flow of information

General Mattis on the Flow of Information

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Marine Corps decentralizes decision making via the Rule of Three. I talked a lot about how information moves down the chain of command to those in the trenches, and a few readers reminded me that I glossed over the flow of information from the trenches to higher level. I’m here today to remedy that.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

I’m here today to let General Mattis remedy that. He served 44 years in the Marine Corps, later became the Secretary of Defense, and wrote the book Call Sign Chaos. After serving under Mattis myself, I can attest that General Mattis stands out as a legendary leader and an all around amazing human being. In fact, he was the last Marine I spoke to before I resigned in 2006.

I’ll be doing very little writing today. Instead, this post is littered with quotes from Call Sign Chaos that are relevant to the flow of information, and we’ll begin with how information makes its way to on high.

The Flow of Information Upward

When you are engaged at the tactical level, you grasp your own reality so clearly it’s tempting to assume that everyone above you sees it in the same light. Wrong.

I love his candor with these next few quotes. I feel many leaders lose sight of some obvious truths:

  • “Once you made general, you never had a bad meal and you never again heard the truth.”
  • “Note to all executives over the age of thirty: always keep close to you youngsters who are smarter than you.”

What do you see with these next collection of quotes? Too often I’ve seen leaders put the burden on their people for gathering and passing information up. I admire how Mattis chooses to bear this burden alongside his people:

  • “During the assault, I did not want my company commanders wasting time passing information to me that I could gain simply by staying adjacent to them.”
  • “Keeping me informed would be a lower priority. By listening over their tactical radio nets, I could gather information without interfering.”
  • “I walked the lines at night; troops will tell you things when they’re on guard duty in the dark.”
  • “There is no shortcut to taking the time to listen to others and find common ground.”

It’s also best to find avenues of information that are outside of or in supplement to traditional flows of information:

  • “If you have multiple avenues of information coming to you and you’re out and about yourself, you develop an enhanced understanding.”
  • “I used officers who had sound tactical judgment, unfailing tact, initiative, and empathy in order to deliver to me impartial reports in concise terms, bypassing normal reporting channels.”

The Flow of Information Downward

Once he’s removed from direct interaction with his troops, a commander must guard most rigorously against overcontrol, compounded by the seduction of immediate communications.

This collection of quotes reminds me of when I first met General Mattis as he spontaneously sat down to a eat breakfast with me and a small group of young Marines. His straight-forwardness and eagerness for the raw truth still sticks with me after all these years:

  • “At the close of staff meetings and even chance encounters, to push my Marines by insisting they put me on the spot with one hard question before we finished our conversation.”
  • “It’s not enough to trust your people; you must be able to convey that trust in a manner that subordinates can sense.”
  • “If you can’t talk freely with the most junior members of your organization, then you’ve lost touch.”
  • “I believed I could not do my job well if I lost touch with those on the front lines who carried out orders at the point of danger.”

There’s something both subtle and powerful about the story he shares below. After a spectacular failure, a young Mattis was licking his wounds when his commander approached him. Sometimes a leader’s responsibility isn’t to teach their people. Instead, it’s to trust their people have the tools to teach themselves:

“Learn anything today, Jim?” Fulford asked quietly. We both knew my Marines had bailed me out at the quarry. “Yes, sir.” “Good,” he said as he walked away. He didn’t belabor the point.

My previous post talked about commander’s intent, and let’s take a look at Mattis’ philosophies:

  • “The details you don’t give in your orders are as important as the ones you do.”
  • “If you as the commander define the mission as your responsibility, you have already failed. It was our mission, never my mission.”
  • “I believe in a centralized vision, coupled with decentralized planning and execution.”
  • “Command and feedback is a fundamentally different approach than imposing command and control for coordinating teams to work optimally. Critical to the command and feedback approach is the speed of information sharing and decentralizing decision-making.”

This final quote is one I offer up frequently, especially to scrum masters and project and program managers. It applies both to flowing information up and flowing information down. It’s simply three questions I perpetually have on loop in my mind:

What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them?

That’s all for today. This piece was a divergence from my typical approach to writing, and I hope it was a worthwhile adventure. Until next time.

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