Then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Canada’s Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan on Feb. 6, 2017, at the Pentagon.

Then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Canada’s Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan on Feb. 6, 2017, at the Pentagon. DOD photo

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The Challenge of Managing Up

What’s interesting about Gen. Jim Mattis’ new book is not his views on leading others, but his discussion of his frustration with bosses above him.

When Random House announced earlier this year that the former Defense Secretary and retired four-star General Jim Mattis would be writing a book for publication this fall, Mattis went to great lengths to make clear that he would not be discussing President Trump in the book. Instead, he promised a book that would convey some of the lessons he learned in his 43 years of service. (The book had been under contract before Mattis became defense secretary in 2017).   

In many ways, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (written with Bing West), is a companion piece to Admiral William H. McRaven’s 2019 book Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations. Both books tell numerous war stories and present a flyover of their respective distinguished careers. Both books take us into battle and describe the ethos and culture of two of the military’s most elite organizations: the United States Marine Corps and the Navy SEALS. It’s hard not to be impressed by the variety of assignments and preparation for command that Mattis and McRaven received over their long careers. Both books discuss their early assignments in which they learned to lead, what Mattis calls “direct leadership.”

As a long-time reader of countless management and leadership books, I found little that was new in Mattis’ approach to managing his men (there is little discussion of women, who now comprise 7% of the Marine Corps). Many other leaders have talked about the importance of “delegating as much authority as possible to proven Marine and Navy commanders below me.” The book does contain brief discussions of assignments where he was responsible for “transforming” organizations—his time as head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and his tenure at both the U.S. Joint Forces Command and as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation. The book contains only two paragraphs on his time managing the Defense Department (we will have to wait until his next book to learn about his experience in the Trump administration). 

What I found most interesting was not Mattis’ views on leading others, but his discussion of his frustration with bosses above him. While I am sure Mattis was a great leader of his troops, he does not appear to have been as skilled in managing up. There were three notable incidents in which the General strongly disagreed with his bosses (not an uncommon experience for those who have served in government at any level): 

Mattis at Tora Bora  

The most self-reflective chapter in the book describes the decision by his military chain of command not to permit Mattis to pursue Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains. “We in the military missed the opportunity, not the President, who properly deferred to his senior military commander on how to carry out the mission,” Mattis wrote. “Looking at myself, perhaps I hadn’t invested the time to build understanding up my chain of command . . . I should have paid more attention and gotten on the same wavelength as my higher headquarters if I wanted them to be my advocates . . . If I had to do it over again, I would have called both the ARCENT commander and Admiral Moore and said, ‘Sir, I have a plan to accomplish the mission, kill Osama bin Laden, and hand you a victory. All I need is your permission.’” 

Mattis in Fallujah  

The most interesting war story is Mattis’ experience in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. He opposed the attack on Fallujah but his objections were overruled. “I had made my objections clear. While some might urge a senior officer to resign his post in this circumstance, your troops cannot resign and go home. They will carry out the specific order regardless of whether you are still with them,” he wrote. During the first battle of Fallujah, Mattis’ troopers were ordered to “stand down” several times and ultimately pulled out. “I believed I had let my men down, having failed to prevent the attack in the first place and subsequently failing to prevent a stop order once we were deep inside the city. It was a tough time for me, because higher-level decisions had cost us lives, but now was not the time to go inward. You must always keep fighting for those who are still with you.”

Mattis as head of Central Command 

Mattis led CENTCOM from 2010 to 2013, until he was removed by President Obama. A more detailed discussion of his removal from command would have been very interesting, but Mattis noted only that, “my traction inside the White House was eroding. It was no secret in Washington that the White House was wary of my command at CENTCOM and increasingly distrusted me. While I fully endorse civilian control of the military, I would not surrender my independent judgement . . . While I had the right to be heard on military matters, my judgement was only advice to be accepted or ignored. I obeyed without mental reservations our elected Commander in Chief and carried out every order to the best of my ability.”

I came away from Call Sign Chaos with two distinct takeaways. The first was that General Mattis was seldom let down by his troops in the field (although there were instances where he was disappointed in their performance). The second was the numerous instances in which Mattis felt let down by those in command above him (both military and civilian leaders). He was often disappointed in their frequent lack of clear guidance (in contrast to his constant efforts to provide clear mission statements to those below him).  

There are many books on managing those below you in rank, many of which Mattis has read and cites. But there is a shortage of books on the challenge of working with those above you and how a leader effectively responds to decisions with which he or she disagrees. One option is resignation, which Mattis rejected after his recommendations were overruled in Fallujah. We will have to wait for Mattis’ next book to learn the decision-making process that led to his resignation as Secretary of Defense in December 2018. Managing up is indeed a challenge for all leaders.  

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is mark.abramson@comcast.net.