General Stanley McChrystal (@StanMcChrystal) is a retired four-star general, founder of McChrystal Group, and co-author of Leaders: Myth and Reality.
What We Discuss with General Stanley McChrystal:
- What General McChrystal learned by reexamining one of his most controversial personal heroes.
- The counterintuitive ability of leaders who value their own mission over the lives of the people who work for them to attract talent.
- How writing his memoirs without the aid of a journal — but the memories of others who were with him throughout his life — put his own role as a leader into perspective.
- Why there’s no single leadership style that’s right for all leaders, and what potential leaders risk by trying to emulate styles that don’t suit them.
- The danger of these three common myths of leadership — formulaic, attribution, and results — and how to dispel them.
- And much more…
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Leaders get things done. And whether we’re leaders ourselves or simply rely on the guidance of leaders to help us achieve the extraordinary, we probably have ideas about what qualities are essential within a great leader. And a lot of these ideas are just plain wrong. They’re myths.
Leaders: Myth and Reality co-author General Stanley McChrystal joins the show to help us understand the danger of these myths, how to dispel them, and why the imagined deeds of even our most inspiring heroes are not sacrosanct beyond the scrutiny of hard reality. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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More About This Show
For 40 years, General Stanley McChrystal proudly displayed a portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on his office wall. Lee had been a personal hero since boyhood as an example of everything leadership should look like, and had inspired nearly every footstep of General McChrystal’s path.
But in recent years, as white supremacists rally behind the memory of Lee and other Confederate leaders as their own kind of heroes — seen most prominently in Charlottesville in 2017 — it was time to reexamine Lee’s revered place in his life.
As General McChrystal recounts: “My wife told me, ‘You should get rid of that picture.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can’t because you gave it to me and I love it and Robert E. Lee’s a hero of mine.’ She said, ‘I don’t think it means to other people what it does to you. I think it symbolizes to other people something that you don’t believe in…you’ve got to be careful about what kind of unintentional message you send.’
“So we went back and forth for about a month, and I did more study. And I thought long and hard about it. And I came to the conclusion that she was absolutely right. And so at age 63, after having this picture for 40 years, I took it off my wall and threw it in the trash.”
Still, as General McChrystal and his co-authors were formulating what would become their latest book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, he knew he’d have to address his former adoration for Lee and separate the facts from the much-publicized fictions that had grown around this controversial leader since the Civil War.
“As we studied [him] more, it gave me the chance to really think more deeply about what Robert E. Lee represents,” says General McChrystal. “Because at West Point, he represented leadership and excellence and loyalty. But as you think it further, here’s a guy who was an extraordinarily talented leader, but then at the crucial moment of his life, he makes a decision to betray his country, to try to destroy that country, and do it in defense of slavery, the biggest evil in American history.
“And no matter how you try to say, ‘No, no, he was just loyal,’ no. He made a decision that can’t be cleaned up through any lens of history. And so in reality, I don’t think he was an evil person, but I think he made an extraordinarily bad decision — and I think that’s a cautionary tale for all of us. Not only for what we should do in our lives, but also for how we should view leaders.”
Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about the effectiveness of leaders who are famously hard to work for (like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Coco Chanel), why anyone would want to work for someone who values their own mission over the lives of the people who work for them, what General McChrystal learned about his own role as a leader by interviewing outside observers for his memoirs, why one leadership style doesn’t fit all, three dangerous myths of leadership and how to dispel them, the no-nonsense advice General McChrystal has for people who want to know how to be “more like him,” what it takes to lead under pressure, and lots more.
THANKS, GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL!
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Resources from This Episode:
- Leaders: Myth and Reality by Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jay Mangone
- Other Books by General Stanley McChrystal
- The McChrystal Group
- The McChrystal Group at Facebook
- General Stanley McChrystal at Twitter
- Works by Plutarch
- The Myth of the Kindly General Lee by Adam Serwer, The Atlantic
- Recounting a Day of Rage, Hate, Violence and Death: How a Rally of White Nationalists and Supremacists at the University of Virginia Turned into a “Tragic, Tragic Weekend.” by Joe Heim, the Washington Post
- Disney Legends Recall Walt Disney and the ‘Yes, If….’ Way of Management by Robert Niles, Theme Park Insider
- Coco Chanel: The Mother of Reinvention by Ruth La Ferla, The New York Times
- Working for Steve Jobs Wasn’t Easy or Pleasant — But It Made Me Smarter by Guy Kawasaki, Quora [via Quartz]
- My Share of the Task: A Memoir by General Stanley McChrystal
- Does Trump Go out of His Way to Mimic General George Patton?, Quora
- Vince Lombardi Leadership Profile, Leadership Geeks
- The Runaway General by Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone
- 4 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Cassie Hodges, US Chamber of Commerce
- Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, History.com
- Why Robespierre Chose Terror by John Kekes, City Journal
- Forrest Gump Run Scene
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Steven R. Covey
Transcript for General Stanley McChrystal | Deconstructing Myths of Great Leadership (Episode 111)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger as always. I'm here with my producer, Jason DeFillippo. A long time ago I answered my phone from an unknown number, which is something I never do. And I was exasperated, whoever it was, had called three times. I didn't have anything on my calendar. So finally I answered it in the most exasperated way I could muster at the time. I said, “This is Jordan. What's up?” And I hear “This is General Stan McChrystal is now still a good time?” So after I swallowed my entire aorta, I ran to a quiet place and started brainstorming ideas with the general for an interview. And I quickly realized that General McChrystal and I were going to have an amazing conversation with a lot of rich takeaways here for you. And so today, the General and I discuss the elements of what makes a good leader. And more importantly, the myths about what many of us think makes a good leader but might not actually be relevant at all. And how we can learn to examine and deconstruct those leaders we admire in a more effective way so that we can take on their characteristics for ourselves.
[00:00:59] We'll also learn how to stay focused one under fire, whether that's in the literal sense or more likely when we've got pressure from other parties to take a certain course of action when we really want to do something else entirely. And General McChrystal was really forthcoming and open in this interview, and I've really enjoyed this conversation and I hope you will as well. And I know a lot of you asked me, “How do you get these guests?” The answer is through my network and the way that I create and maintain my network is through systems and tiny habits and I want to teach you those systems in tiny habits for free. So check out our Six-Minute Networking Course over at jordanharbinger.com/course, and don't forget we've got worksheets for this episode. You can make sure you understand everything that was maybe the important dist stuff from General McChrystal. That's always in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. All right, here's General Stanley McChrystal.
[00:01:49] The books that I've read from you are really well researched. It's not just like, “Hey, I was a general, I know all this stuff.” There's a lot of stories. There's a lot of history, especially in Leaders: Myth and Reality, the newest one, and it's an intimidating read, man. I got this book, General, and I thought this is like a 23 hour long audio book. It's a big tome. There's a lot in there.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:02:12] That's exactly right, and it was intention really that, I mean we don't want it to be intimidating, but we want it to have real content. What we didn't want to write was one of these superficial things. Here's what we think. We actually wanted to do the research in a thoughtful way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:31] I thought it was interesting. It's loaded with a historical examples of leaders. I thought it was really an unusual choice or maybe interesting for some other way that you chose generally is one of the first examples. Talk about picking a controversial figure and then just throwing that out in front.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:02:47] We wanted to do a Plutarch based study of leadership, go back to sort of first principles because we realized we really didn't think we understood leadership like we thought we did. And so as we try to assemble a number of people that we would profile, we figured out who should we do. And at one point we said, “Well, we should have genres.” And we determined that power brokers would be one and geniuses would be one and hero's who'd be one. And in heroes I had grown up with Robert E. Lee as one of my heroes. I'd go gone to Washington and Lee High School. I'd grown up near his boyhood home. I'd gone to the same college as he had, West Point. I'd followed a career in the military as he had in many parallels, except obviously he did better at all those things than I did. So he'd been a hero of mine.
[00:03:39] And I realized that I could write a book about leadership, but if I didn't include Robert E. Lee because he is become controversial, it'd be a cop out because I'd essentially be denying the fact that for much of my life I wanted to be as much like Robert E. Lee is as I could. In fact, for 40 years I had a picture in my office or in different places in our military quarters that my wife had given me, and it was a painting or it was meant to look like a painting. It was actually an inexpensive print that they'd painted over with clear acrylic to look like a painting, and I was very proud of this framed painting in my quarters for many years because it represented to anybody you saw it and reminded me that this is what leadership should look like and this is who I ought to try to be like.
[00:04:32] And so for 40 years I really followed that. And then as we got in the last couple of years and you saw Charlottesville and people starting to raise questions. My wife told me, she says, “You should get rid of that picture.” And I said, “Well, I can't because you gave it to me and I love it. Robert E. Lee is a hero of mine.” And she says, “I don't think it means to other people what it does to you. I think it symbolizes to other people something that you don't believe in.” And that is things about white supremacy and whatnot. I said, “No, no, he's just a general.” She said, “No, he's a symbol, and you got to be careful about what unintentional message you send.” So we went back and forth for about a month and then I did more study and I thought long and hard about it and I came to conclusion she was absolutely right. And so at age 63, after having this picture for 40 years, I took it off my wall and threw it in the trash.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:31] Oh wow! It didn't even make it to the garage, straight to the trash.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:05:36] Straight to the trash. And at the same time we were starting to write this book and I said, but still I can't duck studying and writing about Robert E. Lee. So as we studied it more, it gave me the chance to really think more deeply about what Robert E. Lee represents. Because at West Point, he represented leadership and excellence and loyalty. But as you think it further, here's a guy who was an extraordinarily talented leader, but then at the crucial moment of his life, he makes a decision to betray his country, to try to destroy that country, and do it in defense of slavery, the biggest evil in American history. And no matter how you try to say “No, no, he was just loyal.” No, he made a decision that can't be cleaned up through any lens of history. And so in reality, I don't think he was an evil person, but I think he made an extraordinarily bad decision. And I think that's cautionary tale for all of us, not only for what we should do in our lives, but also for how we should view leaders.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:48] When we profile modern leaders. It's hard to not profile somebody who's got a couple of skeletons in the closet. I'm not trying to compare Robert E. Lee with Steve Jobs for example. I think there's a lot of differences there, but when you look at guys like Steve Jobs and you look at leaders like Steve Jobs, you see that these guys are really proud of the teams they've created.
They're really hard on everybody though. Their to a fault, a terrible person to work with. Where do you think the lion is, or does it not matter? I mean, do you care what your subordinates, for example, think about you personally? Or does that have no place in leadership?
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:07:28] I think it does, Jordan. In one point in the book, I relate that when I was a young officer, I was taught that in combat, if something is stupid but it works, it isn't stupid. And if you apply that to leadership, you say, well, if something is bad leadership, abusing your people or being dishonest, but it works, is it bad? And the question or the answer I come to is yes, to a degree it is. There are things in leadership that work that make something effective and they may be effective for the long term more often they're effective for the short term only, and they're just not good leadership, but the reality is history is replete with them. In the book, we studied two founders. Since you talk about Steve jobs, we study, Walt Disney and Coco Chanel, and this won't surprise you. I didn't know much about Coco Chanel before we wrote this book.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:28] Yeah, I was going to say that must've been a new one for you.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:08:30] I'm now an encyclopedia of knowledge if you have questions, but the interesting part is these were founders who created something from whole cloth. They created companies, they created empires, they created brands, but they were not easy people to work for and we could say that they were effective because they were demanding and they were detail oriented and they were almost fanatical in the pursuit of the mission to create something. But their creation typically ranked higher in their priorities than their people did, and when they had to make a judgment between the two, they would often go to the mission over the people.
[00:09:15] But interestingly, they never had problem attracting talent because even though it could be a brutal environment to work for either of them, it was also a place of great creativity. In each case, it was a place of success and respect from the outside. So it makes us think about what we as followers actually want. Sometimes we want leaders who are particularly caring and nice to us, but at other times we're willing to give up some of that because we want to be part of something that's being created that we judged to be special.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:50] It seems like we're kind of trying to figure out if we're a leader. Do we put our vision first or our people first? And do you think there's a right answer to that question? Because I feel like there's a lot of leaders that now talk about putting people first. If you look at companies like Zappos, for example. That's all about people first, customers and employees and team members. But then you've got these visionary types going back to guys like Steve Jobs or Coco Chanel, or you think, okay, this is a person who treated people probably pretty poorly. And one of the reasons for that was the product, the experience, the brand mattered so much that people always took a backseat, but even then, they didn't have trouble attracting that talent because their vision was so strong.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:10:35] What I tried, and I've thought a lot about this, and I think most of us as leaders do, and I think it's a balance. I don't think there's a single right answer that says, “I only care about the mission. I only care about people.” And even though there are many leaders now who say, “The only thing I focus on is my people.” That's not actually true. I mean, they have to worry about being profitable. They have to worry about serving their stockholders and they have to worry about their clients. And so to simplify it and say that it's just about taking care of people is I've never seen it be actually fully correct. At the same time, I do think many thoughtful leaders understand that the most valuable resource that they have are their people. The thing that actually creates the most valuable value, the thing that actually gives them the most opportunity to accomplish the mission is to the people. This is of course, best or well exemplified in the military where a leader has got to try to build a force but then put that force in harm's way, literally risk having it destroyed to do the mission and to lose people. And so it becomes very black and white, and the best leaders I've seen understand the inherent paradox in that dynamic. And they balance it and they approach each case with an understanding that you've got to be somewhat flexible, somewhat organic in this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:10] I see that when you started to write the book, and I saw this in the introduction or maybe the preface of the book, that you weren't able to keep a journal of your day to day activities as a general because classified info and a book somewhere probably not a good idea. And you kind of had to reverse engineer your experience when you were going to write about leadership, and in doing so discovered that a lot of what you'd known about being a leader perhaps wasn't exactly as you'd previously thought.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:12:41] Yeah, this was very humbling. You don't keep a diaries in the military. It was sort of from my earliest days. You were told that if you kept a diary in combat, you were killed and the enemy captured it, they would get intelligence, and nowadays it's also about classified information. So I never did any of that. And so as a consequence, you're down to your memory. So we went to write my memoirs starting in 2010. I said, “Well, we're going to write my memoirs. This can't be hard because I was always there. I was the star of the show.” And yet we, we laid out this big long timeline, this young assistant and I laid out this timeline of my life, and then we started finding people to go interview who had been involved in things. And when we pulled all this together more than a hundred interviews, it was kind of shocking what I had remembered about events. Sometimes it was absolutely just inaccurate, wrong, but every time it was incomplete. And so what would happen is I would have a memory of an event or with an outcome and the great Stan McChrystal will have made this decision or taking this action and this would be the result, and I would either be very successful with it or not. And when we pulled all this together, we found that I may have made a big decision, but there were a thousand other things that happened by countless other people behind the scenes, below the water line that were going on and other contextual factors. So that my role in it was often much less than I'd imagined it. I wasn't even the star of my own life, I was a player. And I started understand that's the reality of history. But the nature of how we record history and how we do biographies wants to make the leader, the central player and the reason things happen or don't, and I've come to the conclusion that's just wrong.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:14:43] You're listening to the Jordan Harbinger Show with our guests, General Stanley McChrystal. We'll be right back right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:49] This episode is sponsored in part FreshBooks. If you run your own business, I bet you love being your own boss. I certainly know I do. Endless earning potential, doing what you love every day, certainly makes all the admin and paperwork worthwhile. So what if I told you there's an easier way to deal with all the time consuming tasks like the admin stuff, that paperwork. Our friends at FreshBooks make accounting software that's incredibly simple to use, which as you might guess makes accounting much easier and paperwork a thing of the past. When I say FreshBooks is easy to use, here's what I mean. You can create and send ultra-professional looking invoices in about 30 seconds. Clients pay you directly through invoices with online payments, which in turn gets you paid twice as fast. You can also link your FreshBooks account to your credit and debit cards, so next time you expense a business lunch, it'll automatically show up in your FreshBooks account. As a FreshBooks customer for the last, I don't know, 10 plus years, I've experienced firsthand how all the features can save a ton of time every week, which means I've got a lot more time to work on content for upcoming shows here.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:57] How come certain leaders take on certain leadership styles? Do you think this is just something that they're taught? Do you think it's in their DNA somewhere? Because I know for example yourself, you were atruck -- is troublemaker the right word at West Point? You were kind of like, I don't want to say class clown. It might even be more serious than that, but I know you sort of thumbed your nose at authority and then it's like dot dot, fast forward, he's commanding special forces, which is kind of what those guys are known for doing as well.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:18:28] Yeah. It's funny that they used to joke I'd thumb my nose at the man and then I ended up being the man. How --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:34] Yeah.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:18:35] Ironic is that? Yeah, I didn't always tell them it successfully, but I went through that part of my life and I think that people take up leadership styles for lots of reasons. I think if we look at great leaders or leaders that we think were successful and we try to emulate them, it's always a bad idea. My father told me he was a soldier for his whole career and he said that after World War II, there were a whole group of officers. You tried to be little George Patton and they'd be profane and sort of loud and whatnot, but nobody could be patent but Patton and I've seen in my life a lot of leaders who tried to see something that works or technique that becomes popular and they try to copy that, and it's usually ineffective.
[00:19:27] I think that you can learn techniques from good leaders that you're around and you can also learn things not to do from bad leaders, but too much of leaders has to be based on who you are. And even more of leadership has to be built on who your followers are and what the context in which you're leading. Because a Vince Lombardi style of leadership, if you narrow it down to say, and here's a hard driving, very disciplined guy, isn't going to work the same way in different contexts. So I think that the key thing for leaders is to understand there's not a leadership style that is right and the others are wrong. Every leadership style needs to be based on this very empathetic connection to your followers so you understand what it is, inspires or drives them. And this understanding that the, the environment around you is not only going to be complex and you'll have to deal with that, but it's constantly changing. So what you do on any given day, any give an instance has to be based on all of those factors. So you can't just pull out play number three and keep running it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:42] Yeah. That element of being a little bit of a rogue or at least a flexible swim upstream type in a lot of ways. A lot of folks, in fact, I think I found this, I don't want to misquote this, I want to say this is from like Newsweek or something like that, but they said McChrystal's a snake eating rebel, a Jedi commander. He didn't care what his teenage son came home with blue hair and a Mohawk. He speaks his mind with candor rare for a high ranking official. He asks for opinions and seems genuinely interested in the response. He gets briefings on his iPod to put a little timestamp on this and listens to books on tape. He carries a custom made set of numb trucks and his convoy engraved with his name and four stars and his itinerary often bears a fresh quote from Bruce Lee. And it goes on to say that you went out on dozens of nighttime raids during your time in Iraq, which is unusual. I mean, why would you go out on a raid and you turned up on missions unannounced with very little entourage, and this English SAS guy, I guess isn't a British officer who served in Kabul. He said, you'd be out somewhere Iraq, and I assume he's doing it with a British accent, so I won't try that. But he said you'd be out somewhere in Iraq. Someone would take a knee beside you in a corporate role would be like, “Who the hell is that?” “It's fucking Stanl McChrystal,” is what he said.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:22:06] No, most of what is in that article is true, although it's hyped up a little bit clearly. I was rebellious in the sense that if I thought things were stupid then that I just thought they were stupid, and I wasn't interested in doing those. I also realized at some point in my career that almost all the right answers were in my organization will below me. And so it wasn't a case of people should be looking up and waiting for me to come up with the right answer. The thing was for me to help create an environment where the right answer could come out. And then what I could do is I could be an advocate for that. And that takes a little bit of coming to grips with your own ego which I did over time.
[00:23:00] I think that that it's really important for leaders to approach everything with a level of genuine humility, and yet that runs counter to some of what the environment around us wants. If you look at our politics today, a person's got to go out and say how good they are in everything they've done, even if they're a naturally modest person. The environment is that you've got to beat your chest and sell your wares. But in reality, your wares might be much more humble than that. You might have created an environment in which an organization did very well. That's no less impressive than if you stood at the front of it and let everybody, to the ramparts. But it doesn't sell as well, it’s not as sexy. So the fact that I went out on rage with the force and all like that can sometimes be misunderstood that then I'm going to go out and shoot the bad guys. That's not why I went out. I went out because I had to see what the force was doing. I had to understand what they were doing and they had to understand that I cared. They had to understand that I was willing to accept some part of the risk and hardship with them, not all that they did. But they had to understand that I was willing to do that so that I could communicate with them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:20] Right. That makes sense. Because I think a lot of people will take an anecdote like that and they'll suck that out of a story and they'll go, okay, so you have to be this rogue who goes out, rifle in hand with a knife in your mouth or something, if you're going to be a good leader on the battlefield. Or you could just as easily say, “The key to running a good tech company is to be a big jerk face to everybody like Steve Jobs was, and treat people poorly, and that's how you get results because Apple. And these are dangerous assumptions for us to make about leaders. And in the book you discuss these, these tensions, there's sort of three myths actually about leadership and going along the lines of we tend to put these leaders up on a pedestal and say, okay, what this person has achieved as is excellent, so we have to emulate each element of their life or of their behavior in order to get a similar result. And that stuff just isn't true. Can you drive us through these three myths? You've got the formulaic myth, the attribution myth, and the results myth. I think these are really applicable and interesting to today's leaders or just people that work with leaders, which I think is probably everyone.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:25:32] Well absolutely, Jordan. Thanks. we didn't know these myths when we started this book and this was an interesting process because we didn't have a hard thesis.
We let our study into the profiles pull us where they did. And what we came to fairly early in the process was the confirmation that leadership isn't something we truly understand. And as we looked at it, we come to the conclusion we've never understood it. It's not just a problem now. And so as a consequences, we looked at this, we came with the three myths. The first of formulaic says that if we can get the traits, if we're born with the right traits or if we can develop the right behaviors, we're going to be an effective leader.
[00:26:19] If Robert E. Lee did all these following things, or if Steve Jobs did or you name it, and we embodied those, that will be successful, and people have sold a lot of management books and leadership books on this with a list of things you can do. And the reality is we found no cases where a set of attributes or qualities that worked for someone were transferrable. There are things that work in others, but every situation is so unique. Every time is so unique. And so even for the same leader to be a leader on Monday in a certain way and then try to use exactly the same techniques the next day, often is a loser. You say, well then you'd have no consistency. Another reality is your consistency is your ability to adapt to the situation at the moment.
[00:27:12] In our study that the leader who comes out as the most adaptable, interestingly enough, is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He constantly adapts how we respond to situations and requirements in doing that. The second myth, the attribution myth is really reinforced by things like biographies because it says that an individual was the man of their times. Churchill shaped the outcome of World War II or Abraham Lincoln won the civil war or you name it. And as we studied that, what we found was, that's always a gross over simplification. They may have had a significant role in it, but as we look through the lens of history, we tend to sharpen that focus so that we're only sharpening it on that person, sort of like putting the spotlight on them. And so when all we're seeing is the actions of that person, we tend to not be as aware of all of the other things happening. And so the danger of the attribution myth is we start to think all we got to do is get a good leader and the problem is solved, and the reality is that's not true. It's actually the organization, the followers, the context of the situation that matters so much. As we studied this, we also found that a leader who does something in one place in is moved to another place and tries to repeat, almost never succeeds. And so as a consequence we find that it's very contextual into what the leader does and that is reinforced.
[00:28:52] The last myth is the results myth, and that is the idea that we are clear-eyed calculating people. And so we follow or select or elect the leader who will most give us what we want. It will make the most money in the company when the most victories on the battlefield accomplished the most politically. And the reality is that's not true either. In reality, what we find is the actual performance and outcomes, measurable outcomes by many leaders is got nothing to do with how successful they are in terms of being selected, elected, promoted, that sort of thing. There's something that our connection to leaders is more human. It's organic. We want certain things from a leaders that they provide, and it's not that strict outcome bottom line results. We're willing to tolerate some pretty negative or disappointing results from leaders if they fill some other need in us, and it'll be interesting as we get in the age of big data and artificial intelligence is we can amass more data on people's, the outcomes associated with someone's performance, and it'll be interesting to see whether we really use that in our people selection processes or whether we'll let the human side of us continue to guide us.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:30:22] You're listening to the Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest General Stanley McChrystal. We'll be right back after these brief messages.
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Jason DeFillippo: [00:33:55] Thanks for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers is what keeps us on the air and to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you've just heard, visit jordanharbinger.com/advertisers, and now for the conclusion of our show with General Stanley McChrystal.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:12] I wonder if there's a point at which you foresee leaders saying, well, the computer says we have to do all of -- the big AI box in the corner says this is our battle plan and we're just going to follow this, even though my gut says otherwise. The computer always knows best. I mean that that has to at some point be very likely, would you expect that?
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:34:35] I think I would. I tell a story off in the military as a planning process called the military decision making process, and it's a series of steps you go through from getting a mission and then gathering facts, developing courses of action, and then measuring or comparing those courses of action and it produces a numerical outcome and an organization, a unit in the military, we'll have a staff and they will go through that staff process and it will produce a numeric outcome. Typically, they'll look at three courses of action and there'll be each graded, and the commander will often come in and it select the best one with the highest score. The problem is the outcome of that entire process can be changed just by adjusting the weighting of the criteria, how you weight the things you measure, and so if a commander comes in and automatically accepts that, it's a cop out, what they're doing is they're hiding behind the process. If things go badly, they can then go, “Hey look, we did this big process. We got this number, I followed my staff's recommendation.” But that's not why we hire commanders. The process has value and that it fleshes out the problem, it uncovers issues, but we expect the commander to put the human part of that in there, to understand the nuances and the limitations of a process like that. I think you're going to find a lot of leaders in the near future that literally stand behind artificial intelligence and say as you described, yet this is what the box say, so I can't be fired or held culpable if it all goes badly. But yes, they can. In my view, because they can be informed by the artificial intelligence process, they can be aided, they can do all those things, but at the end of the day, we expect judgment, experience, all of those things to be layered on top of that. And I think that will be one of the differences between truly effective leaders in the future in that environment and the rest.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:46] It's super interesting because I can totally see there almost being attention between human leadership and computer leadership. I mean there probably is already for all I know, I really don't even know. There's probably a whole bunch of data tools and analytics that you have to use in making decisions. And I mean, does that exist? Does that happen in at the high levels of military? Do you get things like, “Well the satellite shows this, but I feel like this is a bad idea.” I mean satellites are photos, so at least you're looking at something, but do you have artificial intelligence making predictions and probabilities and things like that? Or is it still kind of a manual human process?
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:37:26] It's still pretty manual in the military for that kind of thing. And I think it will be helpful to have more data, but you're going to have to have leaders who are particularly educated in how to live in that environment. So that right now, I think we're still with generations that aren't yet ready to do that. Now, there are places in the military where artificial intelligence on very fast responding things like anti-missile weapons systems, they see an incoming missile and there's almost no time for humans to contribute to the process, so there's going to be artificial intelligence driving that and we pretend that we'll never do anything without a human in the loop, but we will. We'll have to because the response times would be too low. But those are more reflective, you can set up the algorithms for those to do certain things for the longer term decisions is your discussing. We're not yet a point in the military, and in my work in the civilian world, although there's tremendous amount of data in some industries, I don't yet see mini to the point where they are able even to do that, but I think we're pretty close.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:41] Going back to the three myths, formulaic myth, attribution myth, and the results myth. When we're examining leaders, instead of asking how did they lead, which is like you said, where we find ourselves when we're reading biographies and things like that. What other questions were you asking? I know one of them, which you had mentioned was what was it about the situation that made this style of leadership effective and I think is a distinctly different question.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:39:11] It absolutely is. And if you start on a study like this, we thought we'd be comparing leaders to say, “How did this one lead differently than that one?” And it wasn't that much to that to be, because the situations were always so different. Instead the real question came is why did this person emerge as a leader and if they were effective in that environment, why? What were the things that drove that? Or if they were ineffective, what were the things that that drove that? And what we typically found was there was an intersection between an individual being available and individual being having certain qualities literally colliding with a situation and that caused this emergence. But then even then it wasn't quite that clear. It wasn't, they didn't pull the sword out of the stone and become King Arthur. Instead it was a case of they started to emerge and it was either reinforced or not by the interaction with the followers in the situation. Martin Luther, for example, in the Protestant reformation, this wasn't a rogue monk who nails 95 thesis on the church store and starts something. He came along at exactly a moment when there was unhappiness with the organized church, organized religion in Germany and in Western Europe. He started saying things that some other people were already saying and he became both a symbol of it and a leader of a movement, but it only happened because all of those other factors intersected at the same time, and that proves true in almost every instance.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:00] What other questions do we ask when we're examining leaders? Yes, of course, what about the situation made the style of leadership effective? What other questions do we ask that that are more useful in examining certain types of behavior or certain types of characteristics that we can then emulate?
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:41:17] Well, I think the basic question people often ask is that person a good leader or a bad leader? And of course, pretty quickly we came to the conclusion good and bad in terms of whether they are virtuous or not is kind of irrelevant. That doesn't really affect a person's effectiveness as a leader. If they are effective as a leader, then you look at, okay, why did they emerge and what are those things about them that allowed them to be that? It comes down to at some point are these God-given traits. Is that person born a certain way? And we couldn't prove or disprove that. We couldn't say that the person's gifts weren't part of it, but yet you can certainly question it because if you look at Harriet Tubman, a five foot tall African American slave, no education, and she arises to become a leader, and she's got none of the overt leadership traits or qualities that we expect or we talk about charisma being important.
[00:42:29] We look at Maximilien Robespierre, the French Revolution. He actually was an introvert who stayed in his room most of the time, wrote his speeches, often didn't deliver them in person. And so as a consequence, it was his ideas and his sort of unwavering conviction that did it. And so when people say, “Well, how do we go find the right leaders? Who do we look for?” People with straight teeth in good posture and, those kinds of things. The answer is it's not even that simple. We've got to look at that intersection between opportunity, commitment on the part of the person, willingness to adapt to the situation that they find themselves in and keep adjusting so that they're not leaders for just an instant, but instead it applies over time, and all of that's extraordinarily early complicated process.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:26] Now looking back at these individual traits of leaders, it is very difficult or I should say actually it's very easy to pick out one or two little anecdotes. And you touched on this earlier with the whole like, “Oh well McChrystal goes out on the raids and things like that.” It's easy to pick sort of one anecdote and say, “This is the type of thing that I need to be doing.” And I was doing research on you for this interview, and I noticed that there's a couple of mentions of you eating like one meal a day or something like that. And I wondered is that something that a lot of people are taking out of these interviews or of this media appearance that you did, and they're going, that's a life hack, one meal a day. Whereas I'm wondering from your perspective, are you just thinking, “Look, I was really busy running a war in Afghanistan. I only had time for one meal a day.” And we kind of as outsiders look at this perspective and think that that's something that we then need to emulate in order to get the same results.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:44:25] Yeah, you couldn't be more right, Jordan. I think of Forest Gump running down the road, and all these people run in after him. He doesn't know why he's running and they don't know why they're following him. I get asked more often about why one meal a day and why I slept four hours a night, than anything else. And it's interesting, I started eating one meal a day about 40 years ago as a Lieutenant when I thought I was getting fat, and so I just developed the habit. There's no Zen to it. It works for me. I'm 64 years old right now. I'm in great health, so why would I change? I slept four hours a night because that's how much time I had. We were very, very busy, and I felt I had to lean into it, and that would be wrong for anyone else. I've actually had people contact me and say, “How can I become more like you?” And I said, “God, save yourself. Don't do that.” Figure out what is needed in the situation you're in and what about you, you could make better to do that, and that's why the seven habits of highly effective people, and I'm not down on any single effort, but it's very dangerous to try to reduce these things to a few habits or behaviors or traits.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:42] It's tempt, it's human nature. There's something in human nature that says, I want this to be simple and have three techniques to being a more powerful leader today instead of finding out what meshes with our personality, with our team, with the circumstances, with the context of the situation with our industry. Because that's much more complicated and requires a lot more thinking and a lot more, right?
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:46:02] That's exactly it. It's just we want to be given an answer we can digest very quickly, and so boom, follow it. And it's like a diet book. The reality is we know a lot about what makes people gain and lose weight, and it's their personal behavior, but it's pretty individual. And so to read a book and say, “Well, I'll only eat horse meat on Tuesdays, and that'll solve my problem,” is ridiculous. We can learn more about bodies work, but we also have to learn about us, what we can do, what we're good at, what our followers want.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:40] Originally, I thought this was a question that I would only ask somebody who was in a highly politically charged position, but now that I think about it, there's so many people in corporations or even in entrepreneur or family businesses that have political-ish situations around them, not politics in general, but where they have to worry about other types of influence. And I was wondering in your time overseas running a war, I mean,how do you stay focused on what's important when there are so many distractions and so many other people trying to influence your actions? Again, I thought this question would only apply to somebody in your position, but the more I think about it, the more I realize if you're in a corporation, you've got shareholders, you've got employees. If you're in a family business, you've got to worry about what your grandpa thinks or for whatever, when you're running a business. And how do you stay focused on what's important when there's all these external influences or attempted influences?
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:47:36] That's a great point. One of the first things I had to learn to understand it. I didn't know it right up front, but all of those things are relevant. You try to say, “Well, I've got to ignore the politics and fight the war.” One of the four star level fighting the war is the politics. You've got plenty of people junior to you that know how to move forces, know how to do all the things that are tactical execution of warfare. But at the senior level, if you don't get the politics right, there's no chance to win. And so the first thing you have to do is understand that is part of what you do. And the second is to understand that there are all these different competing interests.
[00:48:16] In Afghanistan, my coalition was 46 nations. Those 46 nations largely had come to Afghanistan because of United States had ask them to. All of them had a different background, politically, different situation. They deployed forces to this theater of war with different hopes for it. And in many cases, all they wanted to do was be a good partner for the US. But as a consequence, we had junior commanders from some of these countries on the ground with maybe a battalion or even less of troops, talking to their prime minister periodically or their head of the military. That's like, you know that the president of United States calling down to a Sergeant somewhere or equivalent and telling them what they want. Think of the pressure that that person's under and being told, don't do this with our forces because politically, domestically, that'll be an issue. So the politics aren't a distraction.
They are part of the reality. And if you understand that and don't resent it, don't automatically say, “Well, all politics are bad.” No politics or people and their interests in it. That's why wars are fought.
I had to learn how do I deal with that? How do I mesh the two together? And what I tried to do was give the people below me who were out doing things enough of the political context. So they understand the environment they're operating in. They understand what's important, what isn't, so that we're not tone deaf, but then also not have them subject to too much political pressure because that's sort of the job that I had. I'm supposed to take that pressure and only passed the relevant important things down so the people below me, relatively unencumbered can do their job. You can never stop it completely.
[00:50:16] And that I think is the job of leaders at many levels where that's what they are supposed to do. I think there is this myth that says the generals can be a political and they can just say, “I'm a technician. Tell me when you want the war to start. I'll start the war. I'll fight the war. And when it's over I'll give you the situation and you politicians can take it from there.” That's absurd because war is an extension of politics, this [class which] [00:50:48] taught taught us, and he's absolutely right. And everything you do at a strategic level in the military has to be based on the political reality. How much support do you have for what you're trying to do? How much do you need to give up, compromise, interact? All of those things are things that I think mature military leaders need to do. Now that doesn't mean you need to be a Partisan political mind. You're not a Democratic or Republican general if you are, shame on you, but you need to be their part of the context of the environment which you operate and to be a dismissive of that is an absolute mistake.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:35] I know that you retired in 2010, and unfortunately, you're relieved of your position as the top commander in Afghanistan by President Obama. And it was because of this controversial interview that you'd done with Rolling Stone Magazine. It was at the time Obama said what you'd said in the article does not meet the standards that should be set by a commanding general. And when I read that, I was shocked, and so I have a kind of a dumb question here. Which first, how did that feel? Because I know from starting my own show over earlier this year that being removed or removing yourself or leaving a position like that, it's not just put your badge and gun on the table type of situation like you'd see in a movie. Your identity can kind of fly away with it as well if you're not careful.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:52:25] Yeah, and I'll start by a given the background. An article came out in Rolling Stone and it quoted, my team is saying things that were viewed as incorrect politically and whatnot. I didn't think the article was an accurate portrayal of the team, but that's irrelevant. I'm responsible, a reporter writes an article about my team and it ends up on the desk of the president who is my commander in chief, and so I've passed a problem or caused a problem for him and I shouldn't do that. And so I offered my resignation and he accepted it and I completely understood for him, no ill will for that. Now I was crushed by the experience. In my life, I never thought that I would be accused of being off the rails or disloyal or anything like that. And I can assure you I never was, but it doesn't matter whether you were or not. My name was on the ticker of the news every 30 seconds for my moment of him of fame or notoriety, which doesn't ask as long as you think it does. In your own mind, it lasts a long time, and actually that's just several days. But my 86 year old father was watching it, my son off in college is watching it, my wife was watching it, and so I felt like I'd let my family down and also felt like I'd let everybody who served with me down and who’d believed with me for so long. And so you go through that period where you've lost your identity as a soldier. You also believe that you've lost your identity, or your credibility with many people as a figure and as a friend and all of these things.
[00:54:09] So it's a moment in which I, and I think probably many other people have gone through this, go through incredible doubts and you start to wonder about where you fit in the world, what's your future's going to be? Will you ever get your respect and yourself respect back? What I learned was yes, you will, if you decide to. I made the decision and really, I think my wife is the one who helped me make this because she absolutely said, I've related this to my memoirs. I came home from resigning and my careers literally over in the blink of an eye after 34 years as an officer. And I told her, and she'd grown up in the military and been with me all those years and she said, “Good, we've always been happy and we always will be happy.” And she’s so focused as on the future and not the past, and she's been that way her whole life. I joke with her that she lives life like she drives with no use for the rear view mirror. But she said there is no point in trying to relitigate what has happened. Let's move forward. Let's define our lives in the future by what we want to be and then let people judge us. And it has been the best thing that could've happened because I focused entirely forward. I mean there are days when it still hurts to think about that, but the reality is starting with my wife and then with this group of friends, many of whom I hadn't seen for years, they came out like a safety net and they catch you and then they wrap you up and if you allow them to give you strength back and sort of get your confidence back, then suddenly everything can go back in perspective.
[00:56:05] And I've told a lot of people since then that if they have one of these points in their life when everything seems suddenly the bottom to a fallen out that they are the person who decides how it goes from there. If they want to wallow it, you can, you can be bitter, but nobody cares if you're bitter. It doesn't make anyone else happy to see you bitter. It's actually better decide you're going to be happy and decide you're going to try to keep making a contribution. And that to me turned out to be the best decision I've ever made.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:42] I think your wife's reaction was priceless. I can imagine you walk in head held a little bit lower than usual and you sit and you tell her it's over and she says “Good” and she probably wants to go on vacation without like an entourage of 11 people, an email and phone calls coming in every five minutes.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:57:00] I think you're right, Jordan. I think she did, but I also think she knew me so well that she knew at that moment that her reaction would mean more to me than probably anything else in life. At that moment, she probably held my self-esteem in her hand because she was a person I was coming back to report to of my failure and I think she did it intuitively, but I think that it was in retrospect, brilliant.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:35] I feel like we should end on a high note. I love that. I love that final thought though, but I feel like it might be better to end on a high note. I feel I'm feeling that pressure.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:57:45] I think life is a high note. I think the interesting thing about leadership is you make a decision to try to be a leader. You choose that or you can back away from it. I mean some people get put in situations, but where people are put in a case where they can lead and they step up and do it, it's kind of extraordinary to see the positive impact that they can have. I mean, I go back to Martin Luther King Jr. He's a 26 year old preacher in a new church that he's just joined a Montgomery, Alabama, and he takes over the Montgomery Improvement Associations, boycotted buses against segregated public transportation. He lives 13 more years, and for the next 13 years, he jailed 12 times. He pulls together this diverse group of organizations, all of which trying to take a different route toward better civil rights in America. He fights against incredible amounts of resistance, but he does it with humility. He does it with class, he does it with courage. He does it with persistence. When we see that and we see that kind of person, he wasn't perfect, and in fact it would ruin him as an image if he had been perfect. It reminds me what leaders can do if they're willing to.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:15] General, thank you so much. This was an excellent, excellent interview and the book Leader: Myth and Reality. If you're into history, you'll like it. If you're into leadership topics, you'll also like it, so I think it's a -- when I saw this book for me, I was a little bit surprised with that. Oh my gosh! This guy is a glutton for punishing because you can just see the amount of work that went into this. Your team must be a bunch of all stars.
General Stanley McChrystal: [00:59:40] They really were. We had the three main authors and then three brilliant young people who worked literally full time for 15 months. We had a call, a video call every Sunday morning at 6 o'clock for 15 months, because that was the one time we could find everybody available and we would just be through issues. It was an extraordinary experience to work with people who are just passionate to create something of value.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:08] What's next for you? Are you kind of done right in books? I mean I know you have your McChrystal group and things like that. Do you have any other interesting projects in the works?
General Stanley McChrystal: [01:00:19] Well, you know, there's always something going and some of McChrystal group has grown to a hundred people, so that's become really exciting. But with every book, as soon as I finish it, I spike the football in the end zone and I say never again. But truth is, I just had a conversation with a publisher and he likes the new idea and so I'm scared that I'm going to say yes.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:43] Well, when you do or if you do, we'll see you back on the show at that time, I think. So thank you once again for coming on. Really, really interesting. It's always good to talk to you.
General Stanley McChrystal: [01:00:52] Jordan, it's my honor. Thanks so much for your time.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:57] All right, Jason. Another good conversation with General McChrystal. He is always so open for somebody, you know, you kind of don't expect it, right?
Jason DeFillippo: [01:01:03] Yeah, and he's funny as can be when we're bantering before the show, he was just throwing out one liners hand over fist, something you never would expect.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:10] Yeah. You kind of don't expect that. You don't really see that coming from somebody who is like in such serious situations and control of so many people's lives and at the highest ranks of the military. It's kind of nice that there's humans up there, right?
Jason DeFillippo: [01:01:23] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:23] It's kind of nice to see.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:01:24] Definitely. You want the guys with the guns to at least have some kind of sense of humor.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:27] That's right. That's right. The book title is Leaders: Myth and Reality, and a big thank you to General McChrystal for coming out today. If you want to know how I meet all these amazing folks, if you want to know why I almost ignored a phone call from General McChrystal. It's because I have so much opportunity coming as a result of my relationships of my network that I built over time. That's the only way to build a network because you have to start before you need that network. I use systems and I use tiny habits, and it's a lot of fun. It's a few minutes per day and I want to teach you how I do it for free, so go to jordanharbinger.com/course, and don't go “Yeah, I'll do that later.” The problem with that, you can't kick the can down the road and expect the results to be the same. As we always say here, you have to dig the well before you're thirsty and these drills are designed to just be real quick every day instead of maybe a few minutes in line at dinner with Instagram, spend it with these drills. I wish I knew this stuff a decade ago. It would have made a huge difference, and you can find all of that at jordanharbinger.com/course.
[01:02:28] Speaking of building relationships, tell me your number one takeaway here from the general. I'm @jordanharbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, and don't forget, if you want to learn how to apply everything you heard today from General McChrystal, make sure you go grab the worksheets. Also in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast.
[01:02:46] This show is produced in association with PodcastOne and this episode was co-produced by Jason “The Colonel” DeFillippo and Jen Harbinger. Show notes are by Robert Fogarty. Special thanks to Jimmy for helping prep for this episode. That was a huge help buddy, thank you very much. Worksheets by Caleb Bacon, and I'm your host, Jordan harbinger. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful, which is hopefully in every episode, so please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. Lots more in the pipeline. Very excited to get it out to you. And in the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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