McChrystal on Leadership

General McChrystalSeven years ago (!) I wrote a blog titled Management by Marching Around which suggested that traditional command and control leadership no longer worked in business – or in the military. Instead, I believe in management by influence (suggesting direction) more than by control (enforcing rules). I also recommend management by exception (tell me about exceptional successes or unexpected issues) rather than management by status (tell me about what you accomplished).

While skimming the memoir “My Share of the Task”, I discovered that retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal has similar views. Even in the military, leaders must learn how to motivate people over whom they have no formal authority. Even though General McChrystal was officially the leader of U.S. counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, he had no authority over the civilian government agencies. In his words,

I couldn’t hire them, I couldn’t fire them, I couldn’t give them a pay raise, I couldn’t give them a bonus. [… ] You had to convince people that what you wanted them to do was something they wanted to do, and that it was in their interest.

McChrystal also urges strong leaders to admit to their mistakes and not to pass blame onto others. Living up to his own ideals, in 2009 McChrystal appeared on television to apologize to the Afghan people for a military operation that had mistakenly killed civilians. And in 2010, McChrystal resigned as commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan after a Rolling Stone article quoted his staffers making disparaging remarks about administration officials.

In an hour-long video, General McChrystal provides this and other leadership advice to students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. For those that don’t have time to watch the entire video, a few points stood out to me:

  • A team is not a fixed structure but includes whatever individuals are needed to achieve a goal.
  • Repeatedly refocus individuals on the goal. Everyone on the team must be motivated and rewarded.
  • Regard every personal interaction as important. Each conversation has the potential for positive or negative impact.
  • Build relationships with your superiors, because working well with subordinates often requires working well with those above you.

And one that especially rang true:

  • In a crisis, everyone will watch to see how you respond.

Regardless of your feelings about the military, this is leadership advice to take to heart.


One Response to McChrystal on Leadership

  1. Clark Jones May 5, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    I’m also former military. A lot of attention in the military is on “leading”. In business, I’ve experienced both similarities and differences to well oiled military machines. Leadership is key. I agree to the points you’ve made above.

Leave a Reply