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Retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal talks leadership strategy

“If I’m making decisions someone else can make, it’s a mistake,” says former head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan

February 18, 2015

Retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal talks with a student following his talk on campus

Retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal talks with a student following his talk on campus

To hear retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal tell it, a leader stands alone but is supported by many. In a conversation with MIT Sloan’s Hal Gregersen on campus Feb. 13, McChrystal explained how he relied on the decision-making and ground-level analysis of his subordinates while leading U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also explained how he decided to move forward when his military career came to an abrupt end. Below are excerpts from his talk.

Leadership is not a series of decisions

“Being a leader is about getting other leaders to do things. What matters most is not your personal stature. It’s not your personal skills. It’s not your personal anything. It is how do you create an environment in which the leaders below you, all the way down to the lowest individuals in the organization have the ability … the resources, and the confidence and authority to do things? What’s most important is making the organization’s leaders work.

“By the time I got to be a senior leader, even at the height of the war in Iraq, the hottest part of the war, when we were doing 300 raids a month and it was incredibly fast moving, I was making very, very few decisions. On a daily basis … I was making two or three decisions and sometimes none. And that’s the way it should be. Because if I’m making decisions someone else can make, it’s a mistake. And if I’m making decisions just because I think it’s good for my ego or it’s good to justify my position, it’s a mistake. So the goal has to be to push as many of those decisions away from you as possible. Not to dodge responsibility, because you always own responsibility.”

Rapid communication requires stronger relationships

“In Iraq I could watch every one of our raids going on simultaneously through full-motion video. Just like watching it on TV. I could watch all of them and I could actually listen to the radio transmissions and talk to them if I wanted. But I never did that because I’m not on the ground. I’m not the right person to make the decision. It takes more discipline than ever. Before you decentralized because you didn’t have a choice. Now you have to choose.

“More than ever, sort of a constant conversation is essential. If you have subordinates at some distance from you and you don’t know them, and a difficult situation comes up and they raise this up and you haven’t built that confidence in them, they haven’t got the confidence in you, then it’s very hard to say ‘Hal’s down there, let Hal handle it.’ Or for you to give sort of nuanced instructions. If you don’t know the person and … you say, ‘OK, Susan. I know we’ve never met, and we don’t know each other at all. Use your best judgment.’ And if I don’t know you at all ‘Use your best judgment,’ to me, is a huge question mark. What the leader has to do … is create a constant conversation so this information and familiarity and relationships are being constantly nurtured. And then what happens is, when you have this thing arise, you don’t have to make the decision. You do know Susan down there, you do know Frank at this place, and they know you. And they don’t have to ask. And if they did ask, you can say ‘Use your best judgment.’”

When you’re at the top, build a good kitchen cabinet

“Everywhere you go people are sort of in angst before you arrive and their responses are based on who you are and how you ask. So as you get senior, information will come up and you have this extraordinary power to pull information up, to ask for information. But the reality is it tends to get homogenized on the way up and so there’s a great danger that what you get is not unfiltered information. And it’s not because people are evil. It’s just because it happens in the system. And so you’ve got to develop processes to prevent that.

“There are a number of things you can do. The first is you’ve got to get other people to help you do it. In the Army, I had a number of people who were my confidants who were out on the battlefield in places who were giving me unadulterated information directly. My sergeant major was probably the best. He didn’t travel around with me as a buddy. He roamed the battlefield. He could go places [where] people would talk to him [and] there wasn’t the same entourage and security and foolishness. So he could … give you a sense of it. He would send me a long email every night, no matter where we were, [saying] ‘Here’s what I’m seeing. Here’s what they’re doing. Here’s what they’re not doing. Here’s what they think about what you’re saying.’ And he also had a network of sergeants major across the battlefield and he’d share these [emails] with them. And they would come with comments. So develop informal networks that inform you in parallel.”

Stewing on failure is counterproductive

“Everybody has a lot of failures. I had a bunch of them. The most public one was when I had to resign from the service because of the Rolling Stone article. And I didn’t think I did anything wrong that warranted the article, but that’s sort of beside the point. I still don’t. The point is when the article came out it put the president in a position where he had to deal with a crisis that the president shouldn’t have to deal with. He’s got a lot to do. He doesn’t need a crisis from someone who works for him. I think it was my failure that that entire event occurred. And then it ended my career. I had 34 years in the service and then in about two minutes it’s over. Dead stop.

“How you deal with that is—everyone in this room will have some level of failure, maybe not quite as cataclysmic as mine was—and you get a moment to make a decision. You don’t get longer than that. You get a moment. And that moment is going to decide: ‘What way am I going to look in the future? Am I going to look back or am I going to look forward?’ If you look back, and my options were to look back and I could have argued it and I could have said it wasn’t fair and I could have done all that kind of thing. And I think I had a valid case to do that. But when I thought about it, I said ‘What’s the point?’ History’s a great place, but don’t live there.

“What I made the decision to do was try to face forward every day and live the rest of my life in a way that everyone who read that article, but also engaged with me before or after would say ‘You know, those aren’t congruent. And I’m going to judge the individual on that basis.’ I think that’s the best you can do. Because is it that easy? Can you just turn and walk away from it? No. It’s inside you. It bothers you. But it bothers you a little less every day.”

McChrystal’s talk was sponsored by the Sloan Veterans Club, the MIT Leadership Center, and the MIT Sloan Office of Student Life.