General Stanley McChrystal
On Leaders: Myth and Reality
National Constitution Center January 17, 2019
He spoke, I listened, and I was surprised
As a member of Intruste Group I attended a constitutional conversation with Jeffrey Rosen the President of the NCC interviewing General McChrystal.
Jeffrey was exceptionally poignant last night, as he asked the General, as Jeffrey insisted on addressing him, probing questions on the nature of leadership.
The conversation was on “Leaders” the title of the General’s latest book and a “must-read” as Robert M Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense describes it.
Walter Isaacson tells us “Leadership, we learn, is complex. At a time when Americans yearn for leaders we can admire and respect, this book…will help you think differently about both leadership and our history.”
Jeffrey said the book changed the way he thinks about leadership and the founders. From the beginning of the conversation he listened intently at length to the General describe a lecture he attended at Yale, with a couple fellow military officers, Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone. David Brooks spoke on the Roman historian Plutarch, and who would he write about today. McChrystal states, “At age 63 I concluded I really don’t understand what leadership is.”
The General spoke about the process that led to his latest book. While researching for his earlier book, “My Share of the Task: A Memoir”, he realized how incomplete his memory was. He may have been credited with actions and their consequences, good or bad, but so many events where happening that other people caused, that were more consequential than his own. He realized in his own memoir he was not really the star of the story, and that the credit he received as a leader was a myth.
He explains how he and his two fellow attendees and future co-writers of “Leaders” began to think about the myths surrounding our founders and other historical figures.
They decided to read all 1000 pages of Plutarch. As the General asked the audience how many had read Plutarch, he noted that today even a group of informed people would not have read him, but 75 years ago all informed people would have. The reply in the audience confirmed his statement. He tells us Theodore Roosevelt read Plutarch over 1000 times and kept his writings with him at all time because it was always fresh. Alexander Hamilton wrote notes on his writings at night while at Valley Forge with Washington. Jeffrey noted picturing Hamilton at Valley Forge writing notes on Plutarch was riveting. Jeffrey suggested that everyone should read McChrystal’s wonderful op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on how the founders channeled Plutarch. He asks McChrystal what Hamilton took from Plutarch. The General explains that Plutarch wrote biographies of leaders, some not so admirable. He put the importance of virtue at the center of leadership. General McChrystal and his fellow attendees had suspicions about the great man or woman of history theory that put them on a pedestal. They decided to write about 13 leaders, not 48, as he notes, they were not Plutarch. The book, using Plutarch’s model, pairs historical figures to examine their actions and consequences.
Jeffrey remarks, as you note in your op-ed, Plutarch’s attention to virtue is not the way Hamilton and Madison wrote in the Federalist papers. If men were virtuous you would not need much government, but you can’t rely on the better angels of their nature, so they argued for a system to protect us from leaders that were not virtuous.
McChrystal explains why the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, which explain the logic behind it, sets up protections, tensions and checks and balances. We do not rely on leaders, that are after all human, and have biases and different levels of ability, to be virtuous. That is the genius of it. It sometimes protects us from ourselves.
Jeffrey asks, rhetorically, “sometimes protects us from ourselves”, that’s a powerful way of putting it, and you say we need not only a theory of leadership but a theory of followership.
If men were angels, we would not need government. McCrystal replies he does not think, we think about how remarkable our constitution is, how carefully constructed it is, and how much it keeps us from going astray, from our own passions at any given moment, that could take us off course.
But as Jeffrey states, Hamilton’s other half of the equation was government could not exist without virtuous leaders. As you know the founders were also worried about silver tonged demagogues, as in ancient Greece, that would play on the people’s passions and lead to disaster. McChrystal says the thing about demagogues is that it works. He describes how in their book they pair two zealots.
Robespierre, who helped shape the French Revolution, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led the jihadist insurgency in Iraq. Both were zealots and both did enormous damage.
Maximilien Robespierre in his belief that a virtuous society was the goal, managed in a five-week period to guillotine over nine hundred people. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a jihadist in control of Al Qaeda in Iraq personally beheaded people, including a young American named Berg, in pursuit of a caliphate he believed deeply in. We see in the comparisons that kind of dedication to a belief and lack of self-doubt is very appealing to us. We as followers must look in a mirror and reflect upon how easy it is in the moment to find appealing ideas that we would not accept in a calmer reflective mood.
The general recounts the story used in the military, of the extended family and the suggestion of one to take the bus to Abilene. No one really wants to go to Abilene, but no one wants to be the one that won’t go along, so they all take the bus to Abilene only to realize that none of them wanted to go. As followers we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves two questions.
What are our personal values, what is important to us, what do we believe in? What do we believe are the values of the nation?
Hopefully they are in alignment and we must realize we are not followers but participants, we are vested in the outcome and leaders can’t lead if we do not follow, so we must take responsibility for what happens. How often do we look in the mirror, how often do most of us have serious conversations about the important issues, the values of the nation or the constitution?
The constitution is living, as it can be changed, It reflects our values, it is a framework, it set the rules of the game in which we are players. But we are also the referees, and as both players and referees, we must take responsibility. Our elected leaders must also take responsibility. All our institutions must fight to maintain the rules of the game. We seem to rely too much on social media where our communications are not very deep or thoughtful. McChrystal senses we avoid those conversations. He looks at the shallowness of presidential debates and how they are measured by who gets the zinger or best attack. General McChrystal spends some time in this conversation discussing the people’s duties as well as the leaders they admire.
As a volunteer staff member of Intruste Group dedicated to researching leadership qualities and promoting those ideas exemplified by good leaders, I found General McChrystal’s remarks refreshing for a lifelong military man, from a long line of military men. I was convinced of his sincerity as he related his change of heart in his appreciation of Robert E Lee.
General McChrystal spoke of his admiration of Lee, through a recounting of his own life at West Point as a cadet, that like most cadets, he was reminded everywhere, every day, of the accomplishments of Lee as both a cadet, and as one of only a few to receive just 6 demerits, and as its’ commandant. The study of his accomplishments as a general during the civil war in which against overwhelming odds he almost won. As a leader of men and as a strategist, West Point did not produce many better. His admiration for Lee was lifelong. As a young officer he was given a painting of Lee, and all his career it hung in a prominent place in his home.
McChrystal was disturbed by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 and its’ aftermath. He decided to reexamine Lee in a new light, recognizing that Lee made a conscious decision to give his loyalty to his state over the oath he took to the constitution. The cause that he fought for was corrupt, as the continuation of slavery would be the result.
He decided he could no longer ignore this truth and decided to take down the painting and put in the trash. This change of heart I think is what makes McChrystal’s book and views on leadership so important in today’s world when we look to find truth and self-reflection and a willingness to reconsider our misplaced ideologies.
Jeffrey also brings up General McChrystal’s recent remarks about president Trump being immoral, and he spends some time explaining how he came to the decision that he must speak out about the president. As much as he spent his life not being political, he did not want to comment on President Trump, but considered that he would be more wrong to be silent than not to. He explains some of the misinformation about the Obama remarks that led to leaving the Army. He makes clear he believed that both President Bush and Obama were trying to do the best for the country.
He discusses how some leaders are accidental and get ahead of a movement as in the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, while not educated, he fell into the thinking of a movement that was there, a thinking he learned. Like most people we do not examine what ideas or even what religion we will belong to, but it is how we are brought up. President Trump was also an accidental leader. He got in front of a movement that was bubbling, and he intersected with it at a moment and stepped in front of it at just the right time.
Martin Luther a pious priest, sees, as did other priest, that the church had gone astray, and he jumps into the fray and is recognized as a leader that changed the world, but he was of the times.
Martin Luther King Jr. also jumped into the civil rights movement and became a leader. He did not create the civil rights movement, but he perfected it, he gave shape to it, and he gave vision to it.
Jeffrey asks him about his chapter, the Reformers, about Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr… He asks is the movement virtuous, the difference, that makes the leader virtuous?
McChrystal responds both men were virtuous but also were part of virtuous movements and that can be the difference in how leaders are viewed in history.
Jeffrey notes the remarkable line from Hamilton to Zarqawi, to Martin Luther, and to Martin Luther King Jr., and to Trump, so is it a constitution and a congress and a judiciary that must check the leaders?
McChrystal speaks about both the leader’s virtue and the movements as necessary to the results we value.
He finishes his comments with the insight I came to expect from him through the evening. He and his co-authors concluded that leadership has been looked at through these three myths, as they call them. First the formulaic myth that a leader has a list of traits that make a great leader, however when they studied leaders, they found that some had the traits and others did not. There was no correlation between success and failure. The second is that the leader is the real reason an organization succeeds or fails. When they studied that, they found the leader was not the real reason but only a factor. Because we put the spotlight on them, we give more credit than due. Third is that we are a discerning followership and we demand leaders who produce results, CEOs that make money, coaches that win, generals that triumph on the battlefield, but actually we don’t. Actually, we follow and support leaders that are serial failures in many cases and discard leaders that get great results. He believes they fill a poorly understood interaction between leaders and followers that we think is based on results but actually it’s not. The authors don’t think that leadership is a thing that leaders have or don’t have. They think that leadership is an emergent property between leaders, followers and contextual factors. It’s always contextual and constantly changing. It’s incredibly complex. Their conclusion there is no easy answer. The secret, is how complex it is, and the complexity is on the follower’s side as well and it is so much more important than we sometimes acknowledge.
The surprising part of the evening’s conversation was how much I recognized General McChrystal’s philosophy. On our site is an article titled Great Leaders written sometime ago by another staff volunteer, Craig S Gilbert Jr. Although his method is different the philosophy is similar. Both make the case that leaders are not a list of traits, or the times, or the people, or even the constitution by itself. But a complex mixture of the leaders and the citizens and the framework of the constitution and circumstances throughout our history. They both recognize the importance of the followers or people of this great country.
I look forward to reading General McChrystal’s book “Leaders”. I also hope that as members of Intruste Group we promote that look in the mirror and those conversations we so much need to take place among the people of this great country. I earnestly hope this recounting of General McChrystal’s and Jeffrey Rosen’s conversation at The National Constitution Center was as important to you as it was to me.