James Mattis’s #CPRAM21 Second-Day Keynote Focuses on Listening to Resolve Conflict

General Jim Mattis during his Zoom #CPRAM21 keynote on Jan. 28.

By Amy Foust

Thursday’s CPR 2021 Annual Meeting lunchtime keynote by James N. Mattis, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense for the first halt of President Trump’s term and a four-star general, reflected on conflict resolution and prevention for the business audience. 

Mattis began his comments by musing on the irony in inviting a war general to #CPRAM21, to speak to a group devoted to preventing conflicts, but went on to articulate a clear and concise plan for national reconciliation and healing.  He emphasized committing to local civics action, and relying on listening skills.

Mattis is currently a senior counselor at the Cohen Group, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm founded and headed by former U.S. Senator William Cohen, who preceded Mattis as defense secretary by 20 years.  Mattis was defense secretary from January 2017 to January 2019.

In his presentation, Mattis returned frequently to the theme of handing the world off to the next generation in the same or better condition than current leaders inherited it.  He noted that often means working closely with people with whom you disagree, people who may be inexperienced, ill-spirited, or just wrong. 

It also means admitting when predicted outcomes turn out differently. He said that people of opposing viewpoints need to work together to address issues, which usually starts with relatively small tasks where there is broad consensus on how to improve—he mentioned education and infrastructure–and then working up to bigger and more divisive issues. 

Mattis encouraged the audience to hold close people whose behavior offends, because, he said, “I’ve never seen it help when we cut people off in terms of them becoming more ethical in their performance.”

Invited by the moderator, CPR President & CEO Allen Waxman, to offer advice to a Zoom room of conflict resolution professionals predominated by lawyers, Mattis urged restraint from over-specific rules, which can lead to “brittle” situations and illogical outcomes.  He mentioned the importance of building trust before a crisis. 

Mattis recounted stories of watching great leaders build trust by listening to their counterparts, learning from them, and helping them.  He recounted General George Washington’s work with an untrained volunteer army that went on to defeat the world’s best army, and would go on to defeat Napoleon’s army just a few years later. 

General Mattis said Washington’s secret was “very boring”—

He would listen, and he would listen with a willingness to be persuaded.  He would actually change his views.  He listened to these guys from Delaware who went out on the water everyday and they kept in their own boat and now they’re in the army.  And the guy from South Carolina who couldn’t even understand those funny-talking people from Boston . . .

He’s learning from them, as he’s listening he’s willing to be persuaded.  He listens. He learns.  This is showing respect and when he does this, he helps them.  He helps them with the most . . . simple things at times like getting socks and warm coats and blankets. He does anything he can to help, and only then does he lead.

Citing was he said was the business community’s “more practiced effort” for defining and solving problems, Mattis called on the meeting attendees to apply their problem-solving skills to matters of public importance. Serve on school boards, he said, or the city council.  

“Run for office, if that’s your bent,” suggested Mattis, “but spend time giving back in the governance area—local, state, federal—because we need what business is bringing right now.” 

Answering his own question as to why local action is important, General Mattis concluded, “The country’s worth it.”

* * *

The author is an LLM candidate studying dispute resolution at the Straus Institute, Caruso School of Law at Malibu, Calif.’s Pepperdine University, and an intern with the CPR Institute through Spring 2021. #CPRAM21 continues on Friday, Jan. 29; registration is free at www.cpradr.org.

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