What the pushback of military leaders against President Trump can teach us about leadership

“Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020.”

That statement didn’t come from a protester or Al Sharpton or Joe Biden. It came from Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. He was the first of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make such a statement, part of a longer message to all Air Force personnel expressing empathy with those outraged by the death of George Floyd and quoting the Constitution. The other Joint Chiefs—leaders of the Army, Navy, Marines, and National Guard—quickly issued messages in the same vein.

In 24 extraordinary hours this week, all of America’s top military leaders, including many in addition to the Joint Chiefs, issued public statements seeming to defy President Trump, their Commander-in-Chief. What they did, and why, illuminates deep issues of loyalty, duty, and leadership, issues that anyone in any organization inevitably faces.

The inciting event was apparently Trump’s visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church, two blocks from the White House, on Monday. Federal law enforcement officers used gas and flash-bang grenades to clear protesters from the area. The next day, James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general who was Trump’s Defense Secretary for two years, issued a statement citing the incident and angrily attacking Trump as “the first President in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.”

Significantly, Mattis noted that when he joined the military, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected Commander-in-Chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

Mattis’s statement inevitably influenced active-duty military leaders, says Thomas Kolditz, a retired Army general and executive director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University. “Mattis is military royalty,” he says. “Trump just lost the Marine Corps.”

All the Joint Chiefs issued statements the next day, including the chairman, Army General Mark Milley, who emphasized one of Mattis’s points—that “we swear allegiance to the Constitution, not to the President,” Kolditz says. Milley pointedly noted in his message to the entire U.S. military that the Constitution “gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly” and that “during this current crisis, the National Guard is operating under the authority of state governors”—not the President.

All these statements avoided directly contradicting or disobeying Trump. But in tone and substance, they opposed diametrically his response to Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, and his use of the military in U.S. cities.

These military leaders in effect undermined Trump, their boss, who can give them direct orders. Did they do the right thing?

That question arises in many organizations when someone thinks the boss is doing something wrong—operationally, strategically, or morally. There aren’t many options. You can quit, or you can stay and try to make things better. “In a corporate environment, you can attempt to lead up,” says Kolditz, who teaches executives how to handle this situation. “That’s usually the best first option. Go to the boss and just say, ‘I’m trying to keep you out of trouble, but I can’t go along with what you’re saying.’ It has to be done in a very supportive voice. If you do it in a challenging voice, you’re immediately on the outside looking in. Research shows that anything you say thereafter will be discounted.”

Such situations can become emotional, and the sincerest attempts to help may backfire. “Leaders who are unsure about their ability and their position tend to become paranoid, suspicious of the loyalty of others,” says Kolditz. At that point, trying to change the boss’s course is probably hopeless, and it may be time to exit.

The larger point is that we all have a duty to something larger than any one person. Service members are taught that idea explicitly; the rest of us have to decide for ourselves what that larger something might be. For now, the nation’s top military leaders clearly believe the boss is off course, especially on the matter of deploying troops for domestic law enforcement, which they strongly oppose. They’re trying to redirect him from the inside. How the boss will respond remains highly uncertain. “Trump loves his generals, but he expects loyalty from them,” says Kolditz, “and they didn’t swear loyalty to him. They swore to support and defend the Constitution.”

Trump would gain from remembering that if their loyalty is tested, no one doubts how they’ll side.

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