Best Defense

General Mattis was great in combat. But so too was he great about mundane duty.

Mattis changed the dynamic in that room.



By “A Marine Officer”
Best Defense guest columnist

I was on recruiting duty as the Commanding Office of a Recruiting Station. I came on “the duty” directly upon my return from Iraq, along with just about every other battalion executive officer and operations officer from my division. At the time, Marine Corps Recruiting Command was riding an unprecedented wave of success.

But as OIF turned sour and OEF stagnated, so did recruiting. We fell on hard times.

In October 2005, I was on my third and final year in command. Although the numbers technically did not show it, MCRC had missed contracting mission for the first time since the mid-1990s (we would “officially” show a miss in December). More than a few of my peers had been relieved (with the accompanying ending of their careers) for failure to make mission.

In my station, we had missed contracting targets more than a few times. Because we had built up a significant buffer during happier times, we had made our shipping quotas — the ultimate arbiter on recruiting. In hindsight, making shipping, not turning to some counter-productive “leadership” practices that are so enticing when one is struggling on the duty, and the understandable lack of enthusiasm among my potential replacements to command recruiting efforts in my area, were the only reasons why I still had my job (and today still have a career).

The MCRC Commanding General’s regular commanders conference was a somber affair. The CG (then-MajGen Gaskins) knew that he needed to inject energy and belief into the 48 majors who commanded his recruiting stations. The Marine Corps’ recruiting fate is bound to those 48 and the RSs that they lead.

In support of his efforts, MajGen Gaskins brought in a series of speakers — to include then-LtGen Mattis. Preceding Gen Mattis was another Marine general officer. The thrust of this general’s talk was that, in the Marine Corps, we don’t fire enough people. Moreover, we tend to wait too long to get rid of leaders who aren’t performing. Given that the 48 of us had seen so many close friends — friends with whom we had come up and gone to combat — relieved over the past three years, you can imagine the effect this oration had. The somber mood turned to depression as the talk went on. The talk wrapped up with an exhortation to “make mission” and the not-so-subtle implication of “or else.”

Gen. Mattis arrived as this was being said. He waited for the preceding speaker to leave the room, walked to the front, and told us to take our seats.

Gen. Mattis then said that he had been in combat with many of us and knew the rest of us by our well-earned reputations. Moreover, he had been on the duty twice himself and knew how hard it was — especially when the economy was good and war was bad. He then said that he thought it personally wrong to stand before us and stick his finger in our collective chests demanding that we make mission or else. Rather, he would appeal to our better qualities as Marines and leaders to change the tide and win this fight. I don’t remember the specific words (I wish I did), but I do know how he made us feel.

That day, Gen. Mattis changed the dynamic in that room. Think of every cliché of change that you can — it happened. To be sure, we had struggles after that, but there was no question that we were going to overcome, and eventually win. Today, the Marine Corps is in its tenth year of another Recruiting winning streak.

I became an unreserved Gen Mattis fan that day.

The ability to personally change human dynamics and affect the flow of organizational culture is, in my experience, extremely rare and uncountably valuable. Gen Mattis has it to a degree that I have not to observed among anyone else that I have ever met.  I don’t know if that makes him a good SECDEF or overcomes the various well-considered objections to his serving in that post. I do think it gives him a unique ability to drive dramatic organizational improvement at the most fundamental, human level.

Photo credit: U.S. CENTCOM/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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