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General McChrystal on the Art of Leadership Against Today’s Enemy

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By Lawrence Dietz, adjunct faculty, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

On July 15, I attended a meet the author session with General Stanley McChrystal held at the Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco.

I had never met McChrystal before, so my only existing impressions came from media reports. Unfortunately, the most widespread media coverage came from a negative Rolling Stone cover article, which led me to believe that his staff let him down while working with the reporter.

General Stanley McChrystal (L) with Professor Lawrence Dietz
General Stanley McChrystal (L) with Professor Lawrence Dietz

During his presentation, McChrystal clearly projected confidence and energy. His hour-long talk (without notes) came across as focused, direct, and, in this setting, candid. While I’ll admit that the moderator threw only easy questions at him, McChrystal comments spoke for themselves.

He was promoting his new book, Team of Teams, which is about leadership of large, diverse groups. The central thesis of the book is that leaders need to treat teams as if they are individuals so that teams, in turn, can effectively interact with other teams just as individuals interact with each other to provide reinforcement, support, and assistance.

His talk centered on his experience in command of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

ISAF, he told us, was composed of forces from 45 nations, each with their own particular national agenda. His job was to foster unity of effort—which was no mean feat. Having worked at the Stabilization Force (SFOR) Headquarters of NATO in Bosnia, I can attest to this as well.

Challenges in Defeating a New Modern Enemy
McChrystal described how, during his career, he faced a new kind of enemy that was not organized in the traditional hierarchical way, but rather composed of a loose network enabled by real-time communications using mobile phones and the Internet. This enemy didn’t react in a predictable, templated way like conventional forces from the Cold War or the World Wars. Rather, this enemy was agile and didn’t play by any rules.

[Related Article: The Challenge of Defining Terrorism Around the World]

To defeat an enemy in this environment, McChrystal noted, leaders must be enablers of their followers, not an oracle from which all decisions emanate. This conclusion took him many years to learn and required an evolution of his personal leadership style.

McChrystal explained that senior military leaders historically envisioned themselves as chess masters, facing an equal opponent. Today, each of the opponent’s pieces is intelligent and independent. They also communicate with each other, work together, and do not follow particular rules.

He compared today’s senior leaders to a gardener. The gardener’s job is to enable the plants to do what they do best—grow. The leader does the feeding, water, weeding, and harvesting thereby providing the best possible environment for his plants to grow, or, in this case, for the diverse forces to act with a unified sense of direction.

The Dangers of Micromanagement
McChrystal was quick to point out the dangers of micromanagement, particularly over strong, independent teams. “Eyes on, hands off” was the way he described his leadership approach. Ultimately, the leader’s job is to instill confidence across the force.

He also pointed out that technology can be a micromanager’s dream tool because it allows senior leaders to see and communicate directly with the lowest echelon. Quickly, McChrystal added that this would be a mistake. The leader has a far-off, two-dimensional view while the force on the ground is right there and able to feel the pulse of the battle.

After the talk, McChrystal was charming, patient, and concentrated on each and every person who met with him as he signed an untold number of autographs. It was easy to see why he inspired the loyalty of his forces.

A similar version of this article first appeared on the PSYOP Regimental Blog

About the Author: Professor Lawrence Dietz has more than 30 years of diversified military and commercial sector experience. Dietz retired as a Colonel from the USAR in 2002, having held command and staff assignments in PSYOP and military intelligence to include platoon, company and battalion command. He also served as the Deputy Commander for the NATO PSYOP Task Force (CJICTF) in Bosnia. Specialties include PSYOP, information operations, strategic intelligence and tactical intelligence. His commercial sector experience has included market intelligence, marketing, customer support and legal work dealing with information technology. Professor Dietz is an adjunct faculty member teaching within the Intelligence Studies program at American Military University. You may contact him at

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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