On January 22nd, the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics invited retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal, in conversation with Chicago Council on Global Affairs senior fellow Cécile Shea, to speak on his new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality.
In the book, McChrystal weaves together the remarkable stories of thirteen historical leaders with his own theories of effective leadership based on his thirty-four years of experience in the US Army. That time includes his post as the former commander of US and International Security Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan. He shared with the audience the tools he used to examine these leaders and what lessons we can glean from them.
You would be hard pressed to find someone better equipped to define what exactly leadership is. Yet, when asked to do so, McChrystal confessed that this is not so easily done: “Usually [leadership] is defined as people with the ability to influence other people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” McChrystal started. “Basically, I would say, leadership is something we don’t understand and it’s far more complex than the way we consider it right now.”
The unclear definition of leadership only makes asking if someone is a “good leader” an even more complicated question, but this is a question that is likely to be asked more and more often as new names of potential 2020 presidential candidates are announced each week. In a time where social media forces leaders to be more accountable for their words, actions, and past involvements, analyzing how good leadership is defined is crucial.
McChrystal demonstrated his own ability to reflect on what he values in a leader by discussing his changed regard for Robert E. Lee, who is also the focus of the first chapter of Leaders. “I grew up near Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home, I now live about 75 feet from it,” said McChrystal as he began the story of his ties to the Civil War-era general.
“At West Point, Robert E. Lee was this figure of incredible reverence,” McChrystal explained. “When you talked about Robert E. Lee you didn’t say, ‘I could be like Robert E. Lee.’ He was too good. You could only consider him as this ideal you could try to guide yourself towards.”
With time (and the wise words of his wife), McChrystal came to the realization that it was not right to idolize Lee without considering the fact that he was a man who had fought to preserve slavery and destroy the United States.
“You can’t just ignore that,” McChrystal said in regards to General Lee’s controversial history. “You have to take it into account. At the critical moment in his life he got it wrong.”
Next, McChrystal asked the ever-complex question of Lee: “Was he a good leader, a bad leader? Well that’s a moral judgment I can’t make. He did something that I think is completely wrong, but I don’t think that makes him evil. I think that makes him human, I think it makes him like us; flawed. And I think every leader we look at needs to be looked at through that lens,” said McChrystal.
Still, it seems reasonable to ask that our leaders be more capable than the average person. Shea took this opportunity to ask McChrystal “How do you balance looking at the leadership capacity… with a decision that was utterly disastrous?”
In answering, McChrystal reiterated that there is a downside to getting caught up in the stark labels of good and bad, saying, “a leader is effective, or they are not.” He emphasized the importance of a leader having “the ability to interact with followers in the context of the moment,” likening such an ability to a chemical reaction. For example, General Lee reacted to the people of Virginia at a moment in the Civil War when strong and effective leadership was necessary.
In a previous interview, McChrystal noted that followers are often disappointed to see the reality of their leaders’ private lives. He explained that it is not uncommon for followers to play into the myth that the leader is taller, stronger, smarter, or more prepared to do the job than the average person. But what happens when the public’s unrealistic perception of their leaders is shattered?
When asked whether today’s leaders should be obligated to make their private lives and downfalls public, regardless of their relevance to the leader’s position or job, McChrystal was distinctly against the idea that there is such an obligation but less sure if this was even a choice, considering the invasiveness of modern social media.
“Whether they’re obligated or not is hard to say. Nowadays I don’t think they have as much choice. There was a period during which you could wall off your life. Should the leader just bare everything? I don’t think so. But at the same time, the level of scrutiny we have now almost bares everything anyways.”
He continued critiquing the publicization of leaders’ lives by saying, “Very few of us want to put our families or other people through the pain involved in [publicity] and so we’re having a lot of talent not pursue positions where that’s the reality.”
He brought up another point: that there is a potential loss on the part of followers when they hold their leaders to such high standards. The media wields an immense judicial power over leaders when it comes to shedding light on a scandal. McChrystal pointed out that when a leader’s flaws are revealed, the leader is rejected and “the nation loses that person’s talents.’”
Shea added that there must be “a way to somehow allow a person to be human but at the same time also provide the voters with the information that they deserve.”
“We’re going to have to figure out a new solution and I don’t know what it is” was McChrystal’s response.
The way the public responds to its leaders’ public flaws and private errors is changing. The election of a president infamous for his aggressive and demeaning public comments on Twitter, crude remarks in an Access Hollywood recording, and journalist-bashing, contrasted with a surge of social activism in support of campaigns ranging from gun control to the #MeToo movement, gives mixed messages about what the public expects of leaders. McChrystal’s insight is that leadership is too complex to be sufficiently described by the terms “good” and “bad.” That said, there is still a certain discomfort in abandoning the idea that a leader should be a good person, no matter how effective he or she might be.