I’m far too old to have many role models. At this point in my life many of the folks I have held in high esteem have revealed themselves as less than ideal examples of a path to follow for the long term. I’m now pretty set in my ways and have moved toward being the old dog who doesn’t learn many new tricks.
One man’s influence still holds sway in my life even after my vicarious involvement with him ceased. I’m not alone in this thought process, as there are thousands like me who count themselves as disciples in the James D. Mattis school of thought.
General Mattis left the Marine Corps in 2013, but his wartime leadership created a cult-like following amongst a majority of his subordinates.
I had the pleasure of hearing him espouse his philosophy in a lecture hall at Camp Pendleton before we deployed to Iraq. I saw him put those philosophies into play when I encountered him in Iraq as a junior NCO when we crossed paths and he addressed me in a brief and frank man-to-man type of conversation rather than commanding from the mound.
In spite of the cries about the “militarization of police”, I would contend that the ways of General Mattis are applicable in the law enforcement world. His leadership style sets an example we should all strive to emulate as we hit the streets, and are certainly viable for the star and oak leaf cluster club who “lead” law enforcement organizations across our nation.
While I certainly understand that we don’t have the close air support Mattis had at his disposal, ultimately the most basic tenets of his approach to leading Marines transfer to the law enforcement realm fairly seamlessly.
- Leaders set the tone. General Mattis has been quoted as saying “You can overcome wrong technology. Your people have the initiative, they see the problem, no big deal … you can’t overcome bad culture. You’ve gotta change whoever is in charge.” Unfortunately the senior leadership in a lot of law enforcement agencies are rife with “leaders” who have been promoted by out-breathing the competition. The Chiefs and Sheriffs who have no leadership experience and are promoted beyond their own capabilities are easy to find. These “leaders” create intellectually incestuous environments where cronyism flourishes and independent thought is crushed. Rule of policy versus rule of common sense is a good indicator that the organizational culture is ill, especially when policies only apply to those outside the inner circle of the star and oak leaf cluster club.
- Delegate authority and expect mistakes. General Mattis understood the concept of commander’s intent and the idea that there are many ways to achieve a mission. A leader who spells out each step in accomplishing tasks not only limits the unique abilities of subordinates, but also stifles the development of junior leadership in the organization. When a newly minted leader makes decisions within the overall interests of the organization, mistakes will occasionally happen. Those mistakes made with the proper intentions are learning opportunities for the new leader. However, if mistakes are treated as unexpected and inexcusable, the new leader will hesitate to made judgement calls in the future out of fear of retribution.
- Admit mistakes and be humble. A leader that has cultivated the organizational delegation of authority and refuses to play “wack-a-mole” when mistakes are made by subordinates will receive the same leeway in kind. When was the last time a Chief or Sheriff owned a poor decision and actually apologized to those impacted? Not around here. Our star and oak leaf cluster club is infallible, just ask them.
- Be bluntly honest, and carry out the plan. By the time an officer is hired, he or she is an adult. Cops are very accustomed to being bluntly honest with suspects, victims, and witnesses. We don’t typically receive the same treatment from our leaders. It is far too common for entire policy books to be filled with policies generated to skirt difficult personal conversations with the individual(s) who created the problem. Rather than directly addressing an issue, a blanket policy change allows the agency to address an issue without actually addressing the problem. This behavior extends to Chiefs and Sheriffs who make statements to the press without factual information about situations that are receiving a good deal of media attention. An agency head that refuses to excuse egregious actions by his or her officers is fine. But only after everything is considered and investigated.
- Lead from the front. A Chief or Sheriff in a mid-to-large agency will not likely be out on the tip of the law enforcement spear. We understand the idea that they have been promoted beyond the need to actually enforce laws. What subordinates do want and need is a leader that can understand the current climate and demands placed on those who are actually still carrying out the law enforcement functions. The organization exists and succeeds because of the efforts of those in uniform, not necessarily because of those who are in charge. Chiefs and Sheriffs who function in support of the officers rather than commanding from a desk will find that the main effort will be willing to run through a brick wall to return the support.
- “No better friend, no worse enemy” General Mattis famously delivered this mantra to the Marines of the 1st Marine Division just prior to the invasion of Iraq. He wanted those in his charge to demonstrate decisive action to the Iraqi citizens by differentiating between threat and non-threat. Those who decided to receive his Marines without posing a threat would be treated kindly and with respect. General Mattis implored his men to do anything reasonable to assist these “friends”. Those who made the decision to oppose them by force were not likely able to make any other decision again. This concept correlates very well to the mission facing our modern police force. Those who are victimized or are in need of assistance should be treated as friends-and we should make reasonable accommodations for them as the law allows. Those who decide to break the law should do so with the understanding that they will be pursued and held accountable accordingly. And the bad actors who attempt to take the lives of innocents and/or those in uniform should know that they’ll do so at the risk of their own lives.
- “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” A lot has been said about police use of force recently, and those folks will likely take exception to the preceding quote from General Mattis. The reality is that the world faced by our police is not a kind one. The golden rule reigns supreme. Treat everyone as you wish to be treated until they give you a reason to do something else. In spite of public opinion, officers are not hard wired to shoot first and ask questions later. The vast majority of our interactions with the public pose no threat to us. However being reminded of the ever-existing danger and planning ways to survive each encounter are vital to officer survival.
General Mattis set a tone that did not allow for excuses in lieu of decisiveness. Timid leaders were rapidly replaced by the bold. Rank certainly had its place, but rank did not always confer leadership in and of itself. Actions were more important than PowerPoint presentations. Everyone understood exactly what was expected of them and exactly where they stood.
General Mattis thrived as a leader in one of the harshest organizations in the world for 44 years. He set a standard that will be difficult for others to attain, but understanding the basic philosophical ideas behind his leadership and striving to achieve them should be a goal for us all.
Now it’s time to go patrol the Donut…