Q&A With Stanley McChrystal
Leading up to his role as 2013 commencement keynote speaker for the University of Maryland, Baltimore, retired four-star General Stanley A. McChrystal responded to questions from the University’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Here is the Q&A.
1) You’ve said that your military career, from West Point to leader of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, taught you that leadership is more than management, it’s about inspiration. What advice on leadership can you give our graduates as they leave to serve their communities?
One quality that I’ve come to believe is essential for good leadership is empathy. Whatever your professional training is, your positions of leadership are going to require you to empathize with the communities you serve, and with the individuals you lead. You won’t be able to cure every ill, but you should work hard to understand as deeply as possible the circumstances that affect those around you. You are all tremendously talented at this point, and many of you will be greatly empowered by positions and resources. The temptation can be to start pulling levers before you have the chance to fully empathize. But that is often the difference between truly inspirational leadership, and something less.
2) What lessons from your experience as a soldier, sometimes in combat, can you offer our graduates?
I learned countless lessons in the Army, many of them in places and from people I didn’t expect. For example, my first year at West Point, the commandant who was famously strict and straight-laced quietly let it be known that he would tolerate a rowdy pep rally in advance of the Army/Air Force football game. The event was a complete madhouse—I mean insanity. It was the least disciplined atmosphere I think I’ve ever been a part of. But the result was a truly significant boost in morale and esprit that you could never have captured otherwise. And it was an out-of-character call for the commandant to make, which made it brave, but very worthwhile.
One of my early commanders was the polar opposite of what you would expect a fantastic Army leader to look like. He was a bit pudgy, hated physical training, was long-winded and sarcastic, and didn’t take himself too seriously. But his actual leadership gifts were immeasurable. He probably taught me more about how to make an organization run than anyone because he had an intuitive sense for organizational dynamics, individual behavior, and how to affect change.
Finally, toward the end of my career, I started learning more and more of my lessons from people junior to me. And increasingly, as I commanded task forces that reached beyond the Army into civilian agencies, I was learning from people who looked nothing like anyone I had ever served with. We had 22-year-old female intelligence analysts, and middle-aged brainiacs with facial piercings, and every other type in our task force. Most were a world apart from the big-knuckle commandos I had been around for decades, but they had the same passion, and could often teach me exactly what I needed to know to be effective.
The overall lesson would be that you don’t know what people can teach you just by how they appear. Allow people to surprise you, and you stand to learn a lot from those in your organization.
3) Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
Invariably, by the time you get to be a senior leader, you take the greatest pride in the careers of subordinate leaders that you can help further. Their successes feel more like your own successes than anything you actually do or decide yourself. When I consider my career and what makes me proudest, it’s the Army and military leaders in the line behind me whom I think I’ve been able to shape or help in a meaningful way, especially when I see some of the incredible things they’re doing right now.
4) What disappointment has most shaped the way you lead?
When I was a senior captain, I had a great job in the Army—more responsibility than just about anyone in my rank. I was doing well in the job. In my mind, it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would be selected early for the rank of major. When the promotion board rolled around, many of my West Point classmates were selected. I was not.
I took it pretty hard—it felt unfair, and it felt like a rejection. But following that, I consciously adopted a very different attitude toward promotion and rank in general. Of course, I was eventually selected for major, and went on to higher and higher ranks afterward. But each time I was promoted early, I tried to remember that the same system that favored me on that day had passed me up previously. And I tried to remember that the same was true for everyone around me.
I would argue that truly good leadership is rank agnostic. Leaders can come from anywhere in an organization’s hierarchy, and they know that expertise can as be found anywhere as well. Especially later in my career, I tried to look for expertise at the lowest levels, wherever it could be found, and allow subordinates the opportunity to “lead up.”
5) Much of your book My Share of The Task deals with the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships. How did those professional relationships help you succeed in your career?
I have “It’s all about relationships” written on the wall of my company offices.
Relationships are completely fundamental to how I understand leadership. When leaders are surrounded by people they know and trust deeply, accomplishing any given task is easier. People do things for other people—rarely for any other reason. And if a leader asks something of someone with whom he already has a relationship, that person can go and do whatever is necessary that much more quickly: the two can rely on the trust they already have built up as a function of the relationship.
Relationships also act as a check on a leader, and help guide his or her decisions. When people get to know you well, they can help hold you to your own standards. They can tell you what you need to hear. Like bumpers in bowling, they help you course-correct, because they understand you, they value their own relationship with you, and they know where you are trying to get at the end of the day.
6) You served your nation for nearly four decades in the Army, and you’ve said that all Americans and the nation collectively would benefit from universal service. Could you explain your views and how you think our graduates–the next lawyers, medical professionals, and social workers–fit into the equation?
National service is one of the issues I’m most passionate about right now, because I think it’s something we need as a country. National service has the potential to bind together a generation of young Americans, and to make them better.
Those who have had the benefit of professional education have a huge responsibility—and would have a significant role in any serious national service program. By virtue of your training, you’ll be the natural leaders of service disciplines, or perhaps services corps [a medical corps, for example]. But I’d caution that while training and knowledge will put you in positions of leadership, displaying true leadership, and making the choices it entails, is different. It’s also harder. I think everyone who’s had the benefit of a University of Maryland, Baltimore education is up to that task.
7) You’ve written that good leaders let you fail without becoming a failure. Is one’s fear of failure holding one back from great achievements?
Punishing failure can often prevent growth. It’s cliché, but people do learn from their mistakes. And people can also learn how to fail. Individuals who have practice accepting responsibility for a failure, and figuring out how to transition it to a success are better for it. Good leaders allow them that space. More than that, not allowing your subordinates to fail holds back the organization as a whole. It creates a culture that is risk-averse, slow, and less capable of the sort of reactivity and adaptability that today’s world absolutely demands. Individual failures along the way are a price well worth paying for a holistically healthy and fast culture.
8) What role have values and ethics played in your development as a leader?
Leaders need to develop an internal sense of who they are, and what their values are. Values need to be inviolable—a standard you can use to measure yourself and those around you. A big part of that is deciding what you will never do. Which lines you well never cross. And you have to maintain those bounds, because once you compromise, not only do you become weaker, but you risk your organization becoming weaker as well.