Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gen. McChrystal Discusses Leadership, Change in the Military

Bob Feidler
Director, Defense Education Forum & Army Section

At a recent event sponsored by Leading Authorities, General Stanley McChrystal, USA (Ret.) shared his thoughts on leadership. General McCrystal is the former Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and also of all U.S. and international forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan. He was removed from his position in June, 2010 by President Obama following a Rolling Stone magazine article that portrayed he and his staff as being out of step with Administration policy. McCrystal retired shortly thereafter and is now a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.
GEN Stanley McChrystal, USA (Ret.)

General McChrystal opened his talk by stating that he agreed with President Obama’s decision to remove him, painful as it was. He did not comment any further on the Administration, civilian leadership of the military, Afghan policy, or the waging of the war. His talk focused on leadership and featured anecdotes from his thirty plus years of service, during which he became a warrior legend.

McChrystal addressed several principles relative to change that could apply to the military or any organization:
  • Change is how an organization thinks, reacts and operates. He advocates as many people in an organization knowing as much about the “environment/problem” as possible, so that as a team they can be aware of developing situations and contribute in real time from their various perspectives.
  • A flat organizational structure that is transparent and inclusive in its decision making. In his operation center as Commander, he often sat in the middle of the room with his staff on all sides with easy access to him and he to them.
  • Decentralized decision making and pushing down the authority to do things to those with “skin in the game.” He determined the goal but let his subordinates determine the when and where of how to “win.”
  • Quick decision making. He stated a modern decision maker should think in terms of his or her watch – not a calendar.
  • A well-built, tightly-bonded team. When he was briefed, he often asked the briefer for their thoughts, not just the facts. When possible, he sent a handwritten note to a deserving individual and imparted his personal connection and admiration for them. He also had his field headquarters made out of plywood – it was cheap, could be changed quickly, and was very strong with thin sheets of wood bonded by good glue - to analogize his inclusive, no-nonsense, the-team-is-stronger-than-the-individual command style.
General McChrystal is one of the great military leaders of our time – a true warrior deserving of our eternal gratitude for his service to our country. One is left to wonder, however, about the reasons for his downfall. How could he and his senior staff have been so foolish as to allow a reporter from a publication like Rolling Stone into his inner circle? It might have been just an unlucky break for an otherwise savvy leader. Or, it might be reflective a military leadership that is unprepared for dealing with elements of the media and the modern civilian/political world in which we live. If the latter, the military must reassess how it is preparing its leaders, not just for war on the battle field, but also for engaging the media, various cultures, diplomatic issues, and the other realities of the civilian world in which the rules of engagement may be far removed from the military person’s frame of reference.


Anonymous said...

I question the patriotism of the organization that printed the articles. The general and staff were getting results in a very difficult situation and we are fortunate to have another general that could go in there and pick it up. This could have been written as a memoir much later.

Anonymous said...

This post seems to be 'empty' to me. Who were these "authorities" and in what venue was this presented? I cannot disagree with the summary thata was printed but it does not give me any more insight into the reasoning for the General to allow the comments to be recorded for the article that led to his removal. he left little room for the President to do much else than remove him.


Anonymous said...

Some day we may learn the rationale behind the Rolling Stone incident. At least McChrystal is at Yale and will be expected to deliver more than the organization development pablum we read about in his recent speech. He may not be politically shrewd, but he didn't get his stars by not knowing where he was going.Perhaps after November he will speak out.
Nick v.B. Capt USNR(ret)

Anonymous said...

Gen. McCrystal, who agrees with the President (and most senior military officers I know) that he should have been removed, suffered from the same problem that the now-replaced CEO of BP Oil experienced: Terrible Public Affairs (PR) policy/advice. If BP had hit the PR hard early on with publicity like they have out there today and if Gen. McCrystal's PR staff hadn't acted as we now know they did, we would not be having this discussion now would we?

Col B.