Leadership

Retired 4-star U.S. Army general: The best leaders listen to—and learn from—younger, less experienced people

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Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal smiles while speaking during his retirement ceremony at Fort McNair July 23, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | Getty Images News | Getty Images

It's easy to feel like your boss — or your boss's boss — doesn't listen to you.

But a retired four-star U.S. army general says the best leaders are actually willing to listen to and learn from people who may be younger, less experienced and lower on the totem pole than they are.

According to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, younger and more junior-level people often possess a wealth of valuable expertise that leaders may not be well-versed in. The most effective leaders allow those people to bring their expertise to the table, McChrystal said at a TED talk in 2011, a year after retiring from the Army.

McChrystal, who's known for leading the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008 and U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, added that a leader's willingness to learn from the people around them can expand their knowledge base and help solidify their status as trustworthy and dependable.

"How does a leader stay credible and legitimate when they haven't done what the people you're leading are doing? It's a brand-new leadership challenge," McChrystal, now 67, said. "It forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, a lot more willing to be reverse-mentored from below."

In the TED talk, McChrystal drew on his 34 years of Army service to tell stories of the moments that taught him what leadership really meant. He recalled being stunned after an Army ranger in Afghanistan told him that they were only in 6th grade when 9/11 occurred. At the time of the terrorist attacks, McChrystal was 47 years old.

McChrystal said he could have easily discounted the ranger's ability to help aid his operations, based on age alone. Instead, McChrystal said, he recognized that the ranger possessed skillsets he and other senior leaders lacked — like digital media skills, for example.

Interacting with the ranger helped McChrystal realize that many of his colleagues had unique talents that could benefit the operation, regardless of their military rank. He said he was compelled to do three things:

1. Be transparent

McChrystal said he had to acknowledge that he wasn't familiar with changes in technology or tactics being employed by lower level members of the Army, even if he held a higher position than them: "Things that we grew up doing wasn't what the force was doing anymore." 

Leaders, he said, need to be honest with themselves and others about their limitations and mistakes. That honesty is what can help build credibility and trust with others, he said.

2. Be willing to listen

Leaders need to encourage the people around them to share ideas or knowledge, McChrystal said. Showing others that you care about what they have to say is another way to foster trust and bolster credibility.

Leaders also need to recognize their biases and be open-minded enough to accept that useful ideas can sometimes come from unexpected places — trusting that other people often bring something valuable to the table.

"A leader isn't good because they're right. They're good because they're willing to learn and to trust," McChrystal said.

3. Embrace 'reverse-mentoring'

The "reverse-mentoring" concept flips the traditional mentorship model: Executives, managers and other higher-ups accept mentorship from people below them to acquire new knowledge and skills.

McChrystal doubled down on why leaders need to accept "reverse-mentoring" in a 2019 interview with Forbes, saying, "When you think of technology, who do you go to to make your computer work? Your grandkids. And that's true in so many things."

He urged leaders to ask for help from people younger and less-experienced than them because "it's not a mark of dishonor and limitation. It's a mark of willingness to learn" that "dramatically" increases a your credibility.

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