Retired Four-Star General, Stanley McChrystal, on Leadership

mcchrystal-team-shot-1-1.pngGeneral Stanley McChrystal retired from the US Army as a four-star general after thirty-four years of service. He is a partner at McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm based in Virginia and a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. General McChrystal recently coauthored Leaders, which explores how various leadership styles can be effective depending on time and situation.  His previous books My Share of the Task and Team of Teams were both New York Times bestsellers.

(Hear the full conversation with General McChrystal on iTunes or

RJ: General McChrystal, absolutely honored to have you on our podcast, we spent some time thinking of the right guest to have in terms of our leadership series which we’ve been conducting for some time now.  And we are just so grateful that you can spend the time with us today.  Our audience will certainly know who you are, but they may not know the extent of your experience, so perhaps we could kick off with a little bit of your background if that works.

Sure, RJ, and thanks for including me in this, it’s a real honor, and please call me Stan.  Like a lot of people, I went into a business when I was young, I entered West Point in the U.S. military when I was 17 years old.  My father and father’s fathers had been career soldiers, so it was a pretty natural fit.  I stayed in the Army for the four years at West Point, then a little more than 34 years after that, had the opportunity to serve in a variety of units, most light infantry, parachute infantry, ranger infantry.  And then the last part of my career I commanded an organization called Joint Special Operations Commander, the nation’s counter-terrorist forces.  And then wound up my career as the Commanding General of NATO and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.  And so I got the opportunity to experience the Army from Second Lieutenant to Four Star General.

And then when I left the service in 2010, along with a friend, I started a company called McChrystal Group, which is a leadership advisory or consulting firm.  We started at my kitchen table where two of us shook hands and went forward, now we’ve got about 100 people, an office in Alexandria and an office in London.  And I’ve also written three books, the second two with teams, with co-authors and so that’s been a great journey.  I’ve got to be on several corporate boards and so that’s been exciting.  And then for nine years, I’m just about to finish my ninth year of teaching leadership at Yale as well.  And so this weekend I’ll take my Yale class to Gettysburg to look at the leadership aspects of that, and that’s something we do every year.  So I’ve been able to be involved in a number of things with a number of experiences and clients associated with that, so it’s been a real pleasure and an honor.

RJ: Well, I’ve certainly been at amazed at all the things that you have kind of moving along in parallel.  I read your latest book, ‘Leaders’ which is a very unique take on explaining how leaders can be effective by different means.  And so maybe we’ll hit on the topic of leadership right up front.  I think the broader community is always fascinated about leadership and the military and we see that there’s a lot of discipline ingrained that’s been built up through the years.  It’s a tradition of leadership and excellence.  Maybe reflecting on your time in the military, what were some of the key leadership traits or tactics that you really honed in on?

Yeah, it’s a great place to start, RJ, because when you start learning leadership, in my case, at West Point, you study leaders who are successful.  And you start to see the idea that if you do a certain number of things, you have certain behaviors, or if you’re blessed with certain traits, or you have discipline to exhibit qualities of leadership, that you’re going to be an effective leader.  And we tend to think of those as sort of values-based but also things that you do.  The real disconnect starts to come as you go through a career and you find first that the leaders who are actually successful in different situations can be frighteningly different.

And someone who on paper, or at least first glance, has all those qualities or attributes of a great leader can actually fail, and do pretty often.  And then people who seem to have none of them, the unlikely person can often be remarkably successful.  And so you step back and say, “Well, maybe we had the traits wrong, maybe we need different traits in all this.”  But then what you sort of come around to is, it’s really not a set of universal traits that “if you do these you’re going to be successful.”  Leadership is actually something that’s very organic or dynamic, it’s the interaction between leaders, their followers and leaders in the always unique circumstances that they find themselves in, the context of a situation.

So what you find is every leadership experience, and therefore the requirement to be effective is different in every case.  And so when you take that, you step back and you say, “Now, wait a minute, I thought I was perfecting myself as a leader by learning a certain way to do things, certain plays I run, certain ways I act and interact with people.”  And what we found is that’s not true, and if you think back to your experiences, you sort of know that’s not true also.  So we wrote this latest book,’ Leaders’, we looked at 13 very diverse leaders, we looked at people from Margaret Thatcher as a political leader to Boss Tweed, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Harriet Tubman, so this very diverse group of leaders.

And what we find is there’s no formula for leadership success.  But there are some commonalities in how a person emerges, and that’s being right for the moment, either being right for the moment by accident because their particular style intersects with things that they are and they emerge, maybe Maximilien Robespierre, the French Revolution.  Or somebody who is naturally adaptable, one who can have the empathy and the sensitivity to listen and to sense out what’s required in a moment and then provide that kind of leadership.  And some leaders are able to morph their style significantly to meet the circumstances as they arrived in each place, and that at the end of the day becomes the most impressive leader to me.

RJ: Maybe we can take this a step further and apply it to the corporate context, there’s, I think, a variety of industries that the McChrystal Group specializes in.  Is there a case study for perhaps disruptive technology playing a role in causing certain players to rethink their strategies?  Or some other outside factor that’s affecting a given company?  How does the right kind of leader emerge more effectively during times of great change?

Yeah, it’s a great one.  When we think about what drives great change, typically if you go back to the 1960s, if you got on the Fortune 500 list, you statistically were going to be there for 60 years.  That’s not true at all anymore, it’s slightly over a decade now on average.  And so the reality is that there was a time when if you built scale and professionalism into an organization—think Sears and Roebuck, think, you know, any of the other big automobile companies or something – you were pretty good to go because the moat that prevented competition from really attacking you was pretty wide and deep.  That’s changed dramatically now because now the barriers to entry in many industries are pretty low or people don’t take you on entirety, they take on just a chunk of your business.

So when we worked with a big consumer goods company that had extraordinary levels of success but then they started finding a number of very small niche companies would come in and sell designer dog food for big dogs.  Then someone else comes in and sells designer dog food for French poodles and whatnot.  And you say, “Well, no big deal because they’re not really competing with us.”  But what they’re doing is they’re cutting out significant market share, and they’ve got a low threat to themselves because if they fail, no problem, there’s not a huge investment there.  Suddenly what the big prettiest companies are left with is sort of the commoditized low margin remnants of the marketplace, and that’s tough to run profitably, so that’s one.

We worked with one consumer product organization that was being attacked, not by a single big competitor but a bunch of other competitors who were de facto allied together, although they didn’t know it.  They weren’t coordinating, it’s just they were all going to take a bite out of the elephant, the elephant was losing quite a lot of hide.  And so the requirement is this big company can’t do the traditional things, it can’t point to its moat and say no big competitor will come.  It has to become very adaptable and decide how it wants to compete in those niche areas.  It’s got to be faster, it’s got to be much more connected to specific nuances of the marketplace, and it’s got to have what we have found, a much more decentralized decision making process so that those parts of the organization that perceive risk or opportunity don’t have to go all the way up to the top of the organization for a bureaucratic decision, they can instead, execute very close to the problem.

And we found with information technology you can do those kinds of actions and keep the main corporate headquarters informed much more rapidly than people think.  The biggest challenge now is the cultural part of that, it’s not the practical or technological connection part of it.  And we see the same kind of a theme play out across different sectors of the economy.  We’ve done a lot of work in healthcare, that’s the same way, healthcare is being disrupted every which way from Sunday, and people aren’t really sure of the direction it’s going to go.  But what they’ve found is they have to be changing on a continuous basis, there’s no such thing as changing and then locking everything down and spend two or three years or longer enjoying that.  In fact, you are changing every week of every month and if the organization’s psyche and processes are not built upon that assumption, then it’s a significant problem.

RJ: And where do you find your team spending most of the time, which sectors?  You mentioned healthcare and consumer products, are those the two primary sectors or are there others?

No, it’s funny, when we started the company we had a guess where we’d be.  But we started in a lawn and garden company, Scotts Miracle-Gro.  And we’re thinking what could we possibly do, they had 60% market share, they were doing really, really well.  And people say, “Well, what are lawn and garden people going to do?  I mean how smart are they?”  And my response has always been, “Well, they sell dirt and you buy it, you tell me who’s smart.”  But the reality is it was a very competitive environment that involves developing cutting-edge products, and then getting those cutting-edge products to the point of sale in exactly the right moment.  Because people only want to buy lawn and garden products when they need them, and because the weather in the spring and at other times is unpredictable.  You’re never 100% sure when they need them, so you’ve got to be remarkably agile and you’ve got to be able to respond to if a competitor comes out and says that your grass seed causes cancer, you’ve got to be able to respond to that.

And so what we found was, what we thought was sort of a staid market was actually very, very dynamic.  And so we started with them and they made extraordinary progress.  We’ve been in the financial sector, several of the big banks and we find that of course they have the same challenge, they’ve got to be able to make changes.  We’ve done a fair amount of work with Bank of America and Merrill Lynch to let their wealth managers, their big financial advisors who work with people, you know, families, to make them more adaptable and able to leverage the capacity of the organization.  So we thought we would get into healthcare right after we founded the company, it took several years and we weren’t quite sure why it didn’t fit and now we’re in a big way.  So I think we just hadn’t approached it carefully enough.

RJ: Where do you find the most overlap is between your experience in the military and the advice you can give to corporations?  Are there certain best practices that you could take from the military and apply it to a corporate organization?

Yeah, it’s interesting, when we go into a big company and they describe they’ve got good people working hard, great values, that’s pretty much the norm.  But they’ve got a fair amount of bureaucracy and process which slows them down, we find that our military experience is almost perfectly aligned with that.  And we will joke with people about the military invented bureaucracy and then perfected it.  And so we work in a number of big companies that have that same challenge, that have scale, great professionalism and commitment like the US military on the part of their members.  But you’re trying to change something that has been created over, sometimes centuries, but typically decades for sure, and you’re trying to make a cultural change in response to market forces and that’s remarkably difficult to do.

And so what we do is we go into those organizations, typically do a diagnostic or analysis which gives them a pretty fascinating picture of how their organization actually functions and it’s always different from the old chart.  And then when people understand how their organization functions, they can start to say, “Well, we could make these incremental improvements in our outcomes by these points of leverage.”  And typically, those are not difficult to find, and they just mean you’ve got to roll your sleeves up.  But as we work with firms, it’s their change— we don’t come in and tell people, “Okay, you’ve got to restructure, you’ve got to fire these people, here’s a package of slides, give us some money and we’ll leave.”

What we do is we come in and we work with them and give them data and then work with them to figure out how they would want to change and then we stay with them through the change.  Because I think you need that partnership to get to the point where they’ve got a sustainable change that is actually going to last for a long time.

RJ: How are you able to structure the right team for a given client?

Yeah.  When we started, we had myself and another former military member who started the company.  We hired some people that we knew, so there’s a certain DNA to this organization that is really rooted in Special Operations Forces from the U.S.  And then over time we’ve brought in some colleagues from the CIA and other parts of government.  But that’s really only about 30% of the company.

I mentioned we have about a 100 people, about 30 have a military background of some kind.  As we’ve grown we’ve brought in people from industry, a senior exec from Dow Chemical, we’ve brought in the president of Scotts Miracle-Gro that I had mentioned before.  We’ve brought in a former undersecretary of the Air Force.  So we’ve brought in people to round out our team, to give us different perspectives, different backgrounds.  And then at the younger age, you know, we hire a certain number of people out of universities and then at the middle age or the middle grade I’d say, we bring people who have this breadth of experience.

And what we’re trying to do is come at every problem without a military mindset or a strictly commercial mindset, but blend those with very experienced leaders who are adaptable.  The key thing is it’s not just what you did, it is do you have the mindset to be the kind of adaptable leader and help partners become adaptable to build relationships that do that.  That’s really, we think, the competitive advantage that we reinforce.

RJ: I think what’s very impressive is the career that you’ve led both currently and of course in the military for nearly 35 years.  Are there certain core tenets that you live by, that you feel are the foundation for how you operate?

Yeah, there are.  The first thing is I think a lot of military people learn from the military certain values or habits, personal self-discipline, focus on something, treating people like they matter.  Because in the military your people are what you have and they have to take care of them, and so build relations.  So I think those things are sort of basic.  I would say the biggest thing is, and I was taught this as a lieutenant, never forgotten it, if it’s stupid and it works it ain’t stupid.  And so I’m a great believer in, at the end of the day what you’re trying to do is not do it the way doctrine says do it, not doing something the way that you did it before, but doing it in the way that you get the right outcome so that you succeed.

So you can’t fall in love with your experience, you can’t fall in love with what you think the right answer is.  You’ve got to be extraordinarily willing to take in information, shift what you do and change until you’re successful.  And it’s easy to say but it’s a quality a lot of people don’t have, because what we find is if someone else does something a certain way, it becomes the accepted way of doing something, the approved solution you might say.  When you come up on a problem again it’s safe for leaders who hear about that and know that, to mimic that behavior because they’ll never be considered open to criticism if they do what worked before.  Somebody else did this, it worked, so if I do that I’m safe.

The reality is you’re not safe because conditions change and yet what we’ve got to do is find people who come at each problem in a way that says what is this problem, how can I do it?  And sometimes that means adapting a never tried before solution and that can be frightening.

RJ: Well, certainly I think the theme of adaptability and trying new things and adapting to the changing environment is key to thriving.  More on the personal side is that you are legendary for your self-discipline.  Do you still keep up the same type of physical training regimen that you were known for in the military?

I do, I work out every day no matter what time I have to leave in the morning.  I’m going to leave tomorrow at five, so I’m going to work out from three to four-thirty.  And you say, “Wow, that’s impressive, you’re so self-disciplined.”  No, it’s now a habit, and I have learned that if I don’t stick with that habit, I make myself unhappy.  And so it’s easier for me just to stick with my habit, and that’s, you know, I’ve got plenty of bad habits, so those good habits that you stick with just become really important.

RJ: Is that running primarily or other exercises?

Yeah, I alternate now, there was a period in my life when all I did was run, and now what I do is I alternate, I’ll run for at least an hour one morning like I did this morning, and then on alternate days I will do a gym workout, I’ve built a gym in my home.  And so I’ll spend about … it takes me a little longer, I do an hour and a half, and that way I don’t get injured with overuse of one thing.  And then whenever I can I do a second workout in the day, I work out most of the time just in the morning, but if I have time later in the day I’ll go in and do 34 minutes on an elliptic, I don’t know why 34, it’s just a habit.  And it just, it makes me feel better, so the working out is a part of who I am, it’s part of my identity to myself and you know, so it becomes critical to me.

RJ: And do you still do one meal a day or has that been modified?

I still do one meal a day, that’s just a habit.  Every once in a while I’ll violate it, like this weekend I was out with my two little granddaughters, and we went to breakfast.  And I’m taking them to breakfast, so I ate breakfast and because part of that’s a social thing of doing that.  But then it’s funny, then my body just tells me the rest of the day, hey, you weren’t supposed to eat in the morning, so you’re not going to have dinner.  You know, self-discipline can be, you know, a boomerang comes back and hits you in the head too.

RJ: Stan, you’ve been very generous with your time, again, very honored to speak with you.  Thank you for all the insights you’ve provided us here.  We look forward to sharing this conversation with our audience.

Well, RJ, it’s been an honor to be on with you, and a real pleasure.

RJ: Thank you, Stan.

Take care.

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