Former U.S. Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal Offers Leadership Tips in the Age of Disruption

August 17, 2020 | By Vivek Ghelani

By Chris Walsh

On July 31, retired U.S. four-star General Stanley McChrystal appeared at a “virtual happy hour” where he shared vital leadership ideas about the importance of engagement, adaptability, and communication as organizations around the world grapple with the disrupting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

General McChrystal, best known for his role as Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), served in the U.S. Army from 1976 to 2010. As Commander, he was responsible for all U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the fight against Al-Qaeda. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described General McChrystal as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I ever met.” After retiring from the military, General McChrystal founded the McChrystal Group, where he applies his leadership expertise to help governments and senior executives at global corporations navigate complex change to build stronger organizations.

            During the webinar, General McChrystal covered the most pressing leadership issues facing organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic, from moves companies can take to strengthen their virtual operations to how partisan political tensions can be overcome. Overall, there were three key takeaways we want to share with members of the CGE Global Scholars community:

            Energetic leadership lessens Zoom isolation. When an organization is distributed widely rather than concentrated in one location, its members are more prone to feelings of isolation. As Commander of JSOC, General McChrystal had to maintain camaraderie among a team that was spread across over 70 locations at any given time. He found that the more engaging a leader he was, the less his team felt disconnected. McChrystal recommended that corporate leaders facilitate frequent one-on-one meetings with the people they oversee.

            Acknowledge that virtual events are an awkward medium––and adapt. As work from home continues, people are increasingly realizing that there are some aspects of in-person work that simply cannot be replicated on a video call. Video meetings feel unnatural because there is no chance for team members to have informal conversations before or afterward like they would in a conference room. As a result, virtual meetings require much more thought, planning, and structure on the part of their organizers. McChrystal advised leaders to share very explicit directions with their employees to ensure video meetings are productive and meaningful. While an in-person office would allow colleagues to talk with each other after a meeting to clarify their boss’s directions, this is much more difficult in the world of virtual work and needs to be accounted for in how organizations conduct virtual meetings.

            Communicate honestly, even when it’s bad news. McChrystal noted that the best leaders in times of hardship are those who communicate candidly and energetically. Although challenging, honest communication is better than the alternative. If you leave a vacuum in your team’s minds, McChrystal said, they will fill it with the worst-case scenario.

            In addition to sharing lessons for leaders in the age of COVID-19, McChrystal fielded a wide variety of questions from his audience. One participant asked him how the United States could reaffirm mutual trust with its allies in an era when its foreign policy has been increasingly unpredictable. The absence of the Cold War as a force of continuity across different presidential administrations has made it harder for allies and multinational corporations to predict where Washington stands on policy matters, General McChrystal noted. He invoked McDonald’s in his response, indicating that the reason the fast-food chain is so popular even when there are higher-quality options nearby is that customers can always expect a consistent, uniform experience. In other words, they can trust McDonald’s. According to McChrystal, the United States can regain its status as a stabilizing force in the international system by prioritizing consistency with its allies. If the leaders of the U.S. government allow partisan score-settling to take precedence over maintaining long-term relationships with American allies, the United States will be marginalized on the international stage. 

            Throughout the happy hour discussion, conducted by the Washington, DC firm of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, General McChrystal pointed out that leadership skills are the most valuable asset one can have in times of crisis. Whether it’s an executive helping employees cope with Zoom fatigue or a diplomat putting pragmatism over partisanship, effective leadership keeps organizations intact and productive.

Chris Walsh is an intern with the Center for Global Enterprise. In January, he will be a freshman at Brown University.

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