R. Ford Foundation on our online calendar of events.