Stanley McChrystal’s Flawed Study of Leadership

Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal on Capitol Hill in 2009 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
In the new Leaders: Myth and Reality, history outshines theory despite the best efforts of McChrystal and his co-authors.

Leadership is the religion of America’s ambitious. Middle managers, hedge-fund executives, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs alike make pilgrimage to conferences and peruse the bestselling breviaries on the subject. This month, high-school seniors who submitted college applications await judgment from admissions committees evaluating their “leadership experience.”

This societal obsession is not new. During the 19th century, sales of Plutarch’s Lives — the classic second-century study of great men — trailed only those of the Bible. And for all its misuse as a concept, leadership remains a desirable skill today, especially in wartime, for reasons Plutarch understood well. Describing the life of the Greek general Eumenes, he wrote: “As soon as the soldiers saw him they saluted him in their Macedonian dialect, and took up their shields, and striking them with their pikes, gave a great shout; inviting the enemy to come on, for now they had a leader.”

Few Americans today have led troops into battle. Fewer still have fought in multiple wars. During his 35-year career, U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal led multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning multiple times three medals — the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (twice), the Defense Superior Service Medal (twice), and the Legion of Merit (thrice) — that most soldiers never once receive. Four decades after he began fighting America’s wars, he remains active in American public life. He runs a leadership-advisory firm, frequents cable talk shows, teaches at Yale, and publishes books. In his latest, Leaders: Myth and Reality, he and coauthors Jason Mangone and Jeff Eggers turn to the study of leadership.

With Mangone and Eggers, themselves veterans (of the Marine Corps and Navy, respectively), McChrystal takes up the study of 13 deceased leaders. Adopting Plutarch’s style, they pair leaders for comparison: Maximilien Robespierre and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are the Zealots, Martin Luther and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are the Reformers, and so on.

This approach makes for some odd bedfellows — Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Margaret Thatcher and Tammany Hall’s William Magear “Boss” Tweed — yet it offers new insights into classic leaders. Coco Chanel and Walt Disney did indeed share ambitions and abrasive manners essential to their success. Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein, geniuses on their own, relied upon, and forever changed, their collaborators. In that sense, pairing them up pays off for McChrystal and his co-authors.

In addition to the six pairs of leaders, Leaders examines Robert E. Lee. In an October 2018 Atlantic piece, McChrystal intimately described coming to terms with Lee, his childhood icon, and ultimately throwing out a portrait of the Confederate general in 2017. His analysis in Leaders is equanimous, but equally ambivalent. He concludes that Lee “is particularly difficult to judge.” Today, with statues of the Marble Man falling around the country, Leaders rightly holds him up as an “illuminating” example, whatever his failings. It praises his dignity and courtesy, his professionalism and self-control, and in one of its sharpest passages recognizes the Machiavellian amorality of leadership key to understanding his legacy. “The moral validity of the cause doesn’t determine the success or effectiveness of the leadership,” the authors write. “Great leaders can serve bad causes as often as lousy leaders represent the most noble of efforts.”

Leaders, much like its subject, is a moving target.

The focus alternates between becoming a leader and succeeding as a leader. In either case, McChrystal et al. would have us think success is a result of circumstance. Leaders, according to Leaders, are not as important as they appear; they are passive symbols, not doers. No measure for evaluating them follows. The prologue warns that “not all of our figures were good leaders.” Unlike in the explosive 2010 Rolling Stone profile where he criticized his Obama administration bosses, McChrystal does not name names here.

The book’s stated goal is to “dismantle some common myths” about its subject. In this regard, Leaders has more in common with Avital Ronell and today’s critical theorists than Plutarch and his profiles. Speaking in generalities while seeking to be subversive elicits the shortcomings in both. Once we have deconstructed, complicated, and critically theorized, what next? Suppose “leadership” is a social construct, a myth borne of human necessity. So what? McChrystal et al. offer no answer.

In 1994, Ronald Heifetz made waves in the leadership industry with the publication of Leadership without Easy Answers. In it, he argues for “adaptive leadership,” in which a leader remains flexible, maintains a sense of urgency, and delegates authority to subordinates. In 2018, after 395 pages, McChrystal et al. decide “to start from square one and revisit our basic definition of leadership.” They attempt to reconcile the existence of multiple standards through the introduction of a new standard of their own. They conclude that leadership is contextual, complex, and symbolic. The times may be new, but the maneuver and concomitant conclusion are not.

McChrystal is a serious practitioner in an unserious field. Perhaps because he intended all along to conclude by rejecting the traditional leadership framework, his preceding chapters play into Leadership Inc.’s worst stereotypes. After critiquing leadership biographies that place leaders at the center of the story, he does just that. He creates rigid categories and draws distinctions, some without difference and some without merit. He argues that Reformers (in Leaders, the two Luthers), more than Revolutionaries or Power Brokers, are “unique” for trying to “change people’s actions and, ultimately, what they believe.” After a lifetime spent warning Britons about Communism, Thatcher, one of McChrystal’s Power Brokers, would have had choice words for the right honorable gentleman.

“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader,” French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin reportedly said. The comment, perhaps apocryphal, lays bare the inadequacy of leadership alone. Plutarch’s focus on virtue is a salve for much of what ails leadership literature today. For all its subsequent misuses in American leader worship, Lives was a study of individual excellence. Excellence, Plutarch believed, could be identified and appreciated. In his profile of Alexander the Great, he explained his purpose: He sought to understand each man’s “character,” whether he embodied “virtue or vice.”

McChrystal et al. recognize this distinction, observing that Plutarch was writing about heroes, not leaders. But Leaders is uninterested in Plutarch’s wares. “Our interest was not in the character of leaders, but in leadership itself,” it says.

Yet Plutarch would appreciate the profiles in Leaders, many of which adhere more closely to profiles in heroism or excellence than in leadership. McChrystal et al. describe how “Tubman simply made slaves free, and she did it better and more often than anyone else.” Yet this profile in heroism becomes one in leadership: “She never intended to lead, and that turns out not to matter—she became a hero, and a leader, all the same.” Einstein made his most important discoveries as a patent worker, with no assisting subordinates or titular power. Disney’s co-creator led the organization and cleaned up his management mistakes. Luther was a man at home . . . largely powerless to stop the descent into violence.” He enjoyed public support, but his success stemmed from his convictions, persistence, and timing, not his woeful leadership skills.

McChrystal et al. treat leadership as indispensable but refuse to defend it as it’s conventionally understood. In the book’s penultimate chapter, they dismiss what they see as a series of “myths” surrounding the subject. In the book’s final chapter, they “redefine leadership” to preserve its pride of place among the virtues.

I tend to think, however, that rather than redefining the problem away, we should recognize leadership’s uses and limits. And in fact, McChrystal has. In his memoir, My Share of the Task, he speaks more freely about conventional leadership in the context of military service. He credits those around him with helping his vision succeed, and downplays his own role in shaping the campaigns he conducted. Yet, on the question of leadership’s importance, he is unequivocal:

[Leadership] was the single biggest reason organizations succeeded or failed. It dwarfed numbers, technology, ideology, and historical forces in determining the outcome of events. . . . Yet leadership is difficult to measure and often difficult even to adequately describe. I lack the academic bona fides to provide a scholarly analysis of leadership and human behavior. So I’ll simply relate what, after a lifetime of being led and learning to lead, I’ve concluded. Leadership is the art of influencing others.

McChrystal believed then that leadership was central to explaining outcomes. Where one leader’s actions cannot explain events, he credits other leaders. “Success is rarely the work of a single leader,” his memoir concludes.

Five years later, perhaps with a stronger claim to “academic bona fides,” McChrystal sends more mixed signals. In his preface to Leaders, he describes My Share of the Task as “the final push toward accepting the reality that over a lifetime, my leader-centric view of the world had increasingly come into conflict with uncomfortable questions.” Among those, perhaps, is why Eggers and Mangone vanish behind McChrystal’s first-person, singular “I” throughout.

Discussing the symbolic power of MLK, McChrystal points to the “hundred-plus cities where violence erupted in the wake of his assassination.” Defending the power of leadership, he argues “there are few leaders whose loss could have produced such a reaction.” But the thousands who took to the streets were not merely mourning the loss of their chief strategist — they were mourning their icon. Leaders’s foray into theory conflates the two.

King’s example thus becomes a missed opportunity for McChrystal to revise his thesis. In August 2014, after McChrystal published his memoir but before Leaders, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer provoked protests in over 170 cities. Brown was never politically active, had no prior relationship with his supporters, and did not live to make any conscious choices over his influence. His death provoked protests rivaling King’s because both were symbols.

In their attempt to critically theorize, McChrystal and his coauthors overreach. McChrystal warns against “the colorful pages of a CEO biography” outshining “the dry analysis of leadership literature.” But Leaders offers more by way of the former than the latter. It selects profiles without “any formal structure” in a “mostly organic” and “incremental” way, choosing them because they are “interesting to read.” Its desire to reject the topic’s conventions affirms its conventionality. While McChrystal’s continued participation in the genre bodes well for its future, this is the work of the New Haven professor who runs a leadership-development firm, not the soldier who led America’s wars. Readers would be best served enjoying the profiles and skipping the final 50 pages of analysis in favor of McChrystal’s memoir.


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