Leadership Lessons from an Unlikely Source

People pay hundreds, nay, thousands of dollars to gain leadership insights that will catapult their careers forward. If you like your wisdom wrapped in the wackiness promulgated by muscle-headed motivation speakers, you may end up spending thousands more treating the burns on your feet after a hot coal walk. But that’s another topic for another day.

The thing about leadership lessons is they can come from the most unexpected sources, which is something you have to be aware of so they don’t rush right past you.

I thought about this while reading a Q&A with General Stanley McChrystal in a recent Foreign Affairs magazine. Of course, military leaders throughout history have long been looked to for leadership ideas that translate well to the world of business. But a Ralph Nader-loving pacifist like me doesn’t expect to find much to admire from a guy like McChrystal, who served as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan before being forced into retirement following unflattering comments about Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials in a Rolling Stone article.

Nevertheless, McChrystal’s insights on the lessons he learned in his Iraq and Afghanistan tours are poignant and worthy of sharing.

“In Iraq, when we first started, the question was, ‘Where is the enemy?’ As we got smarter, we started to ask, ‘Who is the enemy?’ And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn’t the right question, and we asked, ‘What’s the enemy doing
or trying to do?’ It wasn’t until we got further along that we said, ‘Why are they the enemy?’

Not until you walk yourself along that intellectual path do you realize that’s what you have to understand, particularly in a counterinsurgency where the number of insurgents is completely independent of simple math. Figuring out why they want to be insurgents is crucial. And that’s something we had never practiced.”

What struck me is that McChrystal, a bombastic figure who was at the top of the org chart in a testosterone-filled organization, recognized that he needed to be open not only to not knowing all of the answers, but also to the possibility that he wasn’t even asking the right questions.

That’s a characteristic that can help any of us make great strides forward.

Paul Nolan, Editor