Stanley McChrystal: How Do Leaders Deal With Failure? Four-star general Stanley McChrystal recounts some tough lessons about leadership he gained from the front lines.
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How Do Leaders Deal With Failure?

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How Do Leaders Deal With Failure?


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about leadership, disruptors, the change agents, the mistakes they made and the lessons they learned along the way, which brings us to - a volcano.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: Eya fiya ya ker...

RAZ: In Iceland...

SPEAKER #1: ...Vol.

RAZ: ...With an unpronounceable name.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: Eya fliya your kullvol

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: Eya fetla ya. Am I pronouncing that correctly?


RAZ: And for six days in April 2010, the volcano's ash cloud grounded all air travel in Europe. Millions of people stuck on the ground. Including General Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan and his staff. They were in Paris. And so was journalist Michael Hastings. He was writing a profile of McChrystal. And as Michael Hastings told NPR back then, he was only supposed to be there in Paris with the general for two days. But then...

MICHAEL HASTINGS: The volcano in Iceland exploded. I ended up basically stranded with them and instead of going back to Washington, which was my original plan, I followed them to Berlin and then later to Kabul.

RAZ: So a few days turned into a month with General McChrystal and his staff. And during that month the group, which is already tight-knit, probably got a little too comfortable around Hastings who later published that profile in Rolling Stone. McChrystal was in Afghanistan at the time.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: He had emerged suddenly in the middle of the night. You know, we knew the guy was working on the story but it was complete surprise when it came out, the tone of it. I thought it would be completely positive, but it wasn't. It basically said that we were pushing the war in a direction that maybe wasn't right. And then it alleged discussions of my team about different people in U.S. leadership positions in a way that, you know, those kinds of comments should not be made.

HASTINGS: I was in a room while General McChrystal prepared a speech to give that he was going to give in Paris. General McChrystal said, oh, what if I get a question about the Vice President Biden? How should I respond? At that moment they started making jokes about Vice President Biden. And that was on the record.

RAZ: And that was really the least of it. Hastings' article published with the headline, "The Runaway General." Included a lot of quotes we can't repeat on the radio. It was an embarrassment to the White House. And it made it look like the president wasn't on the same page with the man commanding his war. And so Stan McChrystal had a choice. He could fight the story or not.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, I accepted General Stanley McChrystal's resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I did so with considerable regret.

RAZ: I mean, in some ways, was the only leadership decision or the best leadership decision you could've taken was to do what you did - to leave?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think it was. Of course, I'll never know for sure. I would've liked it if the president had said, OK, I got it. Go back out, continue to serve. But he didn't. So, you know, sometimes curveballs don't curve and you just move on.

RAZ: How long did it take you to recover from that?

MCCHRYSTAL: I'll let you know when I'm completely recovered.

RAZ: In some ways what happened to Stan McChrystal was because of the way he led. Because for him, leadership is about connection and a shared sense of mission. And so that team around him, well, they were candid with each other. And McChrystal was candid with them. It was like a band of brothers. And when McChrystal spoke on the TED stage - about a year after all of this happened by the way - he explained that he learned this kind of leadership from watching the leaders who came before him.


MCCHRYSTAL: I was raised with traditional stories of leadership - Robert E. Lee, John Buford at Gettysburg. And I also was raised with personal examples of leadership. This was my father in Vietnam. And I was raised to believe that soldiers were strong and wise and brave and faithful. They didn't lie, cheat, steal or abandon their comrades. And I still believe real leaders are like that. But in my first 25 years of career, I had a bunch of different experiences. One of my first battalion commanders, I worked in his battalion for 18 months, and the only conversation he ever had with Lieutenant McChrystal was at mile 18 of a 25 mile road march and he chewed my ass for about 40 seconds.

And I'm not sure that was real interaction. But then a couple years later when I was a company commander I went out to the National Training Center and we did an operation. And my company did a dawn attack, you know, the classic dawn attack you prepare all night, move to the line of departure. And I had an armored organization at that point. We moved forward and we get wiped out. I mean, wiped out immediately. The enemy didn't break a sweat doing it.

And after the battle they bring this mobile theater and they do what they call an "after action review" to teach you what you've done wrong. Sort of leadership by humiliation. They put a big screen up and they take you through everything and then, you didn't do this and you did do this, etc. I walked out feeling as low as a snake's belly in a wagon rut. And I saw my battalion commander, 'cause I had let him down. And I went up to apologize to him and he said, Stanley, I thought you did great. And in one sentence he lifted me, put me back on my feet and taught me that leaders can let you fail and yet, not let you be a failure.

And at that moment when he sensed, he either could've put the knife in and really twisted it, he did the exact opposite. And just that gesture on his part was incredibly binding. I'll be bound to him forever.

RAZ: I mean, it sounds like that moment really changed you. I mean, do live by his example as a leader?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, you try to every day. And, of course, the thing about leadership is you fail every day. You know, when you start your career as a leader, one of the first things you want to do is be demanding. You want to have high standards and you want to be very demanding. And you want to say that things are black or they are white. And if you are not on the right side of that then you've failed. But you can't forget you're working with people.

And long-term, if you're really trying to get the most out of people, you got to build people up not tear them down. And I think that's something that I learned about not just myself but other people. That you're really trying to get inside someone's heart and soul and bind them to what it is you together are trying to accomplish.

RAZ: Did you ever, sort of, lie in bed at night and think, am I doing this right? Am I making the right decisions?

MCCHRYSTAL: Every day. I'm sure there are leaders who see this perfect vision and they guide their organization in that direction. But that wasn't me. I was most bolstered or most reinforced by the understanding that where we were, the status quo was failing. And because it was failing I knew we had to change. But then, instead of trying to provide an exact path ahead from the wisdom of the great commander, what I did was I tried to inform and engage the command and say, we have to move, we have to move in this general direction. Help me figure it out. And that worked very well because as people did that we refined the direction we were going, and it constantly shifted. And it made more people the agents of change.


MCCHRYSTAL: You probably think that the force that I lead was all steely-eyed commanders with big-knuckled fists carrying exotic weapons. In reality, much of the force I led looked exactly like you. It was men, women, young, old - not just from military, from different organizations. Many of them detailed to us just on a handshake. And so instead of giving orders, you're now building consensus and you're building a sense of shared purpose. Probably the biggest change was understanding that the generational difference, the ages, had changed so much. I went down to be with a ranger platoon on an operation in Afghanistan.

And on that operation a sergeant in the platoon had lost about half his arm throwing a Taliban hand grenade back at the enemy after it landed in his fire team. We talked about the operation, and then at the end I did what I often do with a force like that - I asked, where were you on 9/11? And one young ranger in the back, his hair's tousled and his face is red and windblown from being in combat in the cold Afghan wind. He said, sir, I was in the sixth grade. And it reminded me that we're operating a force that must have shared purpose, and shared consciousness, and yet he has different experiences - many cases a different vocabulary, a completely different skill set in terms of digital media than I do and many of the other senior leaders. And yet, we need to have that shared sense. We were in a difficult operation in Afghanistan in 2007 and an old friend of mine that I had spent many years, various points in my career with, godfather to one of their kids, he sent me a note just in an envelope that had a quote from Sherman to Grant that said, I knew if I ever got in a tight spot, that you would come, if alive.

And having that kind of relationship for me turned out to be critical at many points in my career and I learned that you have to give that in this environment because it's tough. I came to believe that a leader isn't good because they're right, they're good because they're willing to learn and to trust. This isn't easy stuff. And it isn't always fair. You can get knocked down and it hurts. But if you're a leader, the people you've counted on will help you up. And if you're a leader, the people who count on you need you on your feet. Thank you.


RAZ: Did what happened to you with that article and your resignation - I mean, how did it change you as a leader?

MCCHRYSTAL: One of the things it has done is it's helped me look at everybody in a slightly different light. I look at everyone who's had a significant failure or a significant tragedy or significant stressful event with more understanding than I did before and more - I want to say generosity, but empathy.

RAZ: It almost sounds like you're saying you, kind of, have to go through that, like, to become a leader.

MCCHRYSTAL: I think it certainly makes you a stronger leader and a better person to have gone through that. And anyone who's gone through and never been scuffed up, I think is going to be less of a leader than they would be if they had.

RAZ: Former General Stanley McChrystal. His memoir is called, "My Share of the Task," and you can find his talk at I'm Guy Raz. More destructive leadership in a moment on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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