Leader of Leaders

There is an almost mythical level of leadership that exists and Secretary Mattis sits at its pinnacle. Many people and service members, myself included, of the OIF/OEF era do not know a more articulate, unflinching, and fair leader. My most influential leaders were mentored by or served under Gen Mattis.

His military brilliance, undying scholarly curiosity, and ability to fire off memorable (but serious) one liners are all widely known; especially in the United States Marine Corps. But, his distinction lies in is his profound dedication and love for those under his charge. In this case it is the entire nation. As a matter of fact it’s always been.

I’ve been told by a loved one that my expectations of leaders are too high. Gen Mattis’ letter of resignation affirms that I should abandon any inclination to agree.


Since I’ve left the military it’s been an underwhelming experience watching those in leadership positions above me posture for numbers, promotions, titles, and money. Feeling alone and at times being told I “care too much”, resulted in me valuing things I knew deep inside didn’t matter.

I’m not proud

I changed. For the worse. My behavior changed.  I was judgmental. I was unrealistic.  I was a toxic peer and a rowdy subordinate. It wasn’t a cry for help as much as it was me feeling like a coward for not staying true to myself.  

I loathed interacting with anyone above me. I saw technical talent galore, but I also saw strategies of personnel working and leading in a manner that was designed to keep a target off their back. I was told to “keep a low profile” and “just use this job as a money making machine.” I saw the best people leaders overlooked. I saw the most ruthless skyrocket.

I’m not proud that my values changed. It’s just a chapter I’ll have to learn a lot from. I didn’t fit in. Then suddenly I made an exhausting effort to GIVE all I can to future leaders. Life got better.  Much better. Work became more tolerable. My direct reports were rising fast and getting promoted regularly. But, the damage had been done. I had deviated from my character too much. There was no salvaging what some of thought of me and what I thought of myself. 

Those days are now long gone. And when I see something like Gen Mattis’ letter it reminds me that we all have our own unique sense of duties. We all have values - and sometimes they change. We all try to do what’s right. We all fall from grace. We all live our best lives when it’s consistent with how we want to live.

5 years ago my favorite author, Mark Manson,  replied to a novel of an email I sent him. He wrote back 2 sentences, “If it doesn’t feel right, that’s enough. You don’t need to wait for something catastrophic to happen.” I respect the overt and underlying messages of Gen Mattis’ letter and believe he took this simplistic approach to his decision.

Serving, in any capacity, at any organization, to avoid blows to our confidence is unsustainable.

Serving to boost our confidence through merits or money is also unsustainable.

Serving to serve others is leadership in its purest and strongest form. This is where I will always try and live. I’m just glad I was reminded by the Secretary of Defense.