Stanley McChrystal on Leadership

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal speaks about leadership, the military, and winding down in Afghanistan.

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After serving for nearly four decades in the U.S. Army, overseeing special operations in Iraq and commanding the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal has a few things to say about leadership. In My Share of the Task, the retired four-star general recounts his storied career from entering West Point in 1972 to his resignation and retirement in 2010 following a controversial article in Rolling Stone magazine in which his staff reportedly criticized the newly-elected Obama administration. McChrystal recently spoke with U.S. News about the transformation of the military, what makes a good leader, the future of Afghanistan, and why he stepped down. Excerpts:

How has the military changed since you joined the Army?

When I entered the military in 1972, it was almost a World War II structure in mindset. When I left the Army in 2010, it had changed structurally, but [also] the information and precision weapon changes had a cataclysmic effect because suddenly the fabric and tactics of war were very different. We used to talk about controlled supply rate for ammunition, and commanders used to get briefed on how many artillery rounds were available on a given day. When I was in command in Iraq and Afghanistan, the controlled item was bandwidth, how much bandwidth we could push around for how much information, because that became the critical item. The other huge change was, all the way through 1972, we were a draft army. And that had some good things to it; it brought a wider group of people into it. From really the time I started until the time I got out, it has been a volunteer force, and that has been very different. It's got some weaknesses, it's not quite as connected with the population because it represents a smaller swath of America, and there's danger in that.

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What's the danger?

Well, in the wars since 9/11, I think less than one percent of America has been directly affected by the wars. In the Civil War, one out of [roughly] 68 Americans was wounded. So you knew somebody in your family or your town. Nowadays, that number is one out of every 7,293, rough math. And so you don't know one. So, I think that that's an issue America has got to come to grips with.

What makes a good leader?

I describe in the book that in the 82nd Airborne Division—which had about 15 battalions, 600 or so people each—if you took the best battalion and the worst and you switched their commander and sergeant major, in 90 days the best would become the worst and the worst would become the best. A good leader has the ability to understand the culture of the organization and empathizes with the members. I don't mean sympathize, I mean empathize, meaning that leader understands what makes the organization's culture operate. The force I led in Iraq was a counterterrorist force of many older service members, but also this wide group of intelligence analysts and other experts from different agencies from around the government that were culturally remarkably different. They essentially spoke different languages; they listened to different music; they dressed differently. But we were able to bind them together with this sense of shared purpose. They all had ownership of the end product.

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You describe a "deficit of trust" between the Obama administration and military commanders in 2009. Is there the same amount of tension today?

I don't know, but I would suspect not, because the deficit of trust I talked about I think probably occurs to some degree in every new administration. Just like as you see in President Lincoln’s experience in the Civil War, it took him two to two-and-a-half years before he personally was comfortable as a commander in chief. And it took a similar amount of time before the military learned to be comfortable dealing with an effective commander in chief. So it's not that there's mistrust, but trust takes time. It's like a marriage. It's like anything; it has to build through shared experience.