Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal's advice to leaders: Be more humble

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal: "Leadership isn't what you think it is"
Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal: "Leadership isn't what you think it is"

In the fall of 2010, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal sat down to write his memoir. He'd never kept a journal and started by drafting a timeline of his life. The experience helped change how he thinks about leadership.

As he reviewed his career, he came to a humbling realization: many of his recollections weren't as impressive as he'd originally imagined, he wrote in his new book "Leaders: Myth and Reality" (which he co-authored with Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone).

His recollections weren't always complete and other decision makers played key roles that he couldn't ignore. "Successes I credited to a decision I'd made felt less impressive once I recognized the myriad factors and players who often had far more to do with the result than I had."

These observations didn't match the stories of leaders he'd read from history and mythology. The reality of his own leadership was far different, where he often relied on others for help and counsel. This experience was the "final push" for McChrystal in accepting a difficult reality: The way we reflect on leaders has more to do with myth and legend than reality or fact.

McChrystal's assumption that he would be the central character in his memoir (published in 2013) shifted, despite his 34 years of Army service, including nearly five years as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command and a year as commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan. "I mattered, just not to the extent I thought I had," McChrystal wrote.

Writing a memoir made McChrystal see "uncomfortable questions" about leadership, which this new book attempts to answer, a work that profiles top leaders to challenge ideas and assumptions surrounding leadership.

Too often, McChrystal told CNBC Make It, we forget the network of support that surrounds a good leader. "We put the spotlight on this woman or man who's charismatic," he said. That person represents some combination of traits that's compelling at the time and "we say they are the person that's levering history," he says.

In practice, leadership is a complex, varied system of relationships between leaders and followers in an environment that's always shifting and changing. While leaders do have important symbolism, that meaning relates more to their potential for the group at large than the results they'll produce.

In fact, "the interaction between leaders and followers is the real magic," McChrystal says. "That's where leadership comes from."

As a leader himself, McChrystal learned to turn more power over to his support network through a concept he calls "eyes on, hands off" leadership. The style delegates decision-making to the right level but ensures the leader has all the information necessary to make decisions. "You've got to pass responsibility," he said.

As commander of the Joint Special Operations Command Task Force, McChrystal put "eyes on, hands off" leadership into practice thanks to technological advancements that broadcast raids as they occurred. McChrystal recalled sitting in the operations center surrounded by screens, watching four or five raids happening at once. He had the technology available to direct the soldiers doing the raids over radio, but chose not to get involved.

"We weren't on the ground," he said. "We didn't know how cold it was. We didn't hear the crack of the bullets. You can't pretend that you know more than you do. So what we did was we got much more humble."

Delegating tasks to other people allows leaders to accomplish more, McChrystal said. Under his command, the number of raids increased from 18 raids a month in 2004 to 300 raids a month in 2006. McChrystal credits that increase to sharing information and responsibility across the entire organization, he said in a 2015 interview with Hugh Hewitt.

It's important for leaders to see themselves as cultivators, not decision-makers. They need to shift their mindsets to think of themselves as "node in a network, rather than the top apex of a triangle," McChrystal wrote.

This isn't easy to do and something even McChrystal struggled with. As a young leader, McChrystal said he had difficulty adapting to the different levels of the military's command. Several times throughout his career, he had to "learn to let loose of the reins," he said.

"You've got to allow subordinates not only to execute things, but to make decisions on how and when to execute things," he said. "I find a lot of leaders have a difficult time transitioning as their organization grows."

"Leadership isn't what we think it is and it never has been," McChrystal said.

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