The Leadership Brief With Gen. Stanley McChrystal

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'We Had Leadership That Was Incapable of Making the Politically Courageous Decisions,' Says Retired U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal
By Belinda Luscombe

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Stanley McChrystal used to be a four star general. He was in charge of all operations in Afghanistan. He oversaw many of America's mostly risky covert missions, including capturing Saddam Hussein and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He left the army abruptly after 34 years, and had to start over.

He now has an 85-person team at McChrystal Solutions, a leadership consultancy. His three grandchildren live opposite him. His daughter-in-law works for him. The most dangerous thing he has done recently—”probably the most hazardous thing I’ve done ever in my life,” he jokes—is change in the grimy men's bathroom in New York City’s Penn Station. (He hates fancy clothes.) He also has a new book: Risk: A Users Guide.

McChrystal recently spoke with TIME about how leaders should be thinking about risk, the inherent dangers of misinformation and life after leaving the military.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)


There are quite a lot of books on risk out there. What did you feel like you could bring to the subject?

Many of them are more academically focused on the theory and the psychology. And many of them are focused on probabilities and financial risk. But that's not how most people actually deal with risk.

In my experience, we are sort of aware of all that, and then we make decisions based on a much more intuitive, much more seat-of-our-pants process. Even organizations do that. What I wanted to do was think about risk and say, “If that's the reality, how do we need to think about risk in a better way?”

Pretty early in the process of thinking it through and doing research, I came to the conclusion that the problem is not the problem: we're the problem. One of the common denominators is that we screw up our response to a wide range of problems. We don't just screw up COVID-19, we screw up all of them.

Why? We have expertise, we have technology. The book’s designed for leaders to read, but it's also designed for organizations, to step back and say, "OK, we stumbled on risk so much, what do we miss in here?" The answer is "You’re missing the idea that you've got to make yourself more capable of dealing with risk."

Is the point of your book that you can deal with these external threats; you just have to be prepared?

That's most of it. We're giving them the answer to the test. The problem is doing it.

There aren't a lot of silver bullet solutions to risk. The most currently relevant risk is COVID-19. Really interesting challenge because generally the same virus threatened the entire world, there were some mutations, but generally, the same thinking, and it wasn't 10 feet tall. It's a virus and we get viruses constantly. And so it wasn't new. It wasn't a surprise, it was inevitable. And we know what to do about it.

The science of public health is well known, we've got a good body of knowledge. We have established responses to it that have worked, and we know work. We even exercised, as we outline in the book, in Crimson Contagion in 2019. We practiced it and found out that we weren't ready.

And then the third thing is, we got a scientific miracle. I mean, literally sciences pulled out a vaccine faster than the world deserved it to. So those things line up, if you know the threat is coming. And you know what to do about it, and you get this freebie. And then we completely dropped the ball.

When you say 'we,' who do you mean? Is it leadership? Is it all of us? Is it business?

We can start with leadership, because it's easy to pin the tail on the donkey there. Because in many cases, we didn't get the kind of can candid direction from leaders, we didn't get the kind of decisiveness.

The challenge with a pandemic is it's like swinging at a baseball pitch you have to start your swing before the pitch. Because of the nature of exponential growth, you have to take significant action before the exponential growth is evident to the population. So this is a leadership problem of the highest order, because most political leaders want to follow the problem. Now that climate change is pretty evident to everybody, for example, you got a lot of people getting on board and saying, well, we have to do something about that. And we're 20, 30 years behind.

We had leadership that was incapable of making the politically courageous decisions to do hard things early. Now in some cases, systems didn't inform them well enough. In some cases, systems did inform them, they just refused to do it. The reason it's not only the fault of the politicians in my view is because we all sort of aided and abetted it. We all, particularly in the United States, reluctantly accepted things being different. We sort of bitched and moaned, and then we cried for quickly opening back up, all kinds of things, some of which were rational, but some of which were, were not.

And so we as a society, or a nation, found ourselves incapable of making the hard decisions. There's an inertia to taking actions that you don't want to take. We see that time and time again, and we've seen that here, people want to wait until the problem is literally almost past us before we act. You put all of those things together, and you suddenly realize that this threat was absolutely manageable, except by us.

You say that the way to deal with threat is to detect, assess, respond and learn. Isn't this just what leaders do naturally?

It's a natural process that we don't do. America is more obese than it's ever been. And yet we have more exercise and diet books than anything else. Just because something is clear, doesn’t mean it is self evident enough for to people to do it.

This book is designed to be a bit of a wake-up call. All of these things may sound basic, but we show a whole bunch of examples where they're not common. They're not done. I mean, Katrina hit a city that is built below the water level. How could they screw it up so bad when they knew the problem? They had 56 hours of solid warning of what was going to happen, and yet they couldn't make decisions until 19 hours before it made landfall. The fact that we may know something doesn't stop us from not doing what we need to do.

Another thing you write helps us assess risk is communication. Which do you think is more dangerous: misinformation in which everything just goes around so fast and is wrong? Or disinformation, which is produced by some kind of enemy?

I think disinformation is literally the biggest threat to our society. Right now, it's existential. But I'm going to start with communication generally.

One of the tactics to defeat a military opponent is to sever their communications. Once you sever their communications, their ability to go do a coherent opposition to you just dries up. You're fighting little uncoordinated groups. It is the cohesion and synchronization that gives a military opponent durability. Blitzkrieg was all about that: when the Germans went into France, they hit the nervous system of the French. The French had more tanks than the Germans and better tanks. But the blitzkrieg severed France's ability to think, and so it just collapsed in six weeks. Anytime an organization loses the ability to communicate, it starts to operate independently and is inherently ineffective. It's not a cohesive whole.

Misinformation is bad. People try to communicate so fast right now that they communicate before they know anything. Twitter is perfect for that, because every idiot thinks they've got to comment on everything long before they have any enough information. And they can communicate faster than they can think. It’s really unhelpful. But it's not evil. It's just kind of stupid.

Disinformation is evil. Because as we've seen, disinformation can be very clever. It can be based loosely on fact, it can shape the way we think, not just what we think. And the difference is key, because if I got more information, I might change that opinion and move on. But if you change the way I think, the very logic process I go through, how I process information, then you've changed a cultural part of society, and you're going to get a skewed response.

And the problem with disinformation now is it's so empowered by information technology, that it is not only pervasive, but I think it's getting stronger. There are some in the legitimate media, or on traditional TV outlets, that borders on disinformation. And not just on the far right, it kind of goes the gamut.

Is it true you teach a class at Yale about the Rolling Stone article that cost you your job?

Yeah. It’s a leadership class. So you've got to teach them about how life is. And that this, this is a reality that leaders deal with. And it's complicated. And you've got to decide how you're going to deal with it.

I let them read the article. And then I don't give them a backstory but I tell them what I did about it afterward. And what I've done since and, and how that that kind of thing is a reality for leaders. The reality is, when you end up on a world stage, the spotlight goes on, and sometimes you're going to get great coverage that you don't deserve. Sometimes you're going to get negative coverage you do deserve. The real question is, how are you going to process it? And how are you going to go through life with it? My belief, and my advice to people, is that the second something like that happens, it's history. You can't change it. And there's no point in trying to relitigate it. Because nobody cares.

You know, after the Rolling Stone article and I resigned, you can imagine a 34 year career ends in an instant—an instant being 24 hours, time to fly back and submit my resignation. A way of life I'd known since I was a child, because I grew up in the army, is suddenly over. And so you have to figure out how you're going to deal with that. You’ve got to live going forward, not going back.

You write that the best way to deal with risks is to assess your own weaknesses. What are your weaknesses and what have you learned about them?

I think personally, I will often make decisions quickly, with less data than I should. I have a tendency to trust people that I probably don't yet have good enough reason to. I will make decisions quickly based on intuition without doing great due diligence. So what I found is, I am most advantaged when I have people around me who aren't that way.

Now, there are some times I make a decision like that, and I think, "If it goes badly, I can live with the consequences," which is better than me agonizing over making it. Another weakness is probably is that I get impatient. Sometimes that can be hard on people that work with me. But on the other side of the coin, I'm relentless. And I'm using that in a positive sense. When I start something, I intend to accomplish it, or we intend to accomplish it.

So, I will push an organization hard; I very rarely will quit anything that I shouldn't quit, that I committed yourself to. That's been a positive for my business. It's 11 years old, and there have been some white knuckle periods. I had no money coming out of the army. It doesn't look every day like you could be successful. It would have been easy to quit. We didn't.

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