"I've dealt with a lot of chief executive officers who could walk in and be general officers in the military tomorrow. All we'd have to do is get them a uniform and a rank."
And not only could CEOs jump right in as high-ranking officers, says retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, but he adds that the military would be much better for it.
This is a bold statement coming from one of the most prominent modern-day Army commanders, but then Gen. McChrystal has never been one to hold back ideas. Five years ago, he was asked to resign as commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, following comments he and his staff made about the administration in a Rolling Stone profile.
His job since then has kept him close to the capital. In 2011, he started McChrystal Group, a consultancy based in Alexandria, Va., that uses management concepts he developed in the Army to advise companies outside the defense industry. He also just published a second book, Team of Teams.
McChrystal, 60, whose career at its highs and lows hinged on outspokenness and unorthodox approaches, spoke with The Washington Post about how the Pentagon could update its organization for a new era. He's also gained some new insight into the challenges that military and corporate leaders share. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You pushed several big changes through the military. What’s the key to being a renegade with clout in an organization vs. one whose ideas are ignored or stonewalled?
A. You have to have empathy. In an organization that is unwilling to change, find the opportunity to talk and interact with people—figure out why they don't want to change. It could be habits, it could be people's personal equities and reputations are defined by the role they're in or the process they've mastered.
Change is painful, and people are always reticent to accept a lot of pain. If you come in with a bulldozer mentality and say, "What you are and what you do is wrong," you're not apt to get a long line of people following you. But if you make the case for it, and you show people that the status quo is unsustainable, then I find that you get a lot further.
Q. Do you think the military’s ability to produce great leaders is in decline?
A. The military does very well taking average people and making them very good leaders. We spend a lot of effort on it, job titles are built around it, efficiency reports focus on it.
Where I think the military is struggling, the same as businesses, is that speed and interconnectedness have changed the basic landscape in which people operate. Just as we look at the decline in military leadership, look at the average tenure of chief executive officers of companies. It's dropped precipitously. Look at the disdain in which many people hold political leaders now. Leaders who have been stamped out of an outdated mold are going to struggle.
The basic DNA we've got to implant in leaders now is adaptability: not to get wedded to the solution to a particular problem, because not only the problem but the solution changes day to day. Creating people who are hardwired for that is going to be our challenge for the future.
Q. What could the Pentagon be doing to bring in people who maybe traditionally haven't been as interested in military careers but who have skills we need in order to adapt?
A. Unfortunately, in these monolithic professions, not a lot of fresh air blows in through the windows. What I would argue for the military and others is that lateral entry would make a lot of sense.
I think nowadays the essential skills of being a military leader are not to shoot a weapon, they are not even to read a map. They're to make tough decisions in an uncertain environment and to engage with people and build relations. It's almost the same as what you'd find in senior leadership in any other realm.
Lateral entry, even at a fairly senior level, into these different businesses would make them stronger. There's a natural aversion to it, because people in the guild don't want outsiders coming in and taking slots, but I think it would be very, very healthy for the military and others.
Q. What would that look like?
A. Someone could say, "We want you to come into the Army for four years. Here's what you'd do and we're going to make you rank X." In three months, they could get you the right uniforms, teach you how to salute. You'd walk in and be effective right away. When you left, the Army would have produced another alumnus who would communicate out—and you would have brought different ideas and different perspectives.
I've dealt with a lot of chief executive officers who could walk in and be general officers in the military tomorrow. All we'd have to do is get them a uniform and a rank. They'd step in and it would be seamless—because they solve problems and they lead people. Take Brad Smith from Intuit. He could be brought in as a three- or four-star general in the military, and he'd be value-added at the end of the first week.
Q. Do you think that will ever happen?
A. There's a natural aversion to it. There are even laws defined to protect guilds. But I think it should happen. We ought to let ourselves loose from some of the things that say, "No, it couldn't."
Similarly, I think military leaders could walk out and be effective in business tomorrow.
Q. Do you think it should also be easier to get out of the military?
A. I think we're seeing that in train now. When you're an officer, you tend to serve indefinitely; but because of the structure of the system, you don't get any retirement until you've served a minimum of 20 years.
The challenge with that system is it's really not congruent with the way a lot of people do careers now. So there is a move, and I suspect it will come to fruition, of going to a 401(k) type structure, where an officer could make a decision at year 8, year 12, whatever. That will cause some pressure on the military in terms of predicting levels of manning, but it could also open the door for lateral entry.
Q. A lot of people in the military complain about careerism—that people within the organization might be more creative, or speak up about something they don't think is working, if they weren't so worried it might hurt their career. Do you think there are ways to guard against that?
A. I think it's real, and I think it's insidious. If someone wants to make changes or wants to drive different thoughts, and if it runs against either the general norm or certain leaders, you can be viewed as a maverick that's not valued.
The organization has got to look at iconoclastic thinking and say: That is of real value to us.
But I will tell you, the military's not different from other things. Think of congressmen who won't go against the normative thinking because they want to be reelected, or they want to be accepted by leadership. It's not unique to the military. It's something every walk of life has got to watch out for.
Q. On the flip side, what could the military do better to keep its star performers, who sometimes leave because they feel like they can’t move up the ranks quickly?
A. Every year of my career, there would be a crisis pronounced that all the good people were leaving the military. And then every year, they would do a study and find out some people that leave are very good, some are in the middle and some are at the bottom. So, I think it's not correct to say that all the smart people leave and all the less talented stay.
But I do think, if you look at the last 14 years of war, people have had a lot of autonomy, a lot of freedom of action on the battlefield, responsibility, authority. It’s a challenge—and military leaders talk about this—when you come back to a peacetime environment and you’re suddenly corseted with a number of pretty bureaucratic limitations.
When I was a lieutenant, for soldiers living in the barracks to get another roll of toilet paper, they had to take the empty cardboard roll down to our supply sergeant and have it signed inside. A lot of people who've been fighting a war aren't going to come back and turn in toilet paper rolls. They're not going to put up with that, nor should they.
The military has got to look at its best talent and offer opportunities for graduate school, for working with businesses, for things that broaden them. It's got to avoid the idea that we are going to lock you in this very culturally constraining box and only open it the next time we have a war.
Q. As a leader, you were known more for being a great war commander than a Pentagon guy. Are the leadership traits the same? Vastly different?
A. I don't think there are vastly different requirements, but there are some that are unique. The person in the headquarters is typically rewarded for being very organized, very diligent, able to network with people.
When I was just starting my career, I asked my father, "How do you tell if someone's going to be a good combat commander?" And he said, "You can't tell beforehand. But you can tell once you're in combat."
Commanders typically delay decisions while asking for more information. They're trying to get more intelligence so they can mitigate the risk to their decision. And of course, in combat, delaying the decision carries a great price. So you've got to develop an understanding of the balance point, where you have enough information to make a good decision, but not delay action so long out of caution that you can’t make a timely decision.
Q. What to you is the essence of leadership?
A. After a lifetime of experience, you go through different definitions of it. At one point you think it's getting people to do what you tell them to do, then you think it’s getting people to work together. Now I've evolved to the point where I think it means getting people in the organization to create something that makes it more, and makes them more.
In 1986 I was commanding a Ranger company, and we were going to do overnight attack. The idea was I would go forward with three or four people, find the objective and finalize the plan.
I had left a platoon sergeant in charge—Mike Kelso—and I said, “Stay here with the company. When we find it, I'll come back to get the company and lead you.” This was before night-vision goggles, so we took way too long and there was no time to go back. Suddenly we turn around and Mike Kelso is there with the rest of the company. He simply said, "Sir, I thought you might need us."
I learned from leaders like that that often it’s the ability to encourage people to make decisions and allow them to show initiative. His action actually taught me more about leadership than I ever taught him.
Q. You’ve mentioned before that our national security leaders don't work well together as a team. What would help that?
A. Each individual on the National Security Council comes from a different part of government. You bring them together in this fairly high-pressure environment of the situation room in the White House, but the reality is the people sitting around the table and the people on the walls don't have deep personal relationships.
If you think about the organizations that are most effective, there are sinews of personal relationships, of trust and common purpose, that allow them to make compromises. Having very capable, very well intentioned, very focused people make decisions doesn't guarantee a good outcome if the underlying foundation of a relationship just isn't there.
I joke all the time that the key to the National Security Council is to take them white water rafting, take a bunch of beer and let them get to know each other. So when they're in the room making tough decisions, they can go: Wait a minute, I know her. She may have said something I disagree with, but let me get some more context.
Q. Is there any structural change that could help?
A. I think the National Security Council needs coaches. I know that sounds strange and people say, “No, we can never let coaches into the National Security Council!”
Of course we could. Those coaches would be wise people, with absolutely no political dog in the fight, who would listen to the exchange of information and see if the process worked.
I was in a number of meetings where we’d only get a third of the way through the agenda because of time constraints, and then decisions would be made. Coaches would point that out and say, “Wait a minute, you didn’t get all the information you thought was critical to this decision and you didn’t get buy-in, so you may get imperfect implementation.”
Q. What’s the biggest personal leadership lesson you’ve taken from the chapter of your life when you resigned over the Rolling Stone story?
A. Everybody in life is going to have something unexpected happen to him. It can be as shocking as coming home to find your spouse with another person. It can be being let go suddenly from your position. You’re going to have something that shifts the ground under your feet.
First, you’re going to look inward and say, “Who am I?” And if who you were was entirely based upon the position you were in, or the headlines you got in the newspaper, or you had essentially subcontracted out your self-worth to the judgments of others, then you’re going to be like tumbleweed. You’re going to be blown.
The second is: You’re going to find out who your friends are. Anything that happens in your life is one of those challenges. It may not be at the level of celebrity, but everybody’s going to travel that road.
Q. Was that your biggest career regret?
A. I certainly regret that it happened. Any of the things that caused it to happen I really don’t have that feeling about.
My biggest regret was I had brought a bunch of people over who trusted and believed in me to execute a mission, and now I was leaving them and you feel like you let them down. I cared deeply about the mission in Afghanistan—and I still do—so when I was separated from it, I regretted that.
Q. Do you feel like the situation in Afghanistan would be different today if you were still there, and is that something you think about a lot?
A. I don’t think about that, because you try to make your contribution and move something in a direction so that great people will follow and pick it up and go with it. One of the things I’m proudest of is the effort continued in very much the same direction to protect the Afghan people, to give them a chance to take control of their own sovereignty. It's imperfect still, but I've still got a lot of faith.
Q. Do you think America is leading in the right way in its response to the Islamic State right now?
A. There is simply no replacement for American leadership, diplomatic and military, so I don't think that we can take a sideline view of this. However, people have the temptation to focus on ISIS as this unique entity that arose and has caused this big problem. What I'd say is: ISIS is really a symptom of a much greater problem.
If ISIS were to disappear tomorrow, we would still have an extraordinary problem in the Middle East right now. Syria is largely shot to pieces. We'd still have Lebanese Hezbollah. We'd still have big problems in Iraq, and instability in places like Libya. So I think the problem is wider and deeper, and we've got to think wider and deeper about stability in the region.
Nobody follows ISIS because their argument is so compelling. Nobody follows ISIS because they want to be transported back to the 7th century. Nobody follows ISIS because they think living under an ISIS-dominated government is going to be a very pleasant place. They are one group that is strong and willing to bring some kind of order to an area, and they are seductive particularly for young people, because they are willing to stand up to the frustrations that many young Muslims feel. So, those are the issues we've got to look at or ISIS could be gone and a different ISIS would appear very, very quickly.
Q. What do you miss most about being in the military?
A. The military was great because you had a shared sense of purpose with so many people. Do I miss being in the Army, which is a big bureaucracy? The answer is no. Do I miss soldiers? Of course.
Q. There’s a perception that high-profile generals often go into fields like leadership consulting. Why did you decide to spend your time this way and start McChrystal Group?
A. The common avenue for most senior military leaders is to go into the defense business, because that's a familiar area and that business tends to be very open arms and accepting. I made the decision not to be in that particular sector. Nothing wrong with it, but I wanted something different.
So I started teaching at Yale. And I formed an organization that works only with civilian companies, because I thought that what we learned, particularly in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, was so transformational and was not unique to the military. That's been deeply rewarding, working with companies that face remarkably similar challenges in terms of silos and decision-making.
Q. Have you been surprised by anything in that work?
A. In the military, you always have this view of civilian businesses being a black box. To be quite honest, I thought of civilian business people as greedy bastards but hyper-efficient. I thought of the military as very altruistic and honest, but really not very efficient.
Then I started dealing with the civilian world, and I would be in meetings where leaders would say, "The military would never be this inefficient, would they?" And I'd smirk a little bit. I'd say, "This is us!" You are not hyper-greedy like I thought, nor are you hyper-efficient like I thought.
It's just extraordinary how similar it is. But I guess it shouldn't be shocking. At the end of the day, you're getting people together to do things, whether they wear uniforms or suits.
Q. You've been pushing this idea of a year of voluntary but expected national service. Tell me why you find that concept so important.
A. The concept of the Franklin Project, which is part of the Aspen Institute, is to make the opportunity available for every young American to do a year of full-time, paid national service.
If you think about it, we've allowed the concept of citizenship to erode. It's not a geographic boundary. It's not something you win in a lottery. It's not something that's automatically passed to you. It's a promise: If I accept citizenship, I promise I will do things in my relationship to other people.
When we allow it to be cheapened, to be transactional, it’s like we've said, "Citizenship is some kind of birthright that I have. Wait a minute, it's here in my pocket or my purse." In reality, citizenship sits in your heart and in your head.
I joined the Army because I thought it would be interesting and an adventure, not because I wanted to serve. But after I'd been in 10 or 15 years, the service part was deeply important to me. I know young people out of AmeriCorps, City Year, Peace Corps, and they're extraordinary. They see the world a little differently then anyone who didn't have that opportunity.
Q. What is something you believe? You can interpret that however you want.
A. I believe that people can be pulled to a higher calling. I fundamentally believe that there's something inside all of us that wants us to be better than we are. When we go home at night and look in the mirror, there's something about the person we see that bothers us a little bit. We know that we're not quite as honest. We're not quite as forthright. We're not quite as committed to other people. We're not quite as generous as we wish we were.
I guess some people learn just to beat that into a corner of themselves and ignore it, but I think that is inside everybody and you can call to that.
Q. What are you still hoping to improve about yourself?
A. I have expectations about myself, and the biggest frustration I have is when I don't meet them—but I can also be very demanding of other people, and sometimes unreasonably so. That's something I'm trying to improve.