“What keeps you up at night?” Marine Corps General James Mattis was once asked by a television reporter, Ryan Holiday recounts in Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave.

“I keep people awake at night,” he replied.  

1: That is the answer of every warrior.  Before and since.  “A philosophy of offense.  Of initiative.  Of intimidating the enemy rather than being intimidated, of striking fear—striking, period—rather than being struck by it,” writes Ryan.

While commanding forces during the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War, General Mattis would have his troops set up and sleep in V-shaped camps.  The V always pointed in the direction of the enemy.  British General Sir Douglas Haig described this mindset as a “sincere desire to engage the enemy.”  


Do we wait for our opponent to prepare?” Do we give them an advantage?

“No way!” writes Ryan. “In the civilian world, we call this initiative.  In sports, we call it a will to win.  And borrowing from the brutal world of war, we get this expression: killer instinct.

“It is impossible to have a killer instinct without courage.  One presupposes the other.  And nobody achieves great things—in war, in business, in sports, in life—without either of them.”

2: During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant grew “frustrated by his cautious subordinates, men who had been manhandled by Robert E. Lee and the Confederates for years, while Grant was winning battles in the West,” notes Ryan.  “At every turn, they were playing small, reluctant to press, to take the offensive, warning Grant what it was like when Lee really got going.”

Finally, Ulysses remarked: “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do.” He’d had enough.  “Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time.  Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Ulysses told them: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” They would take the fight to the Confederates.  

“As a result, almost exactly a year later, what Lee would be doing was surrendering. . . to Grant,” writes Ryan.  “This was the decisive moment of the Civil War—when the North assumed the offensive.  Grant decided to stop getting punched and start punching.  When Lee held the initiative, the South of was strong.  The moment he lost it, it became only a matter of time before he lost.”

3: Ryan’s view?  “This is true for the most oppressive of opponents.  They’ll beat on us so long as we let them beat on us,” he writes.  “But when we bring the fight to them, when we start choosing our battleground, focusing on where they are weak?  Now we at least have a shot.”

The answer is to play offense.  To pursue aggressively.  When we operate out of fear, we will not win.  “Even when [we] ‘re being cautious, it must come with the assumption of constant advance, an insistent move toward victory always,” Ryan writes.  We “have to set the tempo—in battle, in the boardroom, in matters both big and small.”

We want them to fear what we are going to do.  Not the other way around.

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Where am I playing defense right now in my life?  How might I transform this situation by taking the initiative?

Action: Do it.

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