May 19, 2020
Warrior Monk

Jim Mattis was promoted to two-star general and given command of the 1st Marine Division in early 2002. In that role, he would lead one of three prongs of the U.S. assault on Iraq the following year. 

He got to work immediately.

That evening, Mattis pulled out books on past military campaigns in Mesopotamia, starting with Xenophon’s Anabasis , recounting the Athenians’ failed attempt to defeat the Persian Empire around 400 BC.

He read about Alexander the Great’s campaigns throughout the region, as well as Britain’s battles in Iraq during World War I. A constant companion of his was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations , written by the Roman emperor between 170 and 180 AD. 

Mattis wasn’t just looking for historical inspiration; he used these campaigns to inform his strategy and tactics.

“We have been fighting on this planet for ten thousand years,” Mattis writes in his memoir, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead , "it would be idiotic and unethical to not take advantage of such accumulated experience.”

Mattis is a warrior of warriors.

“He’s a killer,” a friend who served under Mattis in Iraq told me. “Make no mistake.”

But being a warrior isn’t only about brute force; it’s also an intellectual exercise. The most celebrated generals in the past also happen to be voracious readers.

That isn’t a coincidence.

Great commanders are great because they defy the odds. They prevail against larger armies and inhospitable terrain. They instill confidence in their soldiers and appreciate the value of morale.

Most importantly, they clearly see through the fog of war.

This takes courage. 

It also takes experience, which can be expensive to come by in war.

“Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way,” Mattis writes.

Leading a bank is different than leading an army. Yet, they share two relevant similarities: Both offer little margin for error while at the same time providing extensive literatures on successes and failures in the past. 

It’s by leveraging the latter that one combats the former.

“Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation,” Mattis writes. “It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

• John J. Maxfield, executive editor of Bank Director