McChrystal connects military, business leadership

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Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Retired four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal advised aspiring business leaders at the School of Management to lead by example and build unified teams with clear objectives.

McChrystal, who currently teaches the seminar “Leadership,” spoke to a crowd of over 100 people Tuesday morning about the power and qualities of strong leadership. The former commander of American forces in Afghanistan said management that fosters “shared consciousness and purpose” can revolutionize any organization, from an army to a business.

McChrystal said his strategy as a general was to get “everyone to have common ownership and responsibility for a clearly understood mission,” emphasizing the importance of “leading by influence” instead of leading by command.

“If someone says ‘dig a hole,’ you’ll do it, but you won’t do a good job if you don’t know what it’s for, and you pretty much don’t care,” he said. “You’ve got to get people to want to do things because they think it’s right and in their best interest.”

McChrystal said that improving efficiency within an organization often requires changing its culture — an idea that established team members often find threatening. Change can only occur when leaders set a personal example, he added. In order to demonstrate his commitment to the war in Afghanistan, McChrystal said he stayed deployed for five years ­— against the wishes of his family.

“When you lead transparently, it’s exhausting,” McChrystal said. But he added that personal investment is crucial for inspirational leadership and building the necessary trust between a team and its leader. “They either believe in you or they don’t,” he said.

One of the more difficult “culture changes” McChrystal had to implement while in power was convincing American troops that “real security comes from a credible relationship with the Afghan people.” This meant that, beginning in the summer of 2009, troops had to fight in a way that put themselves at much greater risk in order to reduce civilian casualties. McChrystal said soldiers’ families protested that he was not letting their sons protect themselves, but he said that retaining the support of the Afghan people had to take priority. Enacting this reform took months of daily reinforcement, he said, but it proved necessary.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning — the war, the business competition, whatever it is,” he said. “Winning does not necessarily mean destroying your enemy. Winning could be educating kids.”

McChrystal said leaders often must adapt their strategies to fit evolving competition and circumstances. In the case of the military, the rise of al-Qaeda in the 1990s put unprecedented demands on the Joint Special Operations Command, he said.

“Suddenly, we had a much bigger problem than we had been designed to deal with,” he said. “We had to expand our counterterrorism capability. We had to build an organization and use it at the same time.”

Joshua Ray ’13, who will be taking McChrystal’s seminar this semester, said he especially appreciated McChrystal’s comments on the importance of finding employment for veterans. He also said even campus organizations could benefit from McChrystal’s leadership advice.

“I think we’re lucky to have him at Yale,” Jonathan Yang ’13 said of McChrystal. “Obviously, he has a wealth of experience to draw from.”

McChrystal began teaching at Yale during the fall of 2010, just months after he retired from the army.

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