General Jim Mattis on Leadership, Mistakes, and Defining Problems


General Jim Mattis has been making the rounds to talk about his new book that is out today: Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.

“Learning to Lead” sounds like it could be the title of a book about Lean management. We're learning how to lead people, to lead improvement, to lead organizations. You might say we're “practicing leadership,” myself included.

A few things jumped out from an article and an NPR interview with Mattis that made me think about Lean and the challenges we face in various workplaces. As I shared on Twitter:

As Mattis wrote in the WSJ, the longer version of what I tweeted:

“The Marines are bluntly critical of falling short, satisfied only with 100% effort and commitment. Yet over the course of my career, every time I made a mistake–and I made many–the Marines promoted me. They recognized that these mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right. Year in and year out, the Marines had trained me in skills they knew I needed, while educating me to deal with the unexpected.”

There's a lot to unpack there. I think a Lean culture (and leaders therein) are “bluntly critical of falling short” — facts are facts, problems are to be embraced. We'll get nowhere by ignoring or refusing to face up to problems.

That said, Lean thinkers look at systems and processes. Having “100% effort and commitment” might be helpful, but insufficient for success.

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But Mattis writes about not being punished for mistakes, which I think is really powerful. We can try to error proof processes, but maybe we can't “mistake proof” bad decisions, when people are doing the best they can given their situation, training, and leadership support.

Mattis wasn't left to flounder, he was given training and education, but “dealing with the unexpected” means that mistakes will occur.

I think a Lean culture promotes the idea of making small mistakes. It's better to fail early, when the stakes are low, in the design of a new process or a physical space. Lean design concepts like cardboard prototypes of workspaces mean that we can learn from mistakes when making changes is relatively easy and inexpensive. We want to make sure we're truly learning from mistakes instead of making the same mistakes over and over.

Healthcare, sadly, has a tendency to punish people who make mistakes.

Mattis also shared an example about a leader who was alienating people:

“I served with a brilliant admiral from a European nation. He looked and acted every inch the forceful leader. Too forceful: He yelled, dressing officers down in front of others, and publicly mocked reports that he considered shallow instead of clarifying what he wanted. He was harsh and inconsiderate, and his subordinates were fearful.”

Lean leaders don't yell, mock, or dress down. If a leader disagrees or needs to address a problem, they can do so respectfully. Lean works against the old “culture of fear” that Dr. Deming and others have warned us against.

I'm unfortunately reminded of the old leadership style that was still there when I worked at GM in 1995, as I've blogged about here:

Instead of “beating down” on people, we need to collaborate in a way that lifts them up. General Mattis writes:

“I called in the admiral and carefully explained why I disapproved of his leadership. “Your staff resents you,” I said. “You're disappointed in their input. OK. But your criticism makes that input worse, not better. You're going the wrong way. You cannot allow your passion for excellence to destroy your compassion for them as human beings.” This was a point I had always driven home to my subordinates.

“Change your leadership style,” I continued. “Coach and encourage; don't berate, least of all in public.”

Mattis was correct, but telling somebody to change (even if you're their leader) doesn't mean they will necessarily choose to change. That's an important lesson from “Motivational Interviewing” — and you can check out a webinar I'm presenting on Thursday (actually, it will be rescheduled to October due to some hurricane-related travel delays) and another webinar next week that I'm hosting with Mark Valenti doing the presenting.

What happened?

But he soon reverted to demeaning his subordinates. I shouldn't have been surprised. When for decades you have been rewarded and promoted, it's difficult to break the habits you've acquired, regardless of how they may have worked in another setting. Finally, I told him to go home.

Old habits are hard to change, that's for sure. I see this in healthcare organizations far too often (a bullying or demeaning style of leadership that's only been reinforced over decades).

Here are some other interesting comments from Mattis, as interviewed by NPR:

“Mattis says that when he was a senior military commander, “I didn't expect to be obeyed, but I expected to be heard.”

That, in a way, makes me think of the quote from Gary Convis, a former Toyota executive, who was taught to “lead as if you have no authority.” That means engaging and collaborating in a way that's more constructive than barking orders.

I can't find the text of the audio I heard where Mattis quoted Einstein in talking about the importance of defining problems properly and getting alignment on that before going into solutions (which reminds me, again, of Lean thinking and problem solving):

“If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”

It's said that Einstein didn't really say that.

President Abraham Lincoln allegedly said something similar:

“If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.”

A quote that I think is legit is from Charles Kettering, the famed GM engineer:

“A problem well-stated is half-solved.”

Recently, I've been coaching some improvement efforts in a health system's ambulatory surgery center. Their aim and mandate was to improve the patient experience (in a way that would hopefully be reflected in patient survey scores).

One role that I played (and I think was an important one) was to be mindful of when individuals or teams were jumping into solution mode prematurely.

“What problem are we trying to solve?”

I find myself saying that a lot. We spent more time on defining the problem and understanding the current state — understanding the real reality — than the organization might have otherwise. But, that investment paid off in terms of better countermeasures that had more support from the staff and leaders who had been engaged in the discussion along the way.

I don't know if I would label General Mattis a “Lean leader” — what does that matter, anyway? He seems like a great leader and a principled leader… and we need more of that.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I may be misstating their intentions, but does it appears there is a difference of opinion between the ‘fail early and often’ approach and the more considered understanding of the current state? Should the two approaches be utilized at different levels of complexity, or are we looking at different schools of thought?

    • Hi – Thanks for your comment, Joseph. I’m not saying we shouldn’t understand the current state.

      There’s a time in a PDSA cycle when we move to Do or “test” a change — we can never anticipate everything perfectly. If, more likely WHEN, something we are testing fails or isn’t perfect, it’s better to do that on a small scale.

      This is especially true if we are designing a new space, a new product, or a new process where there is no current state to understand. Does that help? What do you think?

  2. Jim Mattis is a leader to admire, and for me to follow his principles of leadership, even for myself in just “getting things done” efficiently, (or at all). First time on this site, having googled Jim Mattis, re: defining the problem, and it was in bite sized pieces. Perfect for my purpose. Will keep track of this site.


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