Episode #303: General Stanley McChrystal – The New Definition Of Leadership

A retired four-star general, Stan is the former commander of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan and the former commander of the nation’s premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).  In June 2009, the President of the United States and the Secretary General of NATO appointed him to be the Commander of US Forces Afghanistan and NATO ISAF. His command included more than 150,000 troops from 45 allied countries. On August 1, 2010 he retired from the US Army.

Stan is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he teaches a course on Leadership. In 2013, he published his memoir, My Share of the Task, which was a New York Times bestseller; and is an author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, which was a New York Times bestseller in 2015. Stan also co-authored Leaders: Myth and Reality. 

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“Your character is something you can control.  You can decide what your character is.  Nobody can take it from you.”

Show Notes:

  • There is a formulaic myth: Leadership is not what we think it is…
    • “I thought it was just behaviors, but that’s too simplistic.”
    • “Leadership is intensely contextual.”  A great leader must adapt themselves to the situation.
      • “There’s not a style that’s perfect for every situation.”  Vince Lombardi coached differently based on the team he was coaching.  Coach K (from Duke) is known to be incredibly adaptable and that’s why he’s succeeded year after year.
  • Important leadership qualities:
    • Great listener — Pay attention.  Marinate in what’s happening.
    • Have humility — Think of the people you serve
  • Why General McChrystal went to West Point:
    • Dad, brothers, grandpa were all soldiers.  It’s in the family.
    • He wanted to be an Army Officer
  • Stan struggled his senior year in high school.  He lived by himself, his mom had died.
  • His Freshman year at West Point, he didn’t take the school part seriously and got in trouble.
  • He was almost kicked out of West Point.
  • However, he got extremely high peer review ratings:
    • His new tactical officer told him, “You’re going to be a great officer” — This was said based on how his peers had so much respect for him as a person.  That mentor reached him and made a significant impact on him.  “We all need someone like that.”
  • The power of a mentor/leader who believes in you:
    • It’s huge to have someone who mentally maps it out for you and believes in you.  Someone that takes time to get in your mind… To care about you.  It must be genuine, and when it is, it’s powerful.
  • Team of Teams:  It’s hard to scale a lot of small team. It must be organically connected.
  • “Sometimes you’re successful just because you’re lucky. And sometimes you’re a failure just because you’re unlucky. And, so, you’re relative wealth or promotions or any kinds of things aren’t always directly related to either how hard you worked or how good you were. And yet, your character is something you can control. You can decide whether you’re honest. You can decide whether you’re loyal. You can decide how you think about duty. You can decide about all the things that really matter, and they can’t be taken away from you. People like James Stockdale and John McCain taught us that, even in horrific situations like the Hanoi Hilton, if you can hold onto your character, you can hold onto that essence which is you, and nobody can take it from you.”
  • The front line leader — It’s impactful to have a “front line obsession.”  Be with your team.  Show them you care through your actions.  In order to fully understand the situation, you need to get out and see it for yourself.
  • We often don’t have the answers.  “You can’t fake it.  The role of the leader has changed.  It used to be command and control.  A leader is more like a gardener now.  You must orchestrate the pieces of a team, and ensure they are well connected.”  You want a well connected, curious organization.
  • “If when you get on the ground the order we gave you is wrong, execute the order we should have given you.”
    • The leader must educate the team to make wise decisions from the front line if the leader is somewhere else.  The leader must trust the team to make the right decisions in that moment.
    • “The leader still owns the outcome.  The reality is the team will do better if properly trained.”  Create an organization of trust and speed.
  • “Trust decreases transaction costs.  Trust creates bonds.”
  • The Rolling Stone article called “The Runaway General” that ultimately cost General McChrystal his job.
  • What happened the moment after he handed his resignation letter to President Obama (incredible story)
    • “I didn’t feel we did anything wrong, but ultimately as the leader, I’m responsible.”
  • Why having a fantastic spouse, who supports you, is a superpower
    • “I walked in and said, “Honey, it’s over. My career is over.”
    • She replied, “Good.  We’ve always been happy.  We’ll always be happy.  We live life going forward.”
  • Sometimes in life you’re going to fail… What matters is how you choose to respond
  • “Your character is something you can control.  You can decide what your character is.  Nobody can take it from you.”
  • Diane Sawyer guest lecturing to his class at Yale: “People will forgive leaders for not being as good as they should be, but they won’t forgive them for not being as good as they claim to be.”
  • Followers should practice reverse accountability — The process of holding leaders accountable.
    • This happened to General McChrystal — “Sir, we don’t do that here.”  It was impactful.
  • Use the “Get To Know You Document
  • Why joining The Learning Leader Circle is a good idea

“People will forgive leaders for not being as good as they should be, but they won’t forgive them for not being as good as they claim to be.” – Diane Sawyer

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