Five Points of Leadership

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Editor’s note: When it comes to leadership, decision-making, and motivation, there’s much to learn from a military organization – especially one led by General Stanley McChrystal. For five years during the Persian Gulf wars, General McChrystal led the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq, and served as top commander of American forces in Afghanistan. These immense responsibilities capped a military career that began with his graduation from West Point in 1976.

We invited him to speak at Sequoia Base Camp in May. He began his talk on a topic familiar to many companies: being too close to a problem (when, he said, “You're fighting all the specifics”). General McChrystal offered the five touchstones for leaders he believes can help navigate whatever challenges arise. His thoughts about each of the five follow.



You don’t always know everything you think you do.

ONE: You don’t always know everything you think you do. Knowledge is only good if you really have a sense of what you know – and then you have a sense of what you don't know. And you are always going to not know more than you know. Everybody's got a lot of information, but nobody's got enough to put it all together and get a solution. When we combined forces across military units and intelligence organizations, we did something remarkable, revolutionary, groundbreaking, disruptive: we agreed to communicate, we agreed to share information. If you don't have the humility to step back and understand there's this tremendous amount that you don't know, it'll be a problem.


Sometimes how you win is different than how you think you’ll win.

TWO: Sometimes how you win is different than how you think you’ll win. In the military we say, “You’ve got to fight the war you're in, not the war you wish you were in”. But it's really hard to let go, because we start with these ideas of "This is what's going to work" – and they get deeply embedded.

The presumption that our technology would be how we won turned out to be completely wrong. How we defeated them finally was through something as mundane as information-sharing. We changed how we interacted amongst ourselves, which was a pretty significant, and an almost traumatic change inside the organization. That's not the DNA of most military organizations.


Basics Matter.

THREE: Basics matter. Think of Vince Lombardi. His ideas weren't amazing. He came up with this play that's pretty simple, called a power sweep. Actually, every opponent was aware of it – they knew how it worked – but the way he worked his teams, particularly the Green Bay Packers at practice, with constant repetition of that play, it tended to work, because they executed almost flawlessly. So the basics have an extraordinary importance, because they’re no longer a variable. If what you do you do very well, everything else can execute. If you really can't do what it is at the heart, you have a problem.


It’s all about the team.

FOUR: It's all about the team. We say, "The team will solve all hills." I grew up with teams – sports teams, military teams. It's how I think, it's what I believe in, it's why I do things – because I like being on a team. I like feeling I don't have to be the star of the team, I like the idea that I'm part of a group of people trying to do something special.

But when we created JSOC, what it really did was show that instead of having this dream team, we actually had a set of silent organizations. The reality was Delta didn't much like the SEALs, the SEALs hated Delta, both of them looked down at the Rangers and nobody wanted to talk to the Aviators [laughter from the audience].. So what you have is this extraordinary collection of talent with very cohesive organizations, but not a real team.

So I try to remember “team” is much more than the magic word that's going to solve everything. It's really got to be something between the people and not just the “tribes” within; tribes don’t traditionally work very well with other tribes.


What's going to determine success is your people.

FIVE: What’s going to determine success is your people. If you remember nothing else, this is the one I hope you get: You can have great technology. You can have a great strategy. You can have great marketing. You can have anything great – but the thing that's going to decide your success is going to be the people.

Shakespeare never saw a battlefield, but there is never a speech that doesn't strike soldiers’ hearts more accurately than this one [the St. Crispin’s Day battle speech from The Life of Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3]. That has been read to armies on the eve of battle for 700 years. So, thing number five, the point I'd make: At the end of the day, your team's going do it for you. If you look at the arc of my leadership style, I spent more and more time on people every year – because I learned that's who's going win.

One final note…

On Failure

What are you going to do tomorrow?

On Failure: What are you going to do tomorrow? When, when people would fail in my organization – which happened all the time – I’d respond with, “What'd we learn? Good try. What are you going to do tomorrow?” That was my standard question, because I was signaling to the whole organization that this person's not in trouble, I want them back in the game. Trust is extraordinarily important, and when they need it most is when they are most vulnerable.