Applying Marine Corps Leadership values to education

General Mattis is known for a couple of his roles within the US government.  He served as Secretary of Defense from 2017-2018 (the first retired general to receive a waiver/permission to hold the job before being retired more than seven years since George Marshall in 1950) and before that as head of the U.S. Marine Corps.  He’s also known for a couple of appellations given to him–first is his nickname, ‘Mad Dog’ (though he is far from that intellectually) and the second is him being called a ‘warrior-monk’ in the best sense of ancient history.

Anyways, Mattis offered some insights in an except from an upcoming book he has written.  I think they are good things to consider, whether in terms of our current politics in the world (or US), for personal lives, or education.

1 – He pays attention to airline emergency warnings before takeoff.  When it came time for the oxygen mask warning recently, he realized how that applied to our politics–if the United States is going to protect the free world, be what Reagan referred to as ‘the city upon the hill’ (these are my words, not Mattis’), we must first have our own house in order.

Ever notice in your personal life how many people are willing to give you advice–while their own lives are a mess or they are running around like their hair is on fire?  You can see this in social media.  The most extreme sort of example of this is seeing preachers offer sermons on the ‘evil’ of homosexuality–and then wind up on the front page of the paper having solicited sex from a male prostitute.

Teaching–same sort of thing.  Parents demand teachers change grades or criticize teacher discipline, never for a minute thinking that the lack of parental work at home causes the problems teachers deal with.  The parents want the teacher to do the work–without helping.  Communities need to support teachers rather than batter them with complaints.  Yes, teachers need to be accountable…but so do administrators, parents, and school boards.   As a coach, I let things slip last year regarding accountability, but after my time in Quantico this past May, I’ve made it a bigger point of emphasis this season.

2 – Mattis talks of government service as a duty and honor.  Is this different for coaching, teaching, or potentially any other field where you help others?  If you’ve chosen to teach or coach, you have an obligation to give your all.  That was Mattis’ big point–if you aren’t willing to serve and give 100%, you have to step aside and let someone else do the work.  To give less than 100% is to do a disservice to those around you.  Ultimately, it is a disservice to you as well.

…this is something that strikes home for me on a personal level.  In terms of coaching, I see far too many (not just volleyball) doing it for the salary or the bump in impending retirement pay or they are doing it as a stepping-stone to a different job.  That’s not what any form of education is supposed to be about.  A couple years ago, I started evaluating my willingness to commit 100% to coaching after each season.  When that answer becomes ‘no’, I’ll step aside immediately.  My athletes deserve the best–and if I can’t give it, I’ve got to get out.

When I was teaching, I worked at a private school.  When I was let go, the head priest insinuated that I needed to think of the money/salary involved before I stood on my principles rather than give in to what I was being asked to do.  I refused (and was fired).  Ultimately, being a teacher is an honor–but one thing Mattis didn’t note (he probably does elsewhere while discussing leadership) is that leadership means responsibility.  It is your job as a teacher to model the behaviors and work ethic you demand from your students.

3 – Marines learn how to adapt, improvise, overcome.  They expect you to do your homework, they expect mistakes–and that you learn from them…and under no circumstances will you answer “But that’s the way it’s always been” (my interpretation of his words).  Marine excellence requires imagination and never suffocates discussion.

In education, this is where our system is currently failing.  By taking so many standardized tests, we get ‘objective’ data, but we do not give opportunities for true learning, only for retaking the test until a correct answer is selected.  In order to adapt and overcome, you need homework assigned that requires thinking.  “What was the most important factor causing the Civil War?”  “Why is/isn’t LeBron James greater than Michael Jordan?” (on this one, you can get kids to go do great digging into math and statistics…)  What can you do to force children outside their comfort zone–we grow through challenges and the aphorisms that ‘nothing teaches success like failure’ or ‘losing is an opportunity for future improvement’ are true.

Personal life is this way as well–how often do you step out of your comfort zone?  For me, not often enough.  I need to get better at it, especially outside of the world of volleyball or hobby games and the Dietz Foundation.

4 – The Corps taught Mattis to value two traits above others: initiative and aggressiveness.  Organizations get the behaviors they value.

I struggle with this with some of my non-vb writing.  I’m better with the Foundation–because it involves stuff I already know.  I’m pretty good at this with volleyball coaching–though my Quantico time gave me some good tips on improving how to teach his two key attributes to young people.  So far, so good–we won’t win all our matches, but we’ll come out the other side of the season better leaders and better prepared for the real world.

Consider how you can apply this stuff to what you value…teaching, coaching, your marriage, your friendships. It could be losing the fear of starting your own business, it could be (my failure here…) getting more exercise in and having a better diet.

Initiative and aggressiveness…if it works for Mattis…it WILL work for all of us.