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Stanley McChrystal on Leadership is a Choice (Full Transcript)

Stanley McChrystal

Full Text of Leadership is a Choice by Rtd. United States Army General Stanley McChrystal at Stanford GSB…

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Thanks. Joe, thanks for overly kind words, and thanks for your all for letting me be here today. As Joe mentioned I’m one of about 200 four star generals, and I’m sure I’m in the top 196. I want to ask you to do something for me though. I’ve gotten to speak since I retired at some amazing places. And I went to the UK and spoke at Oxford. And that’s an amazing experience, so I went in and they took me in a historic room, a lot of polished wood and stuff like that, and right before you go in, they show you a picture of Teddy Roosevelt, speaking right from where you’re going to speak, just to remind you you’re not Teddy Roosevelt.

So I go in to speak and I’ve done a little prep and I think I’m going to do pretty well but, right in front of me, as soon as I started talking, a person falls asleep. And if you’ve ever tried to speak publicly, and right in front of where your gaze is a person’s almost snoring, it’s really distracting. So I don’t think I haven’t been invited back. So, and that was Annie, my wife. So, if anybody here, could help me just kind of poke her if you see her nodding off. That would be good.

But she’s been special to me, and as Joe mentioned, go through a military career there are points in life that are pretty, pretty big deals. And in the Army when you get selected for brigadier general, when you’re promoted to that it’s a big step. Get about 24, 25 years in service. It’s a big step. And it’s designed to pump your ego up. And I was a systems division commander for an old friend of mine. So I’m in this ceremony with my parents present, Annie’s parents present, a bunch of friends. An old friend of mine pins this general star on me, so I am feeling very good about me. And so, I slide up next to Annie and I go, Annie in your wildest dreams, did you ever think you’d be standing next to me as a brigadier general? And she said Stan, you’re not in my wildest dreams.

So, yeah. So, my ego is well in check, and it’s right there, so. Thanks, thanks very much for letting me be here. What I thought we’d talk about a little bit today is leadership, because it’s something that we all know a lot about. We all know most of the right answers. But, we as a group, and as a nation, tend to struggle getting the answers right. So, sometimes we got to set and look at very strong statements. A lot of people say this now. And if you believe that, whether you do or not, you’d have to believe this. And then we got to look inside, because we go okay, what would cause that, why would that be the case? Or is that really true? No, we’re great leaders.

But, then you look at some of the things that have happened over the last even decade, some of the challenges we’ve faced and you ask, whether we’ve as effectively dealt with them as we would like to. And it’s arguable whether we did. So you come to the question okay, why? Have we gotten stupid? Have we gotten lazy? Have we gotten selfish? What has caused us to be so concerned about the level of leadership in America? And I’ve got a few thoughts.

First off, I don’t think we’ve gotten stupid. I don’t think we’ve gotten soft. I don’t think we’ve gotten of bad intentions. I think we still want to lead well. But, I think what has happened is we had many, many years in which one model, and one style of leadership was rewarded with success. The things that worked well, worked well for generations, and so they were reinforced by people wanting to use those more. And that’s natural, you do what works. But in fact, as things start to change, sometimes you find they don’t work as well. Sometimes you get more competition we do. As Tom Friedman will tell you about the world being flat it’s much closer than it used to be. We’re not competing with the people next door, we’re competing with everyone now.

Also things happen faster. We communicate faster. It all goes at a speed. You can’t be in a front office and let things come up at the speed of paper, through a bureaucracy and be relevant anymore. They’re more complex. They’ve always been more, they’ve always been complex, but I’d argue it’s probably more than ever. And you know when you tell everybody to do something, if you’re the great leader in the front office, they don’t always do it with quite the speed, or dedication that you wish they were. The discipline of a lot of things in our society, look at our political parties, don’t respond like we think they did, or like we think they should. And so what I think we’ve got now is a gap. We had a very successful model, or at least it was successful for many people and suddenly we’ve got a requirement that’s different from what we had, and so it’s not working so well.

Now this was something that I think I personally experienced in my career in the military. And so maybe I can put it in that context. For me, where it began. In April of 1980, I was a young special forces officer, a Green Beret, in Thailand. And thousands of miles away from where I was, something happened that changed the rest of my career. And I had no idea at the time that it would. And what occurred was, in the deserts of Iran, a mission called Eagle Claw which was President Carter’s directed rescue attempt, to bring Americans captured, held hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran failed. And it failed very publicly, and failed very painfully. What happened was, the raid force went in, and two groups, it went in in helicopters. And it went in in C130 aircraft. And on the ground, the helicopter maintenance got to the point where they had to abort the mission, and that was disappointing.

Then as they were moving to pull that force out a C130 fixed wing aircraft and a helicopter collided, produced a fireball, killed eight Americans, and caused the mission to have to be aborted of course publicly now. The tragic loss of life, the failure of an American mission to bring Americans home. And put this in context for you, this was about five years after America had pulled out of Vietnam, in great frustration. And it was four years after Israel had pulled off the raid at Entebbe, with tremendous success.

So what happened was, you had America. The forces that I was a part of called, to do a National mission and end in failure. It was extraordinarily important. It was extraordinarily important not just, because what happened, but because what people did about it. To a degree I would argue that, had that mission been successful, America’s special operations forces now which you read and see so much about, wouldn’t be what they are, because people would have been satisfied with the status quo. Instead, what happened in that community is people said, never again. We’ll never be called on and not be able, to do what the nation asks us to do and needs us to do.

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