McChrystal talks leadership

In a Wednesday talk, retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal used personal anecdotes to outline effective leadership strategies.
In a Wednesday talk, retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal used personal anecdotes to outline effective leadership strategies. Photo by Samantha Gardner.

Former U.S. Army General and Jackson Institute for Global Affairs senior fellow Stanley McChrystal provided guidance on effective leadership strategies to an overflow crowd of roughly 50 former Army veterans, community members, officers-in-training and students Wednesday afternoon in the Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall.

During his talk, titled “History, Leadership, and Personal Experience: From the Post-Vietnam Army to Today,” McChrystal drew on his background as former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command to explain leadership lessons he has taken from the battlefield and supply career advice to audience members. Beginning his lecture discussing the army environment in which he grew up and his U.S. Military Academy experience at West Point, he cited the three concepts in his talk’s title as primary themes that have defined his life. Throughout his lecture, McChrystal advocated that audience members never desert their values regardless of the new environments they might encounter.

“That’s the one thing that nobody can take away from you,” McChrystal said. “That’s your understanding of what you believe is right and wrong.”

Though he urged audience members to stay true to their values, he emphasized the need to adapt leadership strategies to one’s surroundings.

During McChrystal’s experience as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the military’s counterterrorism units, his leadership tactics led to Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003 and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tracking and killing in July 2006. He said he needed to encourage rather than direct members of the organization to accomplish their tasks.

The former Army general also stressed the need to understand one’s colleagues in order to lead and communicate with them effectively. During his time advising President Barack Obama, McChrystal explained that he was told to include only three bullet points in each slide during his presentations.

“I had to ask myself, ‘What am I trying to get him to walk away with?’” McChrystal said. “If you try to give more than someone can take, then it’s tough. Pretty soon people dial you out.”

Finishing the lecture with his biggest takeaway for his audience, McChrystal said audience members must convince people that they have credible ideas and must share information with everyone involved in their projects. McChrystal said individuals working on different levels of an organization bring their own special expertise, adding that no one person should be treated as more important than anyone else in order for an organization to run productively.

Five audience members interviewed praised the ways in which McChrystal incorporated his personal experiences into his lessons on leadership, in addition to the humility they thought he displayed.

Connor Bagley ’16 said he thought McChrystal demonstrated much broader knowledge of the world than he would have expected, adding that McChrystal’s perspectives on torture interrogation methods and “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about bin Laden’s capture, were especially interesting. McChrystal considered the film detrimental to intelligence because it degraded the moral capacity of the military — an opinion about the film that Bagley described as uncommon.

Yale aerospace studies instructor Maj. Bai Lan Zhu said she thought McChrystal’s discussions of humility and the ways in which he said he changed his leadership style to adjust to different settings were particularly applicable to the audience.

“It’s important for leaders to show humility and, in doing so, I think the ROTC cadets that were in the audience this afternoon took that to heart,” Zhu said.

McChrystal is the co-founder of the McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm based in his home state of Virginia.

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