The Hill You Should Die On

Lessons from James Mattis on when it’s time to go

James Mattis might be the Patron Saint of Principled Resignation.

The big one had been building for a while. By the end of 2018, the relationship between then-Secretary of Defense Mattis and President Donald Trump had frayed so much that Trump would, on occasion, belittle Mattis publicly, as when Trump commented to reporters, “I think I know more about [NATO] than [Mattis] does.” (Mattis once served as the supreme allied commander in charge of NATO transformation.) 

Then the president announced, against previously stated policy, the US would withdraw all troops fighting Islamic State forces in Syria. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the Atlantic, this 

“policy shift posed a direct challenge to Mattis’s beliefs. He had spent much of his career as a fighter in the Middle East. He had battled Islamist extremists and understood the danger they represented. He believed that a retreat from Syria would threaten the security of American troops elsewhere in the region, and would especially threaten America’s allies in the anti-ISIS coalition. These allies would, in Mattis’s view, feel justifiably betrayed by Trump’s decision.” 

Mattis went the next day to see the president in the Oval Office. For half an hour, Mattis made his case, and Trump rejected Mattis’s arguments. 

Mattis told the president, “You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it,” and handed Trump the resignation letter read around the world.  

This had happened before. Beginning in the first term of the Obama administration, from 2010 to 2013, Mattis had led US Central Command as a 4-star Marine general. Mattis disagreed repeatedly with his political leadership, and has written of this period, “Each step along the way, I argued for political clarity and offered options that gave the Commander in Chief a rheostat he could dial up or down to protect our nation.” 

“The commander in chief wasn’t interested,” reporter Matthew Continetti pointed out, and “turned the rheostat off.” What followed was an awkward, early ousting that blurred the lines between resignation and removal. 

Mattis has chosen to leave top jobs twice, walking away from leaders of both American political parties. His actions match his words. In Call Sign Chaos, Mattis wrote that he was “proud that no one knows for whom I vote, and equally proud that I served loyally presidents of both parties.”

* * * * * * * * * * 

“That’s not a hill worth dying on.” 

It comes up regularly. I don’t know how many people I’ve heard say this in my career. The bosses that I’ve had the displeasure of working for. It’s usually a throw-away line used as justification for caving to some unwanted concession. 

For once, just once, I’d like to hear somebody tell me what hill they are ready to die on. (Let’s stipulate we’re talking about a professional “death” here, not the literal end of life, though in the military that distinction can get fuzzy.) 

We’re talking about the willingness to lose a professional position over a particular project, a valued colleague, a cherished principle, heck, even the kind of coffee in the break room. Something, one thing, at least.

My sense is that our work-lives are filled with tiny battles and big battles, and most of the time we just throw up our hands and say, “whatever, I don’t care.” Sometimes that’s fine. But others it’s not.

We fool ourselves into believing access matters above all else. We acquiesce because “we’ll get our way the next time.” We exchange access for full-fledged fealty. 

Here’s the problem. If you have no meaningful voice or your mind doesn’t matter, then it’s probably time to go.

A strategist without an independent voice is a bird without wings. Flight-enabling feathers fall every time a strategist subordinates their personal view to what the leadership or the group-thinks. 

This isn’t about being obstinate. This isn’t about a red-faced junior staffer telling off The Boss. It’s not even an angry task at all. Note the calmness in the clause with which Mattis prefaced the punch-line in his resignation letter: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” 

Just because it’s personnel doesn’t mean it’s personal.

Because strategists shouldn’t ever mind losing a professional argument. Big choices are usually about value judgments as opposed to who’s right and wrong. They’re gray, not black versus white. If the strategist judges that X would be better, and the decision-maker chooses Y, that’s OK. As long as you have had your say in some way.

The second criteria for self-cancellation is a little harder. It’s not that you don’t get a chance to comment, it’s that your view doesn’t matter. At all. Your thoughts, your principles, they just don’t matter. You might as well not be there anyways.

* * * * * * * * * * 

Choosing a hill to die on isn’t just some noble sacrifice. It’s not only about signaling seppuku

It can be good for the organization being left behind. Not just to the leadership that’s getting a single pink slip, but to everybody else. 

It serves as a warning light, a “check engine” light, to jolt the organization into recognizing that it’s gone haywire in some way. It empowers others to speak up when they see something wrong. 

Of course, whether that makes the organization better is debatable. But that’s not up to the departing individual. The person dying-(professionally)-on-that-hill knows their presence won’t reform the organization. Maybe leaving might.

Decisions like these can’t be second-guessed from the outside. Like divorce, these split-ups are hidden behind several layers that obscure observers’ views. Moreover, even if one could break down these breakdowns, the factors at play are so varied and dynamic that it’d be impossible to set hard-and-fast rules. 

But there are examples to learn from. Great ones. Like James Mattis. 

* * * * * * * * * * 

*Afterthought:  (Actor Richard Jenkins playing an FBI director being pushed out of his position in “The Kingdom”):

“You know, Westmoreland made all of us officer write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought the Cong might end it all right there. And once w clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it, didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what. The only thing that matters is how do you want to go out. On your feet or on your knees. I bring that lesson to this job. I act knowing that someday, this job will end no matter what. You should do the same.”

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt