Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Lessons Learned
Five years after his firing, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan on modern warfare, Islamic State and applying military lessons to the business world
By Alexandra Wolfe in the Wall Street Journal
Gen. Stanley McChrystal eats one full meal a day and runs an hour every morning, as he has done for the past 30 years. He retired from the U.S. military five years ago, but he still keeps a regimented schedule. “I’ve got a lot of bad habits, and I have a few good ones,” he says. “There are certain things in life I’m disciplined about.”
As a former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and of the Joint Special Operations Command, Gen. McChrystal, 60, oversaw the units that captured Saddam Hussein and tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2010, he was dismissed as commander of the Afghan war and resigned from the military after an article in Rolling Stone magazine reported disparaging comments made by him and members of his staff about President Barack Obama and his national security team.
These days, as co-founder of the McChrystal Group, he focuses on the civilian world, working with companies to advise them on leadership, management and adaptability. With a staff of about 90 people, the McChrystal Group consults for a range of organizations, including Scotts Miracle-Gro, Intuit and Seagate Technology.
Next week, Gen. McChrystal will release a new book, “Team of Teams,” in which he describes how he and his staff remade the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Middle East to fight a new kind of decentralized, tech-savvy enemy. (The book is co-written by Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell.) The general remade the Task Force in part by using technology such as daily videoconferences to create something he calls “shared consciousness.” The goal was to empower subordinate units to make decisions far more quickly and with greater precision than a traditional hierarchy could. It wasn’t easy. “In some ways, the military has sort of invented bureaucracy,” says Gen. McChrystal, sitting in his New York hotel room before a speaking event at Goldman Sachs.
‘If you live double and triple lives, it comes home to haunt you.’
—Gen. Stanley McChrystal
He believes that the leadership and management lessons he learned in the military can be applied to companies as well. Organizations of all kinds need to be quicker, flatter and more communicative, he argues—in other words, they need to become a “team of teams” rather than a handful of bureaucratic silos.
Even in his civilian consultations, he hasn’t entirely left behind his military-style tactics. Along with doing leadership exercises, people in his management seminars might take part in physical-training competitions. They’ll go for early morning runs around the monuments in Washington, D.C., and meet in an office designed to look much like a military command.
Gen. McChrystal was born into a military family in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. His grandfather started his military career as a soldier during World War I, and across the span of his decadeslong career, military tactics and equipment didn’t change much, Gen. McChrystal says. By the time his grandfather was commanding a regiment, he was the most knowledgeable person on his team. But the pace of change has sped up, Gen. McChrystal says, and the learning requirements of his own career were “completely different” from his grandfather’s.
What do you believe that most people in the military and corporate America do not?
“Well, I’m always hesitant to guess what people in corporate America or the military believe in, but I think we should have a military draft in the United States. And the reason I do is not because volunteerism hasn’t been great. But I also believe every young person should do a year of national service in [areas like] education, health care, and the reason I believe that is I believe all of America needs to be invested. Young people come out of that so amped up and so excited. If we want young people to be responsible, we’ve got to give them an opportunity to be responsible.”
What’s the threat most people are overlooking?
“Around the world, people pay attention to a lot of things. The one I really think is the big problem is education in America. If you look at China’s economy, it is going to pass us, and the next president of the U.S. is going to be in office when China’s total economic power passes ours. What threatens us inside the United States is we have got to produce an economy that’s not going to by scale be able to crush everybody—we don’t want to crush everybody but we want to be very strong—but we are going to have to have people who know what they’re doing: people who have STEM skills and people who can do things that are important. We can’t afford to have a significant part of America undereducated, because if you’re undereducated and not available for the workforce you’re not available for what’s going to take America forward. We don’t have a big enough population to have a whole bunch of people doing nothing. So I think education is the one we have to get on the ramparts about and from a very practical standpoint. And it’s not because I want everyone to have an education. I’m a nice guy, but it’s really practical.”
Gen. McChrystal credits his father, who was a major general in the U.S. Army, and his mother, a homemaker, for giving him a sense of morals. He remembers his father as a modest man who did the right thing. “I never once saw him take a parking place he shouldn’t,” he says. Gen. McChrystal went on to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and earned a master’s degree at the Naval War College.
Early in his career, his service included commanding a Green Beret unit and serving as an operations and intelligence officer in South Korea. In 1985, as part of the Rangers, he was assigned to Joint Special Operations Command, which includes special operations forces such as the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, and eventually became its commander.
Now in civilian life, Gen. McChrystal lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife. Their 31-year-old son works for a defense-intelligence agency. When he isn’t working, Gen. McChrystal says, he likes spending time working out and reading.
Being a leader today has grown more complicated, inside or outside the military, he says. In his early days in the Army, “the senior leader could control the visibility of what they did.” Now soldiers have computers and cellphones, even in combat, allowing them to text and tweet what’s happening across the battlefield. “The leader can’t control what they say, so if you go and do something…a version of that is tweeted across your organization like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.
That transparency has complicated warfare. “There’s the dead, the dying, and there’s tough decisions that you’ve got to make,” he says. In today’s environment, “I would argue that it’s harder for a leader to prosecute an extended campaign that’s difficult,” he adds, “but it’s still necessary.”
In his civilian life, he continues to follow the military closely. Combating Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and other extremist groups, he says, will take a long-term plan. He describes Islamic State as “this very, very extreme motorcycle gang” that’s been able to thrive thanks largely to the instability in the Middle East.
“When the motorcycle gang rides into town, there are a certain number of people that say, ‘I don’t really like the motorcycle gang, but they’re sticking it to the man, and it’s about time somebody did that,’ ” he explains. “The rest of the region, unfortunately, is in such disarray that where usually ISIS would be dealt with very rapidly by the governments in the area, they can’t do that right now.”
Gen. McChrystal doesn’t think Islamic State will endure. “They can last several years, but they’re one of these things that’s burning too hot, so they’ll sort of burn out,” he says. “The problem is when they burn out, if the basic structure isn’t fixed, something else comes and manifests itself…so when we talk about a strategy against ISIS, my response is [that] we need to develop a strategy to stabilize that region of the world, and it’s not going to be able to be done entirely by the countries in the region.”
The famously outspoken Gen. McChrystal hasn’t spoken publicly about his firing. When asked about the Rolling Stone article that ended his 34-year military career, he points to a LinkedIn post he wrote last year. In it, he says that the article depicted “me, and people I admired, in a manner that felt as unfamiliar as it was unfair.” He also wrote that “no matter how good you think you are—you often fail. Sometimes you swing and miss; sometimes the ball hits you in the head. Either way, it hurts.”
More generally, he advises against trying to contain bad news or bad publicity, whatever the situation. Instead, he says, it is better “to try to make the reality of what you do and what you are as good as it can be…because if you live double and triple lives, it comes home to haunt you.”
The best way to do this, he says, is by setting your own standards. “You develop those expectations of yourself, and you start to say, ‘I do things because that’s me,’ ” he says. “They can be as basic as…‘I don’t lie, cheat or steal,’ but it also can be, ‘How good is the work I do?’ ” he asks. “Do you ever just pick up [trash], throw it in the bin, and you wonder why you do that when there’s nobody watching?”