With President Obama accepting General Stanley A. McChrystal’s resignation last week, it has brought stale commentary on general principles and leadership. (e.g., loose lips sinking ships, speak in private, etc.). The real lessons may be:

  1. Know the role requirements, fit the skills to it
  2. Don’t be petty, especially when the press is present
  3. Ensure you have confidence in your team, otherwise change it from within or know when to leave it

 The discussion…

Lesson 1: Know the role requirements, fit the skills to it. Understanding the role which needs to be performed is critical. What this means is understand the characteristics and skill sets required. After defining these elements, find the person who matches them. Many times, this is easier said than done.

Some of the commentary on the McChrystal affair has been on his “special forces” skills and experiences. With this training and mindset at his core, working with political leaders and the press was not essential to his previous missions. However, as the military leader in Afghanistan, it was more than a military skill set required; it needed to be combined with political and communication (e.g., press) skills as well. McChrystal did not fit the defined role and probably did not receive training on the new role requirements.

If the role was not defined, then that is an issue, too. Roles need to be defined as well as the necessary traits for success. From some articles, it seems that the US military is not doing a good job of developing leaders to meet the new responsibilities of today’s military-with-political-and-PR-skills leadership model.

Organizations need to ensure roles are defined, and then find people who can meet the requirements (or who can be trained to meet the requirements).

Lesson 2:  Don’t be petty, especially when the press is present. Unfortunately, as we discussed earlier, political pettiness happens too often. Being petty about others and letting your guard down with the press with petty or sarcastic comments are leadership sins.

McChrystal’s training may not have prepared him for working with the press. Nonetheless, as a leader, he should have known being petty does not bring results or demonstrate worthy traits.

Leaders need to rise above the pettiness. Leaders need to represent their organizations, missions, and people in a respectful, thoughtful way.

Lesson 3:  Ensure you have confidence in your team, otherwise change it from within or know when to leave it.  Leaders must have confidence in the people they work with. Sometimes leaders cannot select who is on their team or on supporting teams. In those cases, a person’s leadership skills need to be heightened and used to their fullest extent in order to achieve the defined mission.

If the people on the team are the problem, then a leader needs to work through the proper channels to try to correct it. Ignoring the problem is not the answer. Having said that, if confidence cannot be restored or methods to work with a challenging team cannot be resolved, then finding a way to make an orderly exit may be the best approach.

McChrystal did not seem to respect the people he was working with. We do not have enough information to make a determination on what he did or did not do to try to resolve any people challenges. Yes, McChrystal may have tried and, with no change in sight, let his frustration show to the nearby press person.

Leaders need to affect change with all their resourcefulness and skills which they bring to the role. There is no underlying principle of “cutting and running” in discussing this lesson. Sometimes perseverance is a leadership quality most needed in these situations.

The lesson here is to try to change the people mix from within and continue to strive to achieve the goals.

If the people challenges are beyond your control, then you need to have an honest discussion with the overall leader of the initiative or organization. From here, next steps need to be defined so the appropriate action can be taken by all involved.

The leadership lessons from McChrystal will likely involve many more than this. Regardless, there has been a McChrystal effect in re-examining the efforts in Afghanistan as well as how leaders are developing, or not, within the military. For us, outside this realm, it is important to gain leadership insights from this event and apply them within our circles of influence.