For General Stan McChrystal, the carnage and struggles of combat were the constants of his late military career. As the former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and four-star general explained in his Wednesday night Ath talk sponsored by the Res Publica speaker series, service and leadership are closely bound with danger and great personal risk.
“To go into harms way is really to enter into the arena. I expect all of you to enter into the arena whether it’s in the classroom, governing, creating, or by leading and taking responsibility,” McChrystal spoke to a full audience.
McChystal’s talk highlighted the key elements of successful leadership, but his tales of military action were spun with vivid details and personal narrative.
Highlighting the stalemate against the insurgency in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006, McChyrstal admitted to the desperation he often faced in leading operations. “There was always the temptation to take the gloves off and take part in total war, but we weren’t doing anything to mistreat people,” he recounted.
While safety was always the top priority, McChrystal emphasized the need to relate to Iraqi people. He told the audience about a small boy, who in wanting to be next to his father at a security checkpoint, lowered himself on the ground with his hands over his head.
“I wondered what my son would feel if his life was dominated by the presence of foreign troops. And I imagined what it would feel like if I was the father, what it would feel like being humiliated in front of my fearful son,” MyChrystal said.
To McChyrstal, a key element of successful leadership is recognizing the simplest need to understand. He believed that efforts in Afghanistan were significantly crippled because a disregard for the will of the Afghani people.
“Although we were paying the bill, we were still doing things the way we wanted. That’s why there was a sense of frustration… At the end of the day it comes down to whether people believe you’re on their side. It’s a question of everyone understanding the situation, not simplifying,” he concluded.
It’s not a burden… you lead because you want to
Equally important to McChyrstal’s successful leadership is a shared consciousness and purpose in directing actions. During his time in command, McChrystal gained recognition for uniting and streamlining counter-terrorism efforts towards common objectives. He often challenged the structure of military communications, reasoning, “It’s too important to let false walls block information.”
Completing his trio of qualities, McChrystal stressed the need for relationships to be founded on mutual commitment. He quoted the famous line of the Ranger Creed, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country,” and stressed the importance of accepting responsibility for failed action.
“When you accept responsibility it will wear on you like water over a rock and wear you down – but it will also be a great privilege. It’s not a burden… you lead because you want to,” McChyrstal summarized.
In the following question and answer session, McChrystal offered a critiquing perspective of the service he resigned from after a now notorious Rolling Stone article.
Citing continuing controversy over the sexual predation of female soldiers as well as violence against detainees, McChyrstal related the issue once more to a question of leadership.
“It’s the command climate that allows something to change,” he concluded, “Leadership has to set a moral standard… It’s the discipline of leadership that separates an army from a mob. It sometimes seems draconian, but it’s necessary.”