Stanley McChrystal on Leadership is a Choice (Full Transcript)

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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And so a change began. And it started by taking some units which has existed, and some units which were stood up, very specialized forces like the Seals, Rangers, et cetera. And those forces were honed for the missions that people thought were going to be required, and very quickly they became world class. I mean, they became as good or better than what anyone had in the world. And they became successful in a number of places around the world, Panama, Grenada, other places. They had extraordinary success in doing what the nation asked.

But they were also stove-piped. They tended to grow separately. When they grew separately, as a lot of cohesive organizations do, they tend to become a bit tribal. I mean, look at any organization that’s got great pride in itself, any team, any University. Any element fraternity it feels great, you tend to become so cohesive that nobody’s quite as good as you. So you’re not really comfortable dealing with anybody, but you. So we had this very effective, but very tribal organization. And to solve this problem a headquarters is created called Joint Special Operations Command, and this was to create a team of teams, to take these organizations and make them into a cohesive organization that could do whatever the nation did, and it was very, very effective. Extraordinarily so, but it was also narrowly focused. It was designed for hostage rescue. It was designed for going after people like the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Very finite challenges to specific problems that the nation faced. And that was fine, until things changed.

Actually things changed a bit earlier than we think on 9/11, because although a lot of people don’t realize it, Al Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996. Most Americans didn’t know that. Most Americans think it began with the attack on the World Trade towers on September 11. But in fact we had a different challenge in the world. Lots of causes for it, room for about three more long-term discussions. But it was a different requirement for a force designed for counter-terrorist operations.

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Suddenly we had something that was culturally different than what we had faced before. And it was difficult to understand. It didn’t have a finite doctrine that was as a clear as some of the previous organizations that we structured ourselves against. And we geographically dispersed it. It wasn’t in one place. It was in a bunch of places. And it moved around all the time.

It also had a tendency to change everything it did would be, for a very short period of time, if you dealt with Al Qaeda in associated movements one month, three months later, it was extraordinarily different. And so you had to constantly update your thinking on how you dealt with it. And they operated differently. If you’re old enough to remember or read about the terrorist operations in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, they tended to be high profile things like hijackings or hostage taking, and then there would be a series of demands made. And the demands would say release people from prison, and we’ll release the hostages. Or, put a certain amount of money, or do something like that. This was an era in which terrorists didn’t do that. They made a demand like get all Western forces out of the Middle East which was probably illogical or, at least, not going to happen.

But then instead of taking hostages and making demands, they simply killed people. They crashed aircraft into towers. They blew things up and then they looked you in the eye and they said, it’s a tough world, how do you like that? So very different challenge faced us. So there’s a gap. There’s a very narrow, very effective, focused capacity against a very wide, very different kind of problem. And it took a different approach to deal with it.

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