Stanley McChrystal: Everything we know about leadership is wrong

Matt Saintsing
November 20, 2018 - 2:28 pm

Photo by Cherie Cullen/DOD


Some of history’s great leaders are viewed as mythological creatures towering over lesser humans. The famous painting of a seemingly 10-foot-tall George Washington leaning in while crossing the Delaware River personifies how Americans view the nation's first president and his incredible leadership qualities that we should all try to emulate. 

“In reality, and in our personal experience, we know that’s not the case,” Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal tells Connecting Vets. “Leaders don’t walk around with a bag of leadership in their pockets who reaches in and throws it at people.” 

Instead, McChrystal says, leadership is about looking towards the followers that empower them. 

Photo Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In their new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality McChrystal, along with co-authors retired Navy SEAL Jeff Eggers and Marine Corps veteran Jay Mangone, profile 13 powerful figures of history to challenge what we know about leadership. 

The chapters, ranging from Harriet Tubman to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, from Coco Chanel to Walt Disney and even former al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the book offers a more broad and in-depth analysis of what real leadership looks like.

Instead of choosing typical archetypes, such as presidents, they end up examining a five-foot-tall Harriet Tubman, and Boss Tweed, an incredibly corrupt and morally compromised politician. 

“Leadership is really about what followers want,” says McChrystal. “We work for somebody that fulfills some of our needs, and in many cases, like the animators who worked for Disney or the people who worked for Coco Chanel, they wanted to be part of something that is exciting, something visionary.” 

But the reality remains that Walt Disney was a bastard to work for, and Chanel absolutely had her faults. But the paradox remains that top talent lined up around the corner to work for these the innovative giants.

That’s because, according to McChrystal, people have a emotional need and crave leadership, even if it isn't always rational. “We may not like everything about them, but there’s something they provide," he says. "That can mean a better future." 

Leaders not only direct and manage, but they also inspire. “Really great leaders ask us to do more than we would otherwise do,” he says. “They pull the best part out of us.” 

Still, McChrystal recognizes a current “crisis in leadership in America.” 

“We’re letting leaders pull that darker part out of us, and we’ve all got it, the small part of our personality,” he adds. “That plays out in political wrangling, and it’s the petty stuff, not big ideas.” 

His message to transitioning service members and veterans is to go out in the civilian world and, above all else, listen. Some folks with recent military experience often feel they have to establish their dominance. “I tell people to do the exact opposite,” says McChrystal. 

“A lot of military people say, well if it was good enough for the military and we were life and death, it’s got to be good enough anywhere else, but cultures and organizations have adapted to their particular environment, and you may find that military behavior may be absolutely incorrect.” 

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