He and his co-authors profile a wide range of leaders in his third book, “Leaders: Myth and Reality.”
“Leadership isn’t what we think it is, in fact it never was. But it still matters,” said McChrystal, who served nearly four decades in the Army. He started his career as a West Point graduate in 1976, becoming a weapons platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division before passing Special Forces selection, later commanding the 75th Ranger Regiment. He headed Joint Special Operations Command during the height of the Iraq War.
He later was selected to lead ISAF in Afghanistan, a position from which he resigned and then retired from the Army following a critical Rolling Stone magazine article that revealed comments by his staff deriding President Barack Obama and key figures in the administration. Following retirement, McChrystal first headed an advisory board on military family support.
He subsequently has taught leadership courses at Yale University, joined the boards of various private companies and nonprofits and authored three books.
He spoke about the new book recently at the headquarters of the Association of the U.S. Army in Arlington, Virginia.
The following are excerpts from his talk, edited for clarity:
1. An unappealing but effective leader
McChrystal and his co-authors, Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone, sifted through centuries of examples of leaders before landing on 13 leaders to profile from a wide variety of backgrounds, the majority non-military. But one that easily caught the attention of the audience and likely close readers of McChrystal was one of his own rivals – Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the acknowledged founder of al-Qaida in Iraq and inspiration for the founders of Islamic State.
The four-star notes that while Zarqawi came from poverty, lacked a formal education and spent his early life as a petty criminal, he found his calling in prison and used his innate talents to obtain power and influence over those around him. McChrystal said that Zarqawi traveled Iraq despite the price on his head to guide and serve as an example to the fledgling terrorist organization. “It shows he’s willing to do whatever it takes, be whatever is required.”
McChrystal led the special operations forces who hunted down and killed Zarqawi in 2006. He personally went to the bomb site to identify Zarqawi’s body.
“I wasn’t sad that he was dead but the reality was, even at that point, I had a pretty healthy respect for that guy. I could completely disagree with his cause and his methods but I had to admire his commitment, his skill, his effectiveness. He was willing to die for his cause.”
Though, McChrystal noted, while effective, Zarqawi’s brand of leadership stemmed from zealotry and was not sustainable. But even in that, he found something to question, to learn.
“We have to ask ourselves, why is it they become entranced, and why can’t they remain, why do they fade away?”
2. A more noble, sustainable way
Another of the book’s profiles turned the lens on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many remember his famous speeches and marches but he was not always the de facto leader of the Civil Rights movement, the general said.
King was a 26-year-old pastor at a church in Montgomery, Alabama, when he began his leadership role in the movement. He was far younger, less experienced and recognized than many in the movement, even in Montgomery. But his youth, energy and ambition drew people to him.
Even his iconic “I have a dream” speech wasn’t planned or scripted. He was one of a long list of speakers that day in Washington, D.C., and was 11 minutes into a prepared speech that wasn’t keeping the audience engaged. But then, from behind him, singer Mahalia Jackson told him to tell the audience about his “dream.” The dream speech had been delivered in portions to various groups during his lead up to the D.C. event.
And unlike other organizations or movements, King’s effectiveness, McChrystal said, is evident in that the movement continued and succeeded in many areas after his assassination. It didn’t fall apart when the leader was gone.
3. New ways to grow military leaders
McChrystal was quick in response to an audience question about how the Army brings in people with special skills or expertise into the ranks. The key area that’s been proposed in recent years is having cyber specialists come in at higher ranks so that the services can be competitive with industry in bringing in certain talent areas.
He did emphasize that the military system is good at building leaders. That stems from the inordinate investment in time, energy, funding and manpower that is rarely seen in private industry. But, he said, there are different approaches to add to meet defense needs.
“I actually think the military should be taking people through lateral entry at every rank, they should be bringing in not just specialists in cyber to do a thing,” he said. “We’ve seen people come in pretty senior and be extraordinary warriors back in history.”
“We have a guild system in the military. You can’t be a captain unless you were a lieutenant. We change that in wartime but the reality is our mindset is if you weren’t at the wedding you really shouldn’t be here," he said. “I think that’s a mistake nowadays. I think we should be taking people in laterally. And that’s very threatening to people that are in the guild.
“But I believe you can take people from the outside and teach them to do most of the military things. I deal in the civilian world. There are some people out there you could but a uniform on tomorrow and they could be a general officer and would be hands down effective, right away. And that would be value to the organization because fresh air would come in.”
A challenge is getting that talent to appear credible, he said.
"We could bring in experts, but if we just bring in experts they’re always going to be viewed as not real … and I actually don’t think that is the best approach,” McChrystal said.
4. The ‘science’ of leadership is incomplete
Despite his military career in leadership roles and the collaborative research he and his co-authors conducted to dig into what makes leadership work, there’s no clear answer, McChrystal said.
And though there are indicators of what makes a leader effective, the needs of the mission, project, movement or organization alter what is needed from a leader.
“We actually don’t know how to tell you to be successful. We can tell you how complex it is. What it comes down to is, I can tell you the things we think that make leaders so effective is having the right values,” he said.
In today’s world, it’s the people who are humble enough and empathetic enough to listen and discern what the situation is, what’s required, and then adapt themselves to that requirement who are going to be the most effective, important leaders of the future.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the person who’s figured out what’s right and then say ‘okay this is the way we do it’, ” he said.
5. Leaders are important, but not the most important thing
McChrystal has been critical of President Donald Trump’s conduct but sees that Trump’s rise to the presidency holds lessons not only about leaders but those who look for leaders.
“I think if we look at President Trump, he emerged, he didn’t create the dissatisfaction that caused him to be successful in the election. There were already things brewing in the American political system so he emerged from that situation,” McChrystal said. "I think almost independent of his personality what we need to do is look in the mirror right now. Stop looking at Trump or Rep. Nancy Pelosi ... or Sen. Chuck Schumer ... or somebody else, look in the mirror.
“Decide what we believe is the necessary leadership for our country, decide what we believe our values are and then that’s what we will get because that’s what we will demand. Stop waiting for somebody to tell us what to think. Decide what we think, decide what we believe and live to that.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.