Before his students enter the classroom on a Tuesday morning in November, retired four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal scrawls the phrase “TRUST AND RELATIONSHIPS” in all caps on the whiteboard.
Two months ago, a group of graduate and undergraduate students were intimidated by the University’s new star professor, but now they know better what to expect from his course titled “Leadership.”
“A seminar is like a team,” McChrystal said. “At the end of the day, they’re going to do better if they feel like a team, and so you’ve got to do whatever you can to foster that.”
The assembled students sit down, ready for another day in INRL 690a, the seminar McChrystal created to teach at Yale last semester.
NOV. 2, 0920 HOURS
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Though class does not begin until 9:20 each Tuesday morning, the seminar room begins to fill with students at 9. One enters the classroom and plops his backpack in a chair. He gulps down a 5-Hour Energy shot, then tosses the plastic container into the trash can and walks to the back of the room, where he pours himself a cup of coffee.
McChrystal had already arrived for office hours at 8. Today, he sports blue jeans and an orange plaid button-down, with his shirt sleeves rolled above his elbows. His Timberland boots match a lean but brawny physique; one wouldn’t be surprised — based on his appearance — to learn McChrystal was once a part of the military.
His 34-year career, which culminated in his position as top commander of American forces in Afghanistan, ended following a controversial Rolling Stone article first available online in late June.
But he doesn’t look out of place for a teacher, either.
“I was excited to do it, very much so,” McChrystal says of his new job as a professor of this weekly seminar at Yale. “I think I’ve grown a lot and I think I will keep growing.” He is teaching the same course again this semester.
His students aren’t quite sure if they should call him “Professor,” though on the first day of class, McChrystal told them he preferred “Stan.” Many said they are reluctant to do so, and have yet to address him as such in person. Still, students interviewed over halfway through the course said they had grown more comfortable with both each other and their famous professor.
McChrystal said he still wished they would more frequently challenge what he, and his guests, present. Yalies can be too polite, McChrystal says.
“The point of today is to understand trust and relationships, which underpin the difference between success and failure,” McChrystal says as an opening.
He has brought with him guest Sir Graeme Lamb, the former Lieutenant General of the British army who worked with McChrystal’s team in Afghanistan.
Few students take notes, but everyone pays attention. Occasionally McChrystal interjects with a thought, but mostly he listens, leaning forward with his elbows on the table and continuously making eye contact with his students.
Before class, the two joked about how McChrystal was able to coerce Lamb out of retirement for the mere price of a Mexican dinner in Virginia: “Either he’s really cheap, or something else is there,” McChrystal said, alluding to their strong friendship.
Arguably one of McChrystal’s closest friends, Lamb has flown from Europe to be here for these two hours. And McChrystal and his wife would later spend Thanksgiving with Lamb’s family in London.
On the board, Lamb writes the factors he sees as having motivated him throughout his military career: people (he underlines this twice), then purpose, then pay.
“Although I’m getting paid jack sh-t for this,” he remarked jokingly to McChrystal. His friend was prepared with an immediate counter: “You get what you’re worth.”
HOW THE SAUSAGE IS MADE
Students said McChrystal has bound their group together in their own relationship of trust. As outlined in the syllabus distributed before class even started, everything discussed is off-the-record, and students said this candid environment has made the class unique.
Julia Knight ’11 reported that his comments on papers are comparable to those given by other teachers, though she did face a degree of surprise upon learning in class that he, not a teaching assistant, would be grading them.
“I have this slip of paper with comments on it from Stanley McChrystal,” she said. “With a grade.”
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McChrystal frequently tells the class that the confidentiality agreement makes it possible for them to learn “how the sausage is made.” The phrase refers to the secrecy of government workings.
“It’s these nitty gritty behind-the-scenes things the public doesn’t necessarily see or understand,” Aaron Feuer ’13 said. “We only see the final product. It’s the mystery of what goes on in the sausage factory.”
The class certainly has an intimate feel: Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs’ Senior Administrative Assistant Nancy Phillips prepares coffee for the students every Tuesday morning. For the first few months, McChrystal addressed Phillips as “ma’am.” She finally told him that, despite feeling flattered by the respect shown to her, the formality was not necessary: “Good grief! Everybody calls me Nancy!”
Phillips said McChrystal went about requesting the coffee from her in a similarly polite manner, asking Phillips if there was some place he could get the beverage for his half-asleep students. She offered to brew some every Tuesday morning; now they joke about selling it for a dollar a cup to each of the students, and splitting the profits.
Students pass a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins, paid for by McChrystal. Phillips said he never asks to be reimbursed.
The period technically ends at 11:10 a.m., but today about half the class stays to continue these conversations for two more hours when they are left with McChrystal’s takeaway point: “You’ve got to remember that your relationships to your closest people matter, whether they’re part of the historical record or not.”
FROM GENERAL TO PROFESSOR
Last June, Michael Hastings published a profile of McChrystal in Rolling Stone entitled “The Runaway General,” which included disparaging remarks made by members of his staff about the president and vice president. On July 23, 2010, McChrystal formally retired. A firestorm of national speculation regarding his role as the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, as well as the role of the media in exposing alleged disrespect among members of his team, followed.
When the Director of Yale’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs James Levinsohn learned of McChrystal’s potential availability, he e-mailed him immediately and extended an offer for him to teach a course at Yale. Levinsohn said trying to get McChrystal was a “no-brainer,” and the general responded within the hour expressing interest. This e-mail exchange continued until, around Aug. 1, McChrystal made one of the first long-term commitments of his retirement days: teaching a Yale seminar.
“The way I chose to go through life is, I’m going to default to trusting people,” McChrystal said. “And every once in a while you get badly burned and you have to decide whether that’s worth it, but if you don’t trust people then you go through life missing a lot.”
With the choice of beginning either in the fall or spring semester, McChrystal chose to jump straight in and start in August. From the outset, he knew he wanted to teach about leadership; it did not take long for Levinsohn to agree to the idea.
“I felt very strongly about leadership,” McChrystal said. “I always have, and I feel more strongly as I go. I thought this was a great place to focus on a small group. When you focus on a small group, you also focus on yourself. And it was a good time for me to have something like this to focus on.”
McChrystal wrote his initial outline with descriptions of the topics of the weekly seminar over which he felt he had complete control. He scheduled time to explain his view of the “Rolling Stone” article during the first class, and devoted a subsequent lecture to the role of media as it pertains to figures of leadership. Then, with help from a couple of what he called “academicians,” he selected readings appropriate to the course. Even his wife says she was impressed with the amount of time he devoted to the process.
Julie McCarthy GRD ’11 said the class was by no means “My life as Stanley McChrystal,” but Feuer said the indisputable value of McChrystal’s life experiences has become more and more clear as the semester has gone along. Students agreed that, as McChrystal will tell you, leadership cannot be broken down into a mathematical model.
“I think the important thing that he emphasizes correctly in the course is that what is important is that he has lived this, he has experienced this,” Feuer said. “And leadership is not something one can study academically and then talk about. You can only talk about it by knowing it.”
MILITARY MEETS YALE
Meanwhile, news began to leak among Yalies that McChrystal would be teaching a class in the upcoming semester, and the News published an article explaining how to apply.
Word of the course reached Eric Robinson GRD ’11 — now both a student in the class as well as the class’ Research Assistant — while he was on a train from Washington, D.C. to New Haven. Passing the time by perusing Facebook, he stumbled upon a friend’s post that linked to an article about McChrystal’s new role as a professor.
Robinson e-mailed Levinsohn at once, noting that he had a military background. He’d participated in the army ROTC program while getting his undergraduate degree at Syracuse, and had subsequently spent almost five years on active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq before applying to a Master’s program at Yale. Robinson offered to give McChrystal a tour or help however possible.
“I never thought anything would come of it,” Robinson said, but three days later he received a reply from Levinsohn saying that they would need help facilitating McChrystal’s transition from the Army to Yale. Of the comparison between Yale and the military, Robinson reflected: “It would be difficult to be more different in between just the overarching cultures of the organizations.”
He added that the political and economic standings of the populations are very different, though both tend to attract idealists with strong moral values and a desire to improve the world around them.
Having applied to the course himself, Robinson e-mailed McChrystal and spoke with him once on the phone. He sought to clarify Yale-specific concepts for McChrystal, such as residential colleges and shopping period. He told him about the weather and the corresponding need for rain boots.
“It was little things like that, which of course somebody like [McChrystal was] going to figure out in 90 seconds upon arrival,” Robinson said. The pair met in person for the first time on a Friday during the last week of August. Robinson said he was sweating profusely, explaining, “It was a combination of my own trepidation and just being way overdressed for the occasion.”
Though McChrystal had never taught in an academic setting, he said in an interview that teaching at Yale is not drastically different from teaching in the military. The students are the same kind of people, he said: motivated and bright.
“Everybody thinks they’re very different. They’re not,” he said. “People want to be engaged and they want to get a chance to ask questions … I want them to be in a situation where they feel they can say what’s on their mind, they can ask for help if they need it, they can challenge me if they think I’m wrong.”
ASSEMBLING A SEMINAR
Alice Kustenbauder, Registrar for the Jackson Institute, estimated that between 75 and 100 people applied for the course last August. A committee, not including McChrystal, selected 20 students, including people with backgrounds in medicine, the military and international work.
McChrystal said the first day was easy. Of course, as with any new job, he had to learn where to go, what to do, how to talk. He needed to learn the location of his office and classroom (conveniently, right across the hallway).
According to Knight, the most difficult part of the first day as his student was the first few minutes before he entered the room. She likened the experience to her first day of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s “Faith and Globalization” class.
“When General McChrystal or Tony Blair walks in for the first time your heart just kind of stops for a second and you’re like, ‘Wow. This is someone that I admire,’” she said. “He knows a lot more than we do, and I certainly respect him for that, but at the same time I don’t feel so awed by star power that I am unable to ask questions because he’s presented himself as someone really accessible … This is one of the most pleasant and cohesive groups of people that I’ve sat in a room with.”
Knight said McChrystal began the first class by shaking each person’s hand and then asking them to go around the table and introduce themselves. He learned their names almost immediately.
McChrystal said he feels he has come to learn much about students through their papers.
“When you understand what extraordinary students they are, people they are, then suddenly you realize they are really working hard to do something to contribute to the world,” he said.
In addition to mentoring those in his class, McChrystal has also met with other Yalies. He helped evaluate a presentation given by students in “Grand Strategy.” He went for a run with Eli Whitney students. He spoke in a Master’s-level class about nation-building. And he agreed to this article.
McChrystal has also made an effort to get to know students through social nights, announced through e-mails with the subject line reading “INRL690: Beer Call on Monday.”
Often, students from his class gather the Monday night before to get to know their professor. At one such event, they were also joined by Yale students who had met one of McChrystal’s business partners at a fundraiser and subsequently been invited to join the group for the evening.
McChrystal entered the bar along with his wife and a friend, having returned from dinner at the Levinsohns’ house, and headed to the tables lining the back corner where these students eagerly awaited him. His wife settled in with students from his class at one end of the table, and McChrystal joined the others at the opposing end. He shook each of their hands, and they settled into casual conversation. She asked students where they were from; he pulled a pen to draw a diagram on the paper table cover showing the flow of money between the Afghan government, police groups and tribal areas. Everyone remained captivated by the couple until, an hour later, McChrystal declared it time to go. Amidst admiring faces, he left the bar to return to the hotel room with a Yale Lacrosse t-shirt and a pair of “Harvard Sucks” sunglasses in hand.
WHAT COMES NEXT
No one seems to know when McChrystal sleeps. Though accessible to students while on campus, he is on a tight schedule. Between public speaking engagements, a new consulting group and a place on the Board of Directors for Jet Blue and the Yellow Ribbon Fund, McChrystal is home in Washington, D.C. only a few nights a week.
“Right now I’m way too busy. It happens to some people when they retire — you retire and a bunch of people hit you with things, which is great,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just, you know, a challenge. So no, I’ve got to hit a point where I hit a better rhythm. And it will. I’ll just force it to.”
Still, his wife, Annie McChrystal, said she has enjoyed having more time with her husband, even if it is just sitting side-by-side responding to e-mails. In an interview, she acknowledged the difficulty of being apart during the years he was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, adding that it was made more difficult because he insisted that he live like other soldiers — no phone calls, no visits home. An e-mail sent to him each night, with a response to read by the time she woke up the next morning, sufficed.
“I have lived and breathed Afghanistan with him,” she said.
David Silverman, McChrsytal’s partner in the new business venture McChrystal Associates, said that though McChrystal had hoped to have time to reconnect with his family, he has hardly had a day to himself.
“His schedule is probably as time intensive as it was in Afghanistan,” he said. “I don’t think its nearly the same stress as far as the gravity of the situation by any means but certainly he has not taken a day off really since he’s gotten back.”
McChrystal, though, said he hopes this schedule will calm down soon.
“The high stress world is not all that it’s cracked up to be … that is 24/7 stress and 24/7 demand and you give up your personal life almost entirely,” he said. “It is much nicer to be able to walk to class, to teach, because you can actually think. You can actually interact with people.”
His students said he has always made sure to offer them his time, giving full attention to the course as well as holding office hours and sharing his e-mail address with them.
Several students added that they wished they could have had more class time just with him, and without a guest.
“He’s got a lot of people who really love him,” McCarthy concluded. “That’s clear … I just think he’s got so much integrity as a person. He cares about the world. He’s so enthusiastic about leadership it kind of infects you. He made me realize how important and challenging it is.”
As a class, she said they will always talk about how lucky they have been to learn from him, whether it be in their classroom or over an end-of-term celebration dinner at Mory’s.
Levinsohn says that McChrystal is one of the most impressive people he thinks he will ever meet. According to him, being able to come to the class is one of the best perks of his job.
McChrystal said he will continue to adjust the course and change the syllabus, which he has tweaked throughout the semester. In the classroom, as on the battlefield, McChrystal has proved to be a perfectionist.
“I think we’ve pulled out pretty well,” he said of the fall semester. “I’m not embarrassed by it, but we can do it better.”