Although I teach courses on various topics related to leadership, I’m quick to admit it: Learning a lot about leadership won’t necessarily make you a great leader.
Similarly, just because someone has 20 years of experience doing something doesn’t necessarily make him or her an expert. It’s quite possible—and common—for people to have the same experience, 20 years in a row.
What oftentimes elevates truly great leaders above the rest is their tenacity, their commitment to never give up—and to never stop learning. It’s their ability to persevere through adversity with an open mind, applying the lessons they acquire along the way.
One such leader whom I’ve always enjoyed listening to and reading about is United States Marine Corps General James Mattis (ret.). Among recent military leaders, Mattis is a legend, particularly if you talk with other U.S. Marines.
Stories about his selfless, direct style of leadership abound.
Additionally, his use of the “knife hand”—basically pointing for emphasis with all of one’s fingers outstretched and the hand oriented such that the little finger is closest to the ground, like the sharp edge of a knife—is equally legendary.
So I couldn’t help but pause for a moment recently when the Marines released a video of Mattis talking about leadership. In the video, he answers a number of questions related to leadership. At the end, he even addresses the lethality of his knife hand.
He’s quick to point out that it was the spirit of the people he led, his Marines, that kept him motivated throughout his career.
And in no uncertain terms, he says that the key to improving continually as a leader is that “You have to assume that you must keep improving.” For Mattis, this is simply a given. Leaders must “maintain this body, mind and spirit improvement at all times.”
But above all, I’m impressed with his humble-yet-confident demeanor. People tend to follow those who know where they’re headed, but at the same time they’re inspired by those who are humble enough to share recognition with the team for getting stuff done.
Or, as Mattis says, “You’re not going to win any fights as a leader. Your troops are going to win those fights.”
Take a few minutes to listen to these and other bits of timeless leadership wisdom in the video below.
Although none of us will go through the same situations as Mattis and it’s unlikely that any of us will achieve his level of regard among any group of leaders, not to mention leaders in the U.S. Marine Corps, there’s plenty that we can learn from his style.
And if we do, I think we’ll be just a little better equipped than we were before to adapt to change and to perform well in adversity.
That’s not to say that it’s easy. Quite to the contrary, leadership is hard. It’s often vastly different from the somewhat romantic vision that we sometimes have of it. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that leadership can’t be effective.
Because, as Mattis says, “Difficulty is an excuse that the Marine Corps will never accept.”
What excuses do you accept? What do you tolerate, in yourself, in those around you, in your organization?
And what, during the next week or so, can we all do to re-identify what’s important, to re-commit to never giving up and never stopping our process of learning?
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.