The Secretary's Outstanding Solution: Trust

If MCDP 1 Warfighting is our Gospel, James Mattis and Bing West’s Call Sign Chaos is the Acts of the Apostles.  They make a persuasive case for unleashing lower-level initiative and generating tempo through trust.  Using personal anecdotes, military history, and ancient philosophy, they prove the following thought progression:

  • Leaders are humble.
  • Humble people do not pretend to be omniscient.
  • Lacking all the answers, leaders must trust their team.
  • Teams built on trust win.

Mattis’s humility comes across on the dust jacket (subtitle: “Learning to Lead”) and permeates every page within it.  The most revered Marine officer of modern history does not try to present “5 tips for leadership success!” Instead, with a biting, self-effacing wit, he describes growing up from a hitch-hiking bar fighter into a Secretary of Defense, with his “forty years of education” funded by the American people (XIII).  

His humility is central to his argument.  By stripping away the infallibility typically ascribed to him by the meme generation, he shows his receptiveness to others’ ideas. He said of his time as Commanding General of 1st Marine Division during the march to Baghdad, “I wanted all hands to pitch in, with the value of good ideas outweighing rank.” Those hands then covered four hundred miles over seventeen days to overwhelm the Iraqi Army (110).

They did so in large part because Mattis trusted his subordinates. Enabled by a humility that prevents feelings of omniscience, he insists twice that “operations occur at the speed of trust” (65, 156). Senior leaders’ lack of omniscience is not only an acceptable human condition; it is preferable in maneuver warfare. We generate tempo by condensing our collective Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop. Lower-level leaders at the point of friction should produce the best ideas. When they do, decisions and actions are near-simultaneous, informed by the very latest observation, and implicitly oriented by higher’s intent two levels up. That is the speed of trust.

Trust does not exist for its own sake.  It is the vital instrument by which Marines achieve national security ends. Mattis shows that from Desert Storm to Iraq and Afghanistan, his model of building teams based on trust carried the day. In teams built on trust, “It was always subordinate initiative that got my lads out of the jams that I got them into, my mistakes being my own” (238).

Mattis and West’s book is essential reading for all ranks as we seek to maintain our warfighting overmatch in an evolving operating environment. Younger Marines will double-time their preparations to take charge. Older Marines will remember anew the urgency to unleash subordinate initiative in an atmosphere of trust. As the co-author said of George Washington, so we must say of him: if it’s good enough for Mattis, it’s good enough for you and me.

—Captain Edwin Powers

  1. Humility is an attribute that isn’t normally associated with Marines. But Capt Powers is absolutely correct in the importance of humility in combat leaders.
    Humility is important when in command of a combat unit, because it is challenging enough to make the right decision to best accomplish the mission and preserve the lives of your Marines under the best of circumstances. If you add the Commander’s personal pride to the equation and what’s best for his advancement, it will effect mission accomplishment and likely increase casualties.
    In Call Sign Chaos, General Mattis mentions his willingness to put himself — a Brigadier General — under the command of Captain Bob Harwood, Commodore of a Joint Special Operations Task Force, his “junior in rank”. In Chaos, General Mattis states, “Everyone on my staff, in Marine parlance, filled sandbags. No one was exempt from the simplest tasks. We answered our own phones, brewed our own coffee…”
    I can personally attest that the humility General Mattis discusses in his book — and Capt Powers discusses — is genuine. I visited General Mattis while he was the CO, 7th Marines. As a follow-on billet to Regimental Command, he said he was interested in being “the CO of SOI” or the G-3, I MEF, where he “had a few ideas” concerning North Korea. Not billets that a Colonel lusting after his first star seeks.