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General McChrystal led US military counter-terrorism efforts around the globe before assuming command of all coalition forces in Afghanistan. He has since applied the lessons to large organisations advocating ‘a fanatical focus’ on sharing information and leading like a gardener – not a chess player: “Many strive to control every move, when they should be creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem.”
General Stanley McChrystal is a retired four-star US Army General who amongst other roles was the commander of US and International forces in Afghanistan. He is widely respected as an intelligent, honest, progressive voice on the subject of leadership, having written and consulted extensively on the subject. He has also taught a course simply titled Leadership at Yale University.
After graduating from West Point Military Academy, General McCrystal joined the Army, serving as an officer in the Infantry, Special Forces and in intelligence. He served as a senior Special Operations officer during the first Persian Gulf War. At the start of the Iraq War he was a member of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, where amongst other responsibilities he delivered media briefings on US operations. He then commanded the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the military division charged with counter-terrorism and special operations and dubbed “the most secretive force in the US military”. JSOC was seen as having been particularly effective during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and Stan was appointed Director of the Joint Staff. He was then charged with taking overall command of US, and then NATO forces in Afghanistan, commanding over 150,000 troops from 45 countries.
Stan considers the wide-ranging lessons from a career which has seen him make life and death decisions, deal with political and media scrutiny, and help others be better leaders. During his time at JSOC he worked hard to abandon decades of received leadership wisdom and processes that restricted flexibility and put distance between leaders and followers. He challenged the long-standing personal and bureaucratic barriers between agencies, and emphasised honesty and directness between all ranks and responsibilities.
In his autobiography My Share of the Task, Stan reflects on the importance of truth and honesty in his leadership experience, and how he encouraged people to question their leaders and expected leaders to listen and be open and available. He also outlined how the military as a whole changed to become adaptive and resilient. In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World he expanded on how organisations can go from rigid, hierarchical and process-driven to organic and flexible. Whilst In Leaders: Myth and Reality he looks beyond the military to find examples of great, unconventional and instructive leadership in the worlds of politics, business, science and elsewhere, identifying leaders who are founders, zealots, and powerbrokers. He suggests that different situations need different leaders and skills, and that ultimately followers choose their own leaders. The best leader will be adaptable, picking what each situation requires rather than following a set of rules.
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