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Business Leadership Lessons from Gen. Mattis By Kim D. Strohmeier

by | In the Magazine, Kim D. Strohmeier

Last Christmas, my soldier son gave me a copy of General James Mattis’ newly published book, Call Sign Chaos

With some reluctance, I read it and was pleasantly surprised at the content.

While he is a somewhat controversial figure, the leadership lessons that he outlined as having learned as he rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps, directly apply to nearly anyone who is running a business.

And make no mistake, a business owner HAS to be an effective leader of his or her staff if the business is going to thrive. And “chaos” is a very appropriate adjective describing a business owner’s challenges this year!

Mattis had said that, even before his last job as US Secretary of Defense, he intended to write a book about how “the Marines teach you … to adapt, improvise and overcome.”  That sounds like running a business, doesn’t it?

Below is a summary of the lessons learned. (Most points are adapted from, but a few are directly quoted from the book.)

Listen, learn, and help. Only then are you ready to lead.

Leadership fundamentals are:


Master your job. Analyze yourself. Discipline yourself. Learn from your own as well as other’s mistakes.


Be interested in subordinates. Get to know them, their goals, what makes them tick. Speak bluntly, but don’t patronize. Be a coach. Reward when they do right. Invest in their character, their dreams, and their development.


Know what you stand for and what you won’t stand for. Be humble and compassionate. Keep your honor clean.

Read, read, read.  You won’t always have new ideas, so don’t worry about that. Adopt or integrate from what others have come up with.

State your intent of what you want done, and explain why. Then if circumstances change, the subordinate will be more able to adjust accordingly.

But recognize that this also requires effective training of the subordinate and ultimately trusting them to do the right thing.

The leader’s job is to explain what needs to be done. Leave the “how” to subordinates, train them to exercise initiative, and reward them when they do.

Use rules and policies as a guide, but not a straitjacket. Allow for improvisation and adaptation.

Train them to “act without orders.” Prepare enough for changing circumstances that they won’t need to ask. But then, back them up.

Recruit for attitude, train for a skill.

“Leadership is persuasion, conciliation, education, and patience. And long, slow, tough work.” (Quote attributed to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.)

Be prepared. Don’t be caught flat-footed. Stay attuned to what’s going on in the bigger world.

Once you start something, finish it. Don’t start second-guessing yourself halfway through the job.

Every so often, step back and question what you and your organization are doing.

Recognize that there are some things you just cannot change. You just have to work around them.

The nature of the organization typically reflects the nature of the leadership. Plans and policies will not be effective if they don’t reflect the values and the culture of the organization.

Leaders must encourage intellectual risk and must shelter those challenging nonconformists and mavericks who make institutions uncomfortable, otherwise, you wash out innovation, and ultimately, become irrelevant.

Writing out your thoughts as you make a decision can cause that decision to be more exact, sometimes even driving you to a different conclusion than you had originally held.

Back up, your staff. Do what it takes, immediately, for them to get their job done.

Never have only one course of action to achieve your aims.

Sometimes there is no good choice. “What is good, in this case, cannot be affected. We have, therefore, only to find what will be the least bad.” (Quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson.)

“Whatever we learn to do, we learn by doing it. By doing self-controlled acts, we learn self-control, by doing brave acts, we become brave.” (Quote attributed to Aristotle.)

Planning is just another word for anticipatory decision-making.

Know your processes well enough to master them, but also not to be mastered by them.

When you are an effective leader, even when you and your company “get hit,” as has happened to nearly every entrepreneur and coach in the world this year, you will be better able to get back up and move forward towards successfully growing your business.

Kim D. Strohmeier

 About Kim D. Strohmeier

Kim D. Strohmeier has over 10 years of national experience in training and coaching entrepreneurs. As a 35-year veteran of the University of Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service, he has a whole career’s worth of training in working with business people to help them realize their dreams. As an internationally-trained coach, he focuses on reality, rather than the theory, of small business planning, management, and marketing, helping his clients set themselves up for long-term financial success.

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