MEET Stanley

Stanley McChrystal is a four-star general and founder of the McChrystal Group. A former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, he now trains leaders to compete in complex business environments.

What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?

The powerful effect of relationships. When you start your career, you want to be proficient and effective, so you really focus on outcomes. It can be easy to forget about the people side. But over the years, I’ve realized that it’s building and maintaining relationships that allows me to have the biggest impact. More recently, that lesson informed the way I built my company. Many of my business partners are old friends, and all of them are people I like and trust. I’ve learned the outcomes are usually good if I get the personal relationships right.

What is one piece of advice you would give someone starting a company?

Pressure-test the concept early on. Step back, imagine the most difficult situation possible, and ask, “Will this still work?” Try to find the places where it won’t hold up. Where are the gaps? Look at the potential vulnerabilities of a business before you get started. And even if the current version is solid, remember it won’t last forever. The business will change, you’ll have a new requirement, and you’ll have to do it again. It’s a continuous process.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

I have two granddaughters, and they have changed my life more than I can describe. One is three, the other nine months. They live near me, and the three-year-old has really become my buddy. They have created a big shift in what I do with my free time, and a fundamentally new perspective about the future. I would never have predicted it.

What don’t you know that you wish you knew?

The future—like everyone else! But seriously, I don’t know finance like I wish I did, and in business, it’s critical. You have to make more than you spend or you’ve got a big problem. In the military, you need to know the capability of your weapons. You need to know intimately how your artillery shoots, how accurate it is, what munitions you have. They are simply tools you understand and use without a lot of second thought. In business, finance is equivalent to that set of tools. If you don’t intuitively know how to use them and have a deep understanding of their capabilities, they can’t be effective.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

Not that many, because I’m in the middle of writing my own book, about leadership. We want it to be different than the typical management books. So I’m profiling six pairs of leaders, twelve in all. Our first pairing is Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. I’m trying to create a book that pulls the discussion away from the tactical parts of management and focuses on issues of character, motivation, and what makes people effective.

I’ve been modeling it on Plutarch’s Lives, the famous Greek and Roman biographies, so I’ve been reading that. My sort of for-fun book is Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened? She’s a little bit defensive, but I guess I would be, too, in that situation.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

I’ve been wrong a number of times. When I was 31, with 10 years in the service, I commanded 150 troops—and I was a serious micromanager. I was very autocratic, if you can imagine that. Luckily, the people around me set me straight. They got in my face and said, “This is not the way to build the best unit.”

That started my journey toward a more decentralized and participatory conception of leadership. I realized that the people I command must be able to operate on their own. When they are confident you’ll support them, the effectiveness of the organization increases. That does mean you have to step back from your ego, but I realized I was still the commander. That just meant I shaped the environment rather than doing every little thing. We called it “eyes on, hands off.”

What unit of time matters the most and why?

I like to think in terms of days. Every day is another chance. Every day is a chance to be more organized, to be more effective, to be a better leader, to do whatever you’ve got to do.

When I was in Iraq, we had a guy from one of the government agencies working with us in Joint Special Operations Command. One of his notes back to headquarters in D.C. is relevant here. He was frustrated with their slow responses to our requests, so told them, “When the folks back there ask you for something, you guys look at your calendar. But when General McChrystal asks for something out here in the field, everybody looks at their watch.”

Hard-won advice