The Three C's of Leadership

What are the qualities every leader should possess? Jim Mattis' answer is competence, caring, and conviction.

January 26, 2021 | 3 minute read

What are the universal qualities that make a good leader? What are the traits that every leader should possess? Is there even such a list?

Jim Mattis, the former four star Marine General shares a list of traits in his biography, Call Sign Chaos, that he believes every leader should possess:

  1. Ever leader should should put forth a concerted effort to master the domain they work in. Mattis calls this competence.
  2. Your subordinates need to know you have their best interests at heart. Mattis says that you need to care about them deeply.
  3. An effective leader needs a set of values and the discipline to live by them. In a word, every leader needs conviction.

These three traits form the Three Cs of Leadership: Competence, Caring, and Conviction.


When Mattis talks about the competence of effective leaders, he means more than just being able to perform the functions of your role. There are two sides to how Mattis thinks about competence. The first is mastery. The second, however, is a practice of continuously evaluating where you are weak and making a concerted effort to improve.

Mattis gives two examples. The first is physical: if you are running three miles in eighteen minutes, then work out more to try and improve your speed. Mattis’ second example is more applicable to every leader: if you’re not a good listener, then make a disciplined and concerted effort to improve your active listening.

If you aren’t sure where to focus this kind of effort, Mattis suggests starting with the basics. Many of the detrimental mistakes that people make, regardless of their level in the organization, come back to the fundamentals.


The second of the Three Cs is Caring: it’s really important that your subordinates know that you care about them. Not only because this will bring out the best in them, but because having that kind of trust will make it easier for you to manage and coach them.

To make this point, Mattis references the Teddy Roosevelt quote that says:

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Caring is an important trait of leadership because it (1) facilitates better, more honest relationships with your subordinates and (2) orients how you treat your subordinates. If your subordinates know that you care about them, then you can be honest with them when they disappoint you and you can do so in a way that doesn’t demoralize them.

A prerequisite to effective leadership like this is getting to know your subordinates as individuals. Do you know what their specific goals and aspirations are? Who do they want to become? If you know these things and you put the effort in helping them improve and achieve their dreams then you’re likely to win them over for good.


The third of the Three Cs of Leadership is Conviction: having a set of values and the discipline to stick to them or change them when necessary.

This is the hardest of the Three Cs to master.

If you think about it, it’s the most complex. On the one hand, your subordinates will quickly learn what you will and won’t stand for. Conviction isn’t just sharing your values, it’s also reinforcing them. But there will be exceptions where you do have to bend and adapt. How do you know when you’re facing such an exception?

Mattis offers this as a guiding principle:

The only battle you need to win is the battle for the hearts of your troops. Once you’ve won them over, they will win the fight.

Ditto for managing a team or running a company. If you win them over, then they will go off and accomplish what ever goal you’re trying to achieve.


If you haven’t already, I suggest picking up a copy of Call Sign Chaos.

You can also read some of the other things I’ve written based on the book: