Leadership & Management

Stanley McChrystal on Leading in Tough Situations

The retired four-star general discusses six ways to manage those who report to you — and influence those who don't.

February 24, 2012

| by Louise Lee

Appointed commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command in 2003, General Stanley A. McChrystal was officially the leader of the U.S. counter-terrorism organization. Yet, because of the composition of the group, the now-retired four-star general told Stanford GSB students recently, “I wasn’t in command.”

McChrystal had authority over the organization’s military personnel but not members representing civilian government agencies. “I couldn’t hire them, I couldn’t fire them, I couldn’t give them a pay raise, I couldn’t give them a bonus,” he said, which meant he had to lead by influence. “You had to convince people that what you wanted them to do was something they wanted to do, and that it was in their interest,” he said.

McChrystal resigned in 2010 as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after a magazine article included quotes from his staffers making disparaging remarks about Vice President Joe Biden and others. In 2009, he had to apologize to Afghans over a military operation that had mistakenly killed civilians. Speaking Feb. 16 as part of the “View From The Top” speaker series, McChrystal offered Graduate School of Business students advice on difficult leadership situations that apply to military and civilian leaders. He urged students to build relationships with those ranking above and below them in their organizations and, in crises, to own up to organizational mistakes.


McChrystal’s Leadership Advice

  • Repeatedly refocus individuals in the group on the goal. In McChrystal’s case as leader of the special operations command, the goal was to prevent Al Qaeda attacks. “If you’re a business, it’s about winning what you do,” he said. “If you’re an educator, it’s about educating kids. There’s some standard of winning in whatever you do, and that’s what it’s about.”
  • Define and align your team. A team is more than a group of people wearing the same uniform, employed in the same organization, or working for the same boss. “I’d argue that’s way too small,” McChrystal said. Instead, a team includes whatever individuals are needed to achieve a goal, and everyone on that team must be motivated and rewarded. Align your people with information about the vision or goal so that each one feels that he or she has a stake. “If you ask people what their vision is, it’s not: ‘Hey, I’m here cutting this stone.’ It’s: ‘I’m part of a team building a cathedral,’” he said.
  • Regard every personal interaction as important. Each conversation has the potential for positive or negative impact, he said. No matter how many contacts a senior leader might have in a day, “every comment you make to someone matters, because if you’re flip or tired or cranky or whatever, they’re going to go home and tell their spouse that,” he said. “But if you’re positive and upbeat and do the kinds of things you want to do as a leader, they’re going to [tell] that.” He also said that, at times, he wrote thank you letters to individual troop members.
  • Work up. Build relationships with your superiors, because often, working well with subordinates requires working well with those above you. “Once in a while, you go to them and just reach out and say, ‘Hey, thanks, you’re doing a great job,’” McChrystal said. That’s not being a sycophant or sucking up, he added. “Sometimes it’s just senior people supporting each other. Unless you’re not human, you’re going to need that.”
  • Be inclusive. McChrystal recalled that, as a teen, he joined a junior-varsity basketball team whose coach asked only a handful of members to play regularly. A benchwarmer, McChrystal felt no excitement on the way to games and felt neither happiness after wins nor disappointment after victories because he didn’t feel included. “It’s extraordinarily important to make people feel like they’re part of the whole,” he said. “There are a lot of ways you can do it, but the first way is just tell them.”
  • Don’t hide after a big mistake. In 2009 in Afghanistan, a U.S. jet, at the request of a German coalition force, bombed fuel tankers the Taliban had hijacked. About 100 civilians were killed. Afterwards, McChrystal called Afghan president Hamid Karzai and went on television to apologize to the Afghan people. McChrystal recalled that he thought at the time, “We’re going to do the right thing. We’re not going to try to hide it.”

In any crisis, he said, everyone will watch to see how you respond to mistakes. “Everybody watches your body language — whether you’re calm, whether you’re not. As soon as they see you cutting corners and shaving edges, your regard, even if you get away with it, is gone.”

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