General James N. Mattis talks leadership, policy, and global affairs at Barrett, The Honors College

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February 14, 2020

Leadership is not just a matter of discipline, but about respect and affection for those you lead. 

That was one of the ideals General James N. Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, shared with students at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University on February 12.

Mattis, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general, served in the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. He served as Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration from January 2017 to January 2019.

He was at Barrett Honors College as the 2020 John J. Rhodes Chair in Public Policy and American Institutions and participated in two question and answer discussions with honors students early in the day before appearing at the Rhodes Lecture in the evening. 

The Rhodes Lecture is named for John J. Rhodes, who represented Arizona in the U.S. Congress for thirty years. In addition to the sessions with students, Mattis shared more of his observations in the Rhodes Lecture, a discussion moderated by Barrett Honors College Dean Mark Jacobs and Taylor Rhodes, a Marine veteran and grandson of John J. Rhodes. Read more about what Mattis had to say at the Rhodes Lecture.

Student lunch with General Mattis

General Mattis speaks at the student lunch

(Photo by Camille Bruya | Barrett Sophomore studying Photography)

Speaking to students, Mattis said, “As a leader, you cannot get caught up in the popularity game. You must have affection for your troops and care about them as people. You need not only ask ‘How are you doing, but how am I doing?’ And give your subordinates the opportunity to weigh in on your performance,” he said. 

A leadership style worth adopting is that of George Washington, a commander of the Continental Army and the first American president, Mattis said.

Washington lead by a process of “listen, learn, help, lead,” in which he listened to others in order to learn about issues and what actions were needed, helped address those issues, and then led based on what he learned,  Mattis explained. 

“Trust and respect will accrue you if you are trained well, know your job, and respect others,” he added.  

The wide ranging discussions touched upon many topics in addition to leadership.

General Mattis speaking to students

General Mattis leads a discussion with ASU's ROTC students at the Vista del Sol theater

(Photo by Camille Bruya | Barrett Sophomore studying Photography)

On the United States as a world leader and example of democracy in action, Mattis said, “America is still the land of promise. I have learned a lot from foreigners who see us as an example of the freedom and opportunity they would like to have. Sometimes you have to listen to people outside of your system to realize what you have.”

When asked about his war experience, Mattis said maintaining good relations with allies is of utmost importance. 

“We must always remember allies, allies, allies. We must keep our word and maintain relationships with ally countries,” he said.

As for the treatment of prisoners in war time, Mattis said he is vehemently opposed to prisoner torture. 

“You cannot carry out torture of another human being without losing your humanity. When they throw down their rifle and give up, you do not torture them,” he said. 

In response to a student’s question about the asymmetric tactics of enemies in war time, where women and children are used as human shields and enemy troops do not wear uniforms so they cannot be clearly identified, Mattis said, “They are taking advantage of our values; we won’t shoot at women and children.” 

Students posing with General Mattis

Wrapping up the afternoon with a group photo with General Mattis

(Photo by Camille Bruya | Barrett Sophomore studying Photography)

Mattis acknowledged that Americans are living through difficult and divisive times.

“The worst thing I see in America is the contempt we have for each other, our unwillingness to listen. A revulsion against our fellow Americans that our enemies can only applaud. We cannot keep this great American experiment of democracy going with this sort of attitude and the disrespect and divisiveness we are seeing in Washington, D.C.,” Mattis said. 

Mattis resigned from his post as Secretary of Defense after Trump decided to withdraw American troops from Syria, a decision made without consultation with Mattis and that Mattis did not support. 

“With President Trump there came a time when there was something unsound that I couldn’t agree with, so I had to leave,” he said.

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