- Stanley McChrystal retired after a 34-year military career as a four-star general in the US Army in 2010.
- He’s identified three common myths about leadership, which can lead to less effective results.
- The three myths concern the “Great Man Theory” of history and the idea that following things by the book will lead to success.
Since retiring from the US military as a four-star general eight years ago, Stanley McChrystal has reflected on one of his favourite subjects – leadership – and he’s had some significant revelations.
McChrystal had a 34-year military career, taking out al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi as the head of Joint Special Operations Command, and spent a year leading America and its allies in the War in Afghanistan. Since retiring, he’s overseen the leadership consulting firm the McChrystal Group, translating what he’s learned to a business audience.
The Formulaic Myth: If someone follows a checklist of behaviours, they will be a great leader
McChrystal said that it’s tempting to believe that if you make a checklist of traits and behaviours collected from leadership books and mentors, and check off every box, you will be a great leader. “But the reality is, when you look at history, there’s a number of people who followed that perfectly and failed, some over and over,” he said.
He’s not disputing the fact that there are certain truths about what’s effective, and that a sterling résumé can prove helpful. But life is messy and taking the best advice or following a well-worn path to success is not sufficient for being an effective leader.
McChrystal pointed to the example of opposing generals in the American Civil War, the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee and the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant. Up until the war, Lee was seen as the exemplary soldier, with a sterling track record and a way of carrying himself that even his enemies admired; in comparison, Grant’s accomplishments were less exceptional and he was rougher around the edges. But it was Grant, of course, who emerged victorious. It’s why, McChrystal said, that situational context and leaders’ relationship to their followers are more important than a “correct” way to lead.
The Attribution Myth: The successes and failures of a team are all the results of its leader
McChrystal retired from the US Army in 2010, after handing in his resignation to President Barack Obama in the wake of a Rolling Stone article that showed McChrystal’s team criticising the administration. McChrystal soon set to work on his memoirs as a way to analyse his own successes and failures. He recruited a team to help him with research and fact checking.
“I thought that it would be fairly straightforward, because I was there, so I knew what happened,” he said. “And I’d be the star of the show. The spotlight would be on me.”
After doing their research on key decisions in McChrystal’s career, “we found that there’s a myriad of actions that other people are doing, or factors impinging on it, that actually affected the outcome much more than I did.” The “Great Man Theory” of history, which places single people front and center, fell apart for him.
He said that, “leaders matter, just not like we think they do.” The best leaders are able to make the most of their team members’ potential through skilled management and an ability to inspire, but ignoring the complex web of interactions among leaders and every person they interact with, as well as the circumstances out of their control, is something McChrystal considers a toxic approach. Followers should respect great leaders without putting them on a pedestal, he said, and leaders should not place themselves on that pedestal, either.
The Results Myth: Delivering results is all that’s required for positions of power and accolades
Related to the first myth, the third one concerns the common presumption that people in positions of power got there because they delivered results.
“In reality, we don’t actually follow that very well,” McChrystal said. “We promote people, we move them into new jobs, et cetera, who have been failures over and over again. And we have other people who are very successful, but because they don’t quite fill some other need we have, we reject them.”
That’s why it’s a mistake to think that good speaking skills or a magnetic personality are trivial, because they’re as important to leadership as anything else – for better or worse. “You can have one person who’s producing or likely to produce a great outcome, but somebody else who can make us feel good or make us feel scared or make us something that inspires us to action, we often will go that way, much more than we will direct results,” McChrystal said.