Thursday, July 16, 2015

General McChrystal Talks About Leadership


One July 15, 2015 I attended a “Meet The Author” session with General (R) Stanley McChrystal held at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco. (see:

I had never met the General before, and my only previous impressions came from the media. The overwhelming one of which that his staff let him down by not doing their job with the Rolling Stone reporter (see:

While the General may be 60 he clearly projects confidence and energy. During his hour long talk (without notes) he came across as focused, direct and in this setting, candid. While I’ll admit that the moderator threw only ‘softball’ (easy) questions at him, the General’s comments spoke for themselves.

He was promoting his new book: Team of Teams (see: about leadership, especially of large, diverse groups.  The central thesis of the book is that you need to treat teams as if they were individuals so that the teams in turn can effectively interact with other teams just as individuals reinforce, support and help each other.

His talk centered on his experience in command of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

ISAF, he told us, was composed of forces from 45 nations, each with their own particular national agenda, yet seeking strong direction from their boss. His job was to foster unity of effort – which was no mean feat.

The General described how he faced a new kind of enemy. One that was not organized in the traditional hierarchical way, but rather a loose network that was enabled by real time communications using mobile phones and the Internet. This enemy didn’t react in a predictable templated way like conventional forces from the Cold War or the World Wars. Rather this enemy was agile and didn’t play by any rules.

In this environment, the General noted, you were an enabler of those working with you, not an oracle from which all decisions would emanate. He learned this during his career. He commented on the evolution to this conclusion from his early self as a junior officer where he only wanted to learn the craft of soldiering, and always wanted to be in charge.

The General explained that historically senior military leaders envisioned themselves at chessboards facing an equal opponent. Today each of the opponent’s pieces is intelligent and independent. They also communicate with each other, work together, and do not follow particular rules.

He compared today’s senior leader to a gardener. The gardener’s job is to enable the plants to do what they do best – grow. The leader does the feeding, water, weeding, and harvesting thereby providing the best possible environment for his plants to grow, or in this case for the diverse forces to act with a unified sense of direction.

The General was quick to point out the dangers of micromanagement, particularly of strong, independent teams. “Eyes on, hands off” was the way he described his leadership still. The leader’s job is to instill confidence across the force.

He did point out that technology is a micromanager’s dream tool because the senior leader can see and communicate directly with the lowest echelon. Quickly the General added that this would be a mistake. The leader has a far-off, two dimensional view while the force on the ground was right there and could feel the pulse of the battle.

When asked about managing start-ups, the General felt that employees were not motivated purely by money. He felt that the attraction of being part of a team, having a cause/vision to believe in and being successful was far more powerful of an incentive then mere money.

After the talk the General was gracious enough to sign an untold number of autographs. He was charming, patient and concentrated on each and every person who met with him.

It’s easy to say why he inspired the loyalty of his forces.

Photo Source: The Author

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