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General Stanley McChrystal Speaks Out On Why We Need To Redefine Leadership

2018 December 5
by Greg Satell

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called General Stanley McChrystal “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I had ever met.” Commanding troops in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, he built an unparalleled reputation for both getting results and earning unusual respect and loyalty from those who served under him.

Yet when he sat down to write his memoir, My Share of the Task, he began to realize that his role was not as central as he had once thought. “Successes credited to a decision I made felt less impressive once I recognized the myriad factors and players who often had far more to do with the result than I had,” he would later write.

In his new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, McChrystal tells the stories of 13 leaders, ranging from Harriet Tubman and Robert E. Lee to Einstein and Coco Chanel to lift the veil on what makes a successful leader. What he finds is that success doesn’t come from any specific trait or action, but by forging a sense of connection between the leader and the led.

The Mythology Of Leadership

Throughout his career, McChrystal was groomed to be a leader. First at West Point, then officers training, Special Forces training and steadily through his rise to the upper echelons of the US military, he was trained to empower and motivate those under his charge as well as to navigate a complex network of superior officers and partner agencies.

Yet over time he began to realize that much of what he learned was infused with three myths. The first, which he calls the “Formulaic Myth,” reflects our desire to boil leadership down to a static checklist. However, any serious study of great leaders will find that they are an incredibly diverse group and their success is highly dependent on context and circumstance.

The second myth, which he calls the “Attribution Myth,” focuses far too much responsibility for success or failure on the leader. In reality, as McChrystal realized when he examined his own record, there are always many factors at work, with the decisions and capabilities of the leader being only partly responsible for outcomes.

Finally, the “Results Myth” assumes that we judge leaders based on objective results when, in fact, we tend to revere leaders more for what they symbolize than for any action or outcome. For example, Robert E. Lee is widely regarded as one of the great leaders in history, even though he delivered unmistakably poor outcomes, made many questionable decisions and often showed poor judgment.

How Perception Becomes Reality

The truth is that effective leadership is, in large part, driven by perception or, as McChrystal put it, on their ability to craft “a visceral sense of the possible.” When leaders are perceived as effective, people assume that their decisions are wise and act accordingly. If, on the other hand, a leader’s actions and judgment are questioned, it becomes hard to get anything done.

To understand the effect of perception, let’s look the case of Blockbuster Video. When Netflix emerged as a disruptive threat, its CEO, John Antioco met it head on. He eliminated the late fees that alienated customers and invested heavily in a digital platform that could compete with the emerging disruptive threat. Before long, Blockbuster was gaining nearly half of all new subscribers in the online rental market.

He then launched Total Access, a service that allowed customers to use the Web and retail stores interchangeably. It was something Netflix couldn’t match and Blockbuster’s online membership doubled in six weeks. Now, Blockbuster had the superior model but, as Antioco explained in an article in Harvard Business Review, it was all for naught.

The problem wasn’t that Blockbuster couldn’t compete, but that key stakeholders, such as franchisees and shareholders, rejected the changes. That sent the share price down and attracted corporate raider Carl Icahn to take a large position in the company. Icahn’s heavy handed style led to a compensation dispute and Antioco, fed up, left the company. The new CEO reversed his strategy and Blockbuster went bankrupt three years later.

Think about how different that is than the story as we normally hear it. Blockbuster’s leadership was neither incompetent nor oblivious. In fact, Antioco came up with a wise strategy, executed it well and got results. Nevertheless, the failure to manage perception among a network of stakeholders doomed the enterprise.

Managing Ecosystems

In researching my upcoming book Cascades, I found that transformational change happens when a prepared network meets a window of opportunity. usually this window is triggered by some kind of event that is outside the movement leaders’ control. Nevertheless, it was the groundwork they undertook, years or even decades before, that allowed them to prevail.

For example, in McChrystal’s earlier book, Team of Teams, which reflects back on his time leading Special Forces in Iraq, McChrystal found that in conventional terms of strategy and tactics, his troops were winning every battle. However, they were somehow still losing the war.

What he realized was that the connections between his teams were broken. In some cases, commandos would capture valuable intelligence, but then it would sit in a closet for weeks before an analyst could get to it. In other cases, an analyst would identify an important target, but by the time that information went up the chain of command and back down to the troops on the ground, the terrorists were long gone.

What McChrystal realized was that to defeat a network, he had to work to transform his forces from set pieces in a game of chess to an interconnected network that would reflect the complexity of the battlefield. Through working to foster a feeling of “shared purpose and shared consciousness,” his efforts succeeded and he became a revered leader himself.

Before McChrystal began weaving his forces into a network, a terrorist attack would throw his forces off balance. It was the building of linkages between units that allowed information to cascade to the right place at the right time and for troops on the ground to take appropriate action to a trigger that would have previously created confusion.

The Role Of A Leader In A Networked Age

What McChrystal realized over his long and storied career is that the primary role of a leader is not to take actions or even to make decisions, but to empower and inspire belief. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, never wrote a single piece of legislation, but the movement he inspired convinced others, such as Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, to drive through the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

That’s why McChrystal defines leadership not as any strictly defined skills or traits, but as “a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.” He also urges aspiring leaders to discard old notions of command and control and become “empathetic crafters of culture.”

It also explains why famously difficult leaders, such as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, whose behaviors no leadership expert would recommend or endorse, can inspire such devotion among so many. It’s not their actions that are canonized, but what they symbolize: a fanatical devotion to an idea that they themselves hold close to their hearts.

The truth is that control is always an illusion. The lunatics always run the asylum. The best that leaders can do is to help them run it well.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article was first published on


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