A retired four-star general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal provided leadership that was credited for the capture of Saddam Hussein and the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. McChrystal is known for his counterinsurgency doctrine, which advises limiting the use of lethal force in areas where an insurgency is mingled among the civilian population; and it was on his recommendation that President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. He retired shortly after a July 2010 article in Rolling Stone attributed unflattering remarks about the Obama administration to his staff. He will visit St. Louis for an April 3 presentation at Maryville University’s St. Louis Speakers Series.
LN: What have you been working on since you retired from the military?
SM: I’m doing a couple of things, one of which is teaching at Yale University, which I really love. I also co-founded a small firm with a friend, and we consult with civilian corporations to help them find leadership solutions.
LN: What kind of things do you try to teach them about leadership?
SM: In the time before 9/11, our military was well-suited to war. But after 9/11, we found we were geographically dispersed, fighting against a complex problem. We couldn’t centralize decision-making because we had to operate across a number of countries at once. We developed a process that decisions would be made at the best place, which is normally closest to the ground. But the people closest to the problem can’t make decisions in a vacuum; they need information and context.
The role of leader is not to just motivate, but to allow his or her team to be as good as they can be. You do that by trying to build in people a sense of complete membership in the force, what we call ownership of the problem, where they feel like they are part of the problem-solving. To do that, it takes a tremendous amount of information so everyone has the context to work toward the larger goal. The ideal is that everybody knows everything all the time. Now, that’s not attainable, but we need to get as close as we can. We decentralize decision-making down to a tremendous level so the role of senior leaders becomes less of decision-making and instead to ensure that information is spread efficiently. The people working closest to the problem get that wider context so they can make decisions, and that speeds organizations’ responsiveness dramatically.
LN: I understand you’re also working with Joining Forces, an initiative to help military families?
SM: About a year ago, the First Lady asked me to join the board of Joining Forces, which helps service members and their families with employment, wellness and health care, and education. The area that I’ve been most involved with is employment. We’re trying to shine a light on the problem, working with civilian companies, many of which have stood up to increase hiring of veterans.
Finding employment after the military can be a challenge for many veterans, because they’ve never had a resume or job interview, but they come back with this rich experience. Their job might sound entirely military—for instance, a tank driver—but in reality, that means they’ve operated a complex piece of machinery that takes a lot of logistical requirements, and they’ve worked with a team. We have this incredible pool of disciplined, mature, trained young people coming out of the service and available for key jobs.
LN: Are employers hesitant because of all the discussion about post-traumatic stress?
SM:We’ve created kind of a two-edged sword, because to help veterans as much as we can, we’ve identified post-traumatic stress, which is real, but it creates the idea that every soldier, airman or marine has it— or even for those that have it, there’s an impression that it makes them unqualified to work, and that’s not the case. The ‘greatest generation,’ in the words of Tom Brokaw, came out of World War II, and those people have extensive experiences and they were extraordinary in the economy when they returned, just like this generation can be.
LN: You were recently quoted as saying that you’re a great supporter of the president, and that the administration is still learning as it goes along. What advice would you give President Obama if you could?
SM: I am a great supporter of the president and I hope every American is a great supporter of the president because we elected him to run the country. I’ve watched every administration that I’ve seen learn—and I find it heartening. As they go along, you see them get not bitter; you see them get better. They’re more informed in their approach to foreign policy and in every issue. I wouldn’t advise the president on any particular policy, but if the learning process continues, that’s a great thing.
LN: Do you think that the fight in Afghanistan is still winnable?
SM: This is only my personal opinion, but yes, I think it is. Our goals are for the Afghan people: The president has identified the goal of making sure al-Qaeda is not able to go back into Afghanistan and be a threat. That fight isn’t over yet, but we’re working in that direction. They have a chance to shape their future, and I hope it will be shaped into a stable future where the 14 million females who live in Afghanistan end up with a government that gives them the rights and opportunities they should have. And there are a lot of other goals like that. But absolutely, I believe it’s achievable.