When does a leader become a follower? When does a follower become a leader?
They are impossible precisely to answer – but the questions are often asked. For people are coming intuitively to understand that the roles are fungible. People can be leaders at one moment, in one situation, but, then, at another moment, or in another situation, they morph into followers. The distinction between the two different roles is not always clear, which is why, as nearly always in these matters, the best answers to both questions is, “it depends.” It depends on who is the leader. It depends on who are the followers. And it depends on what is the situation.
For the sake of this discussion I will assume that during his tenure as cabinet member Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been a leader in his capacity as head of the Department of Defense. And I will assume that at the same time he has been a follower. Though he tried from time to time to slow or even circumvent orders given by the president of the United States, by and large Mattis had no choice. By and large Mattis was obliged to obey Trump’s command even when (as in the case of sending troops to America’s southern border) he thought it a fool’s errand.
Two days ago the tension between the two roles – between Mattis as dutiful leader and Mattis as reluctant follower – came to a thunderous end. Two days ago Mattis handed the president a letter of resignation of which he had previously made 50 copies. The copies were to ensure that Mattis’s letter would be read not only at home but abroad, and to ensure that the narrative of his resignation, a resignation in protest, was his, not the president’s.
Mattis’s letter is remarkable – so remarkable that I provide a link to the full text below. Here I want to make only one point. The letter makes clear that Mattis is refusing any longer to be Trump’s follower. Mattis’s loyalty is no longer divided – it is only to his country and his conscience.
In his letter Mattis’s policy disagreements with Trump are clearly delineated. But it is his personal disdain for the president that stands out. Not only is there not a single syllable that suggests any sort of nicety – formal or informal. There is no closing of any kind other than the Secretary’s name “Jim N. Mattis.” Not even a “Very Respectfully” – which nearly always is military practice. Mattis ends his letter by saying that he very much appreciated “this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.” He pens nary a word about serving the president.
Mattis has managed to end his tenure as cabinet member as he began it. As a leader in full – a leader defined by admirable intellectual rigor and remarkable moral clarity.