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Brilliance in the Basics

·8 mins

“First-rate training, dedicated leadership, and a sense of belonging to a tight unit are true troop welfare.” #

Seeking to stand out in a crowded environment is a common challenge in the business world, especially since exceptional performance can result in a substantially different career trajectory. In the military, lives depend on being the most tactically and technically proficient so there is an intense focus on honing skills to have the greatest advantage possible.

Recently I was listening to the podcast How to be Awesome at your Job and a point was made about the importance of fundamentals. I immediately thought of General Mattis and LtCol McCoy who had a keen focus on the basics. They stressed the importance of being brilliant in the basics and that even though simple expectations appear obvious, they were critical to get right. The simple things such as weapons cleanliness are clear, discrete tasks which can be evaluated. It is subjective if a Marine is a team player but it is clear if they are wearing their helmet correctly.

This is an important lesson in the business world, even though the stakes are not as high. Organizations often stress comprehensive strategic goals but it is difficult to evaluate progress towards them. Focusing on evaluating the tactical level activities can be used to become a high performer in the little things. This is especially important in technology since there is always some a variety of shiny new toys which can distract leadership and promise to transform the organization overnight. Humbly focusing on the small daily wins may seem obvious but is difficult to accomplish. Consistently working on being brilliant in the basics is one important aspect of building an exceptional team.

LtCol McCoy’s article which is much more eloquent then mine can be read [here](assets/Brilliance in the Basics_Original Article.pdf ‘Brilliance in the Basscs and other expectations of combat leaders’)

“In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was,taught to value most in selecting others for promotion or critical roles were initiative and aggressiveness.”

I thought I would also include some other key lessons from Mattis:

Secretary Mattis’ Leadership Philosophy and Guidance #

On Leadership #

Leadership = Competence + Authentic Character Attitudes are caught, not taught. Organizations and institutions get the behavior they reward. If you mix good people with bad processes, the processes will win nine times out of ten. Know what you stand for and what you will not tolerate. Protect your mavericks. Reconcile natural polarities. Don’t resent the problems that come to you. Each one is a normal part of your job. Decentralize decision-making to the lowest capable level. Define the problem. Reward initiative and aggressiveness. Know when to apply non-quantitative analysis. Too early, you’re lazy. Too late, you’re mechanistic. Do not permit your passion for excellence to destroy your compassion for subordinates. As a second lieutenant, I realized my guys weren’t lying awake at night wondering, ‘How can I screw up Lieutenant Mattis’ day?’ We are masters of our character. We choose what we will stand for in this life.

On Communication #

Clearly convey your intent, in order to unleash subordinates’ initiative and aggressiveness. [See: Making your guiding principles useful] Data not displayed is data not acted on. If you do not promote your values, someone else will promote theirs. When leading large organizations, use touchstones. Put a human face on the mission, convey your intent, and reach your subordinates’ hearts and minds. Share your courage. There are three types of information: housekeeping, decision-making and alarms. Of each, ask: what do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?

On Fighting #

Be ethically ferocious. [See: Doing the right thing] Be eager to close with and fight the enemy. Combat can lead to post-traumatic growth. Learn to fight without a C2 system. Fight in accord with our values and you will win trust. Every child in every village you enter should be able to look at you like a parent. Every battlefield is also a humanitarian field. Combat rubs off the thin veneer of civilization. Do not fall into the temptation to work only with those who think, speak, and look like you. When we commit our forces to action, it will be the enemy’s longest and worst day.

On Ethics #

Run the ethical midfield. Keep a firing squad. The unit with poor firing discipline in the field is the same as the one with high rates of DUI’s and sexual assault in the barracks. The ultimate test of conscience is willingness to sacrifice for future generations whose thanks you will never hear. As long as we recruit from an America that objectifies women, this will also occur in the military. Work hard to weed these people out. Recognize you cannot do this fast enough.

On Teamwork #

Our competitive advantage is our jointness – our ability to integrate across the services and coalitions. Forge vicious harmony across your team. If you cannot build trust, your leadership is obsolete, and you need to have the courage to go home. [See: Trusting us and trusting them] The services should be integrated, not identical. What counts most in war is what’s difficult to count. I had the privilege to fight many times for America. I never fought in a solely American formation. Even Jesus of Nazareth had one out of twelve go to crap on him. Ride for the brand. Loyalty only counts when there are a hundred reasons not to be.

On Military Service #

The members of our military look past today’s hot political rhetoric and write a blank check to the American people, payable with their lives. We are the sentinels and guardians of our nation. We’re the good guys. We’re not the perfect guys, but we are the good guys. Steady as she goes. We represent the fundamental unity of our people. I wasn’t in the Marine Corps for 40 years, I was in the U.S. Marine Corps. We ensure the President and our diplomats always negotiate from positions of strength. Our military is a national treasure built on the blood, sweat, and tears of patriots. Tell our adversaries: better talk to the Department of State. You don’t want to fight the Department of Defense. Our job is to keep the peace – one more year, one more month, one more day, one more hour. Our military is unapologetic and apolitical. Military service is a touchstone for American patriots of all races, genders, and creeds. It is not a life insurance policy. America is like a bank: if you want to take something out, then you must put something in. The members of our military have, without doubt, put something into the nation’s moral bank. We will face nothing worse than Valley Forge, Shiloh, Belleau Wood, Ploesti, Midway, the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh, or Falluja. Hold the line.

On Strategy #

Problem statement: how do we maintain a safe and effective nuclear deterrent, while at the same time fielding a decisive conventional force and maintain irregular warfare as a core capability? The paradox of war is the enemy will always move against perceived weakness. There is nothing new under the sun. We must not be dominant and, at the same time, irrelevant. War is an open system. There is no ‘x + y = z.’ The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win it. Define the problem to a Jesuit’s level of satisfaction. Look to the future, knowing you won’t get it 100 percent right, but you must not get it 100 percent wrong. Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative. An undefeated army can lose anyway. Culture trumps doctrine and tactics. Operations occur at the speed of trust. HANDCOM trumps OPCON. [See: Trusting us and trusting them] Surprise will be your constant companion. Never tell the enemy what we will not do. We may want a war to be over. We may even declare it over. But the enemy gets a vote. Be brilliant in the basics. Because from the Bataan Peninsula, to Kasserine Pass, to Task Force Smith, we know too well the cost of not being ready.

On Alliances and Partnerships #

History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive; those without stagnate and wither. Fight by, with, and through our allies and partners. Be willing, not just to listen, but to be persuaded. Not all good ideas come from the country with the most aircraft carriers. Accept caveats. Do not impose them. We sometimes expect a perfection from other countries that we don’t expect of our own. Friends need tending, and we need friends.

On Humility #

When I became a Marine, my aims were modest. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll make captain.’ It freed me up to not worry about my next command and focus instead on doing the best job I could in the one I had. Modesty: believe so completely in subordinates they have no choice but to believe in themselves; act from integrity and authenticity, let your very goodness put ambition out of context. Be brave, honest, humble – be a home-run of a human being.

On Affordability #

Gain full value from every taxpayer dollar spent on defense. Earn the trust of Congress and the American people.

You can read more about General James Mattis in ‘No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis’ by Jim Prosser: