Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Empowering Leadership

Author: Michelle Russell       

Photo Credit: Jacob Slaton

Last week, after retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal delivered a keynote speech at PCMA Convening Leaders 2018 in Nashville, McChrystal sat down with Convene for an interview. 

“I’ll keep this brief, General,” I said as we made our introductions, “because I’m sure you’re all talked out by now.” “Nonsense,” he said. “And call me Stan.”

You’d expect the former leader of the Joint Special Operations Command, a huge organization that oversees the U.S. military’s most sensitive forces, to be far more intimidating. But then you hear McChrystal speak. Onstage and face-to-face, he comes across as affable, approachable, direct, and unflappable. Those are certainly qualities you’d seek in an association or corporate leader, but they don’t seem necessary in the military, where soldiers are trained to follow orders.

That’s not how McChrystal — who today runs McChrystal Group, a leadership-development firm — sees it. “At the end of the day,” he told Convene, “you don’t order people to do dangerous things in combat, you ask them to.”

Why did you want to pursue a career in the military? Was there ever anything else that you ever considered doing?
I’d like to say I did a big market search of opportunities, but I didn’t. My father and grandfather served, my oldest brother was already serving. So it just it seemed like from my earliest age I can remember I wanted to be an army officer. I’m glad that it turned out to be something I loved. I once had an eighth-grade girl at a talk I gave ask me if I’d ever considered doing anything else. And I said no, and she goes, “Does that seem smart to you?” Fair point.

What did you learn about leadership during your various roles in the military?
I think when I started — and I’m probably not abnormal in this regard — my first effort was to become personally competent, tactically and technically competent. And therefore, I would be in a position where I could direct people to do what was the right thing to do and all other actions would come together in a great outcome. And I learned that’s not leadership at all. That is some kind of management, I think.

Leadership is really getting people to want to do things, getting people to understand what they’re capable of, and then getting people to do far more than you can ever direct them to do. Because you can tell somebody to do something very specific, but if an opportunity arises and you’re not there, you can’t tell them [what] to do.

So what I learned about leadership was it’s really an indirect science of giving people the opportunity to do so much more than they could otherwise do. Otherwise we’d be dealing with machines. The longer I was in my career, the more I learned that lesson. It took me a lot longer than it should have.

During your talk today, you shared an analogy between leadership and gardening.
I didn’t come to this until actually after I retired. If you think about a leader as a general of the battlefield, sort of a heroic figure who says, “Charge on the left!” — you think of a person who is controlling a number of mannequins. And I thought that that’s what leadership was supposed to be and you’re supposed to fulfill that role. And what I backed into believing over time was leadership is a lot more like gardening. Because gardeners don’t grow anything — plants grow, and gardeners create this environment in which plants have the opportunity.

So the real measure and determinate of success is, can you create an environment or an ecosystem in which that happens? Now that’s easy to say. It’s hard to do. But I think it’s the essential task of leaders.

I’m also interested in your thoughts about humility and leadership.
Yeah, if you don’t have humility you’re apt to learn it through experience. Because the reality is that we all make mistakes, we all don’t know near as much as we wish we did, and we sort of start off wanting to hide that. Particularly when you’re in a new job, you’ve been promoted into a job, you don’t want to walk into the team and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m not very sure of myself.” Because you think that will undercut your credibility. And I’m not saying every leader should do that, but the reality is that you don’t know, and you’re going to make mistakes.

And I found it’s much better to look at that team and say, “Okay, I’ve got certain strengths and a lot of weaknesses. They’re going to become evident to you anyway, so I’m not going to try to hide them. So let’s try to do this together.”

I got a great quote from [television journalist] Diane Sawyer, who visited my class at Yale. She said that people will forgive you for not being the leader you should be, but they’ll never forgive you for not being the leader you claim to be. And so I think it’s a lot easier just to tell people upfront.

Is leadership approached differently inside the military versus outside the military?
On the surface it is, because you see people with uniforms and ranks and titles — “sir” and whatnot. But when you scratch the surface, it’s very similar. Because at the end of the day, you don’t order people to do dangerous things in combat, you ask them to. And you might say, “Wait a minute. The general orders people to do this and they do it.” Well, on the parade ground they’ll do that. In combat, they’re more scared of the enemy than they are of you. They will do it only if they think you’ve got their best interests at heart and you’ve got a track record of doing the right thing.

So I don’t remember giving orders; in most of my career, you’d ask people to do things. Now there’s an implied thing. So it seems very different — civilians always say, “Well, it’s easier in the military. You could just order everybody to do stuff.” But that’s not at all [there is to it]. It’s people at the end of the day.

There are a couple of important differences. One of the differences that makes leadership in the military easier is that you have this overarching cause. You can wrap yourself in the flag [and say] we’re doing this for the nation or the mission. And it’s kind of hard to argue with. If you’re in a corporation and you say, “Well, we’re doing it for the good of Acme,” or whatever, it doesn’t have quite the same lofty goal.

The other thing is money. And people say, “Well, the civilian world’s got it easier [because] they can pay more, they can get bonuses.” I would argue it’s actually a two-edged sword. In many cases, it’s a disadvantage. My entire career in the military I could never give anybody a raise, I could never give anybody a bonus. I couldn’t promote them, because the system did. Congress set the pay rate. Nobody ever talked about money, because there was no point. You went into the military knowing what you made.
In the civilian world, where you have bonuses and you have [employees] arguing for compensation, it ends up being part of the discussion all the time, and it actually creates more dissatisfaction than satisfaction. Because it’s not as much about how much money they get, it’s whether they think they’re getting the same as somebody else or more.

And so I would argue the military has got it easier in that regard. It’s just money is not part of the issue. And people aren’t really motivated by money anyway. At the end of the day, it’s what we call an extrinsic motivator. That’s not why they risk their lives or work harder. They do it because of pride, they do it because they want to feel valued. And that’s true in any organization. And we sometimes confuse money as being a motivator.

Did you change your leadership approach when you were in charge of multinational teams?
Yeah, I think you broaden it, and it’s a very helpful thing. Because I had experience in Korea and Thailand when I was young, and the first thing you learn is just because people don’t speak English doesn’t make them stupider than you. And in fact, most people are pretty rational and a lot of people are pretty clever, and if you will shut up and pay attention, they may do things better than you and for good reason.

Most notably, when I commanded the forces in Afghanistan, we had 46 nations in the coalition. And there was a certain amount of talk before I took over. People said it’s going to be hard because many of our coalition partners don’t have the same commitment to the fight or they don’t have the same level of professionalism or they don’t have the same equipment. And the reality was, they were all there on the battlefield. And so start off by not criticizing them — they’re there with you.

Shifting gears, what parallels can you draw between business-event strategy and military strategy?
The first thing is, you’ve got to establish a relationship with the people that you are working for or supporting, so that you understand what it is they’re trying to do. If you ever try to put together an event or a war for somebody and they can’t explain to you what they want the outcome to be, then you’re going to have problems. And if they say, “I’ll know when I see it,” that’s a blind man’s bluff.

So there’s an education process. But then there’s also a relationship part where you’re trying to get out of somebody what it is they would really like to accomplish. And then just like soldiers, event professionals run into all the unexpected. If the weather is bad and transportation is a problem, if there’s a power outage or this or that, you’ve got to be able to deal with that. Because like a war, an event is not repeatable in the moment.

You’ve probably spent a lot of time in your career participating or speaking at conferences. What ones stand out in your mind as being really well executed?
There are a few, and they create a narrative. There is a narrative that runs through the conference and you can feel it. Sometimes I’ll come in on day two or day three of a conference, sometimes I’m there at the beginning. But if there’s coherence to it, they seem to know what the organization not only is about but what they’re trying to do during that conference.
I will routinely do a phone call with the CEO or association president before I speak somewhere. And if we do really well on the call, they’ll give me all this context of what it is the event is about and what the organization is about. Because if I come in and give a generic “leadership is good” speech — I mean, that’s nice, but it’s not really helpful. But if I come in and I’m sighted on what they do and why, it’s a big advantage. I think that the best conferences I ever see do that.

If you have one takeaway you’d like to leave with our group, what would it be?
Whatever you do, you’ve got to allow individuals to [take] initiative. Because it’s great to come up with a centralized plan for something, but you’ll have young people or old people who are at different parts of the organization who will give wonderful ideas on how to make it better or to stop something from going wrong. They’ve got to feel like they can make that decision.

So, empower your people.
Yes, ma’am.