On August 4, 2017 General James Mattis, the United States’ Secretary of Defense sent the following memo to every member of the Department of Defense.  Ethical behavior from our military’s leaders is expected by the public and by the military itself. General Mattis makes it clear how each officer, enlisted, and civilian personnel should behave as Leaders of Character (my words not his).

This guidance is true for the business and the family each of us lead as well. Read the following memo and evaluate your own character against this standard.  

I admit, I have fallen short of this standard at times in my life. But I am inspired by the simplicity and the strength of General Mattis’ guidance to those he is responsible to lead.

What It Means to Be a Leader of Character

August 4, 2017

Subject:  Ethical Standards for All Hands

Those entrusted by our nation with carrying out violence, those entrusted with the lives of our troops, and those entrusted with enormous sums of taxpayer money must set an honorable example in all we do.

I expect every member of the Department to play the ethical midfield.  I need you to be aggressive and show initiative without running the ethical sidelines, where one misstep will have you out of bounds.  I want our focus to be on the essence of ethical conduct:  doing what is right at all times, regardless of the circumstances or whether anyone is watching.

To ensure each of us is ready to do what is right, without hesitation, when ethical dilemmas arise, we must train and prepare ourselves and our subordinates.  Our prior reflection and our choice to live by an ethical code will reinforce what we stand for, so remain morally strong especially in the face of adversity.

Through our example and through coaching of all hands, we will ensure ethical standards are maintained.  Never forget, our willingness to take the Oath of Office and to accept the associated responsibilities means that even citizens who have never met us trust us to do the right thing, never abusing our position nor looking the other way when we see something wrong.

I am proud to serve alongside you.

James N. Mattis

General Mattis’ Main Points

This blog has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with becoming Leaders of Character.  General Mattis has laid out a framework for every member of the Department of Defense to follow. 

Being a Leader of Character is not complicated.  But it is hard.

Here are the Secretary of Defense’s main points:

  1. Leaders must set an honorable example.
  2. Leaders must avoid the ethical gray areas. 
  3. Leaders do what is morally right in all circumstances.
  4. Leaders must train their people and prepare them to make these decisions as well.
  5. Leaders accepted the responsibility to lead ethically when they said yes to being a leader.

The Bottom Line:

This is not just a letter to people who work in and around our armed forces.  It is a letter to all of us, and we should all take it to heart. 

Some of you may read this and start pointing fingers at others.  That’s a natural reaction but… 


Just pause and look in the mirror. We can’t control how others follow these five points.  The only person we can control is ourselves.  When we automatically begin to look at others before examining ourselves, we are running away from our own responsibility to learn and grow as leaders.

Now pause again and look in the mirror.  What do you see?  How have you been doing in following these standards?


How would the people you lead rate you on each of these five points?

Dave Anderson is coauthor of the Amazon Best-Seller Becoming a Leader of Character – Six Habits that Make or Break a Leader at Work and at Home with his father General James L. Anderson (USA Retired).

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