"Say what you want about General Stanley McChrystal and the Rolling Stone article that led to his premature retirement from the military he spent his life serving but I could hardly put down his memoir: My Share of the Task.
McChrystal’s life was “a series of unplanned detours, unanticipated challenges, and unexpected opportunities.” More by luck than design, he ended up being part of events that will loom large in history.”
While the book was entirely fascinating, I was most interested in what McChrystal had to say about a lifetime spent in leadership roles in an evolving force. Through the stories we see not only how he leads, but how changing circumstances led to him changing.
When I read the book, I couldn’t help but see parts of my life through the lens of leadership: both mine personally and what I witness in companies around the world. Leadership is tough and there are few better teachers than McChrystal. I know I learned and internalized a lot reading this book.
I’ll excerpt some of his obvious lessons below but the full book is worth reading in its entirety.
1. Leadership is the single biggest reason for success or failure.
So, after a lifetime, what had I learned about leadership? Probably not enough. But I saw enough for me to believe it was the single biggest reason organizations succeeded or failed. It dwarfed numbers, technology, ideology, and historical forces in determining the outcome of events. I used to tell junior leaders that the nine otherwise identical parachute infantry battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division ranged widely in effectiveness, the disparity almost entirely a function of leadership.
“Switch just two people— the battalion commander and command sergeant major—from the best battalion with those of the worst, and within ninety days the relative effectiveness of the battalions will have switched as well,” I’d say. I still believe I was correct.
2. Leadership is difficult to measure.
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. It differs from giving a simple order or managing in that it shapes the longer-term attitudes and behavior of individuals and groups. George Washington’s tattered army persisted to ultimate victory. Those troops displayed the kind of effort that can never be ordered— only evoked. Effective leaders stir an intangible but very real desire inside people. That drive can be reflected in extraordinary courage, selfless sacrifice, and commitment.
*Featured post photo by Nikita Taparia on Unsplash