Few in recent U.S. military history have gained the respect, admiration, and fandom as U.S. Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis. His respect for history, love for his country, and studious diligence to strategy and tactics, among others, have earned him the title of ‘Warrior Monk’. He has been quoted as saying, “I don’t lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word.”

As controversial has he might be at times, it was a privilege to witness Secretary Mattis speak during a town hall of a client that I support. His presentation, which consisted of about 45 minutes of him talking and 15 minutes of Q&A, provided great wisdom and insight. During his presentation there were a few leadership traits that stood out clearly and some that were more subtle. Below are the key takeaways from his presentation:


– This is a trait that is difficult to keep in check when you have gained the fandom as Secretary Mattis has. It would seem, though, that Mattis displays humility without conscious thought Humility genuinely comes from the sincerity of his heart. Not once did he take credit for any of the accolades that he has received which is consistent with all of the reporting about him. He continuously credits his team for doing an outstanding job that enables him to look good. Now, let’s be clear, he is a confident man but let’s not confuse that with being arrogant. Humility is a trait that leaders should exhibit. A leader’s ability to influence goes much further when boasting in their teams than themselves.

Servant Leadership

There were several things that Secretary Mattis said that surmise as servant leadership. Servant leadership is defined as “[a sharing of power], puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly possible”. When he spoke at the town hall, he made statements in reference to the knights of the roundtable and asked questions like “How do you help someone else to do their job?” as it relates to taking away barriers to productivity. He said, “I consider my rank as something that gives me responsibility.” To be of service to others is a noble trait. To be a leader and serve the people you are leading, is a honor that we have seen exhibited by some of the most positive, influential and impactful leaders in history.

Value-based Leadership

Secretary Mattis patriotism is without compromise. The “great experiment of democracy” and the values to which we stand for as Americans is something he cherishes. “We have the obligation,” he says, “to protect the blessings we’ve earned as America and pass it on to the next generation.” These values are the basis of his leadership style and it is what enables leaders like him to be successful through adversity. Being a leader is not for the faint of heart. Many have gone astray because they lacked a healthy value system to lead from.


This should come to no surprise to anyone much less effective leaders. The honest gesture of gratitude goes a long way for both the giver and the receiver. Secretary Mattis expressed that it is important to show gratitude whenever possible. He stated, “…little and consistent ways to be thankful…” goes a long way.

“Coach them better”

Secretary Mattis shared that when someone makes an honest mistake, it is the responsibility of the leader to find a way to “coach them better” so that they don’t make the mistake again. This reminds me of a story told of an employee who made a $1M mistake. When called to the CEO’s office, he was sure that he was going to get fired. When he asked the CEO, why he wasn’t going to fire him, the CEO said “Have you learned a valuable lesson?” The employee replied, “Yes.” “Then, you are my most expensive employee now.”