General Stanley McChrystal (U.S. Army, Retired) led the covert Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008, developing and implementing a strategy that changed how counterterrorism warfare was being conducted. In 2009, he took command of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. He retired in 2010. He is the co-author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World and co-founder of consulting firm the McChrystal Group.
--As told to Kris Frieswick
We’re all scared by different things at different times. The greatest fear for me is failing the organization. It’s not fear of getting shot at, or worrying that you’re going to crash the airplane, or something like that, because in those dangerous situations, you’re usually busy. You’re not thinking about the danger at the time. I mean, it’s in the back of your mind, but you don’t dwell on it ’cause you’ve got stuff to do, and that’s a welcome distraction. But what I fear is that I will fail. Of course, there’s the idea that I will personally fail--there’s the embarrassment and the frustration of that. But much more important is that you’ve gotten a lot of people to commit and make an act of faith.
When I went to Afghanistan in 2009, I had been home less than a year. When I was told I was going back to Afghanistan, I said, “OK, I gotta put the band back together.” I started making calls and reaching out to people. I said, “We’re gonna go to Afghanistan and back into the fight. Are you willing to leave your family and do that?” A lot of them dropped what they were doing at great personal sacrifice.
Now they’ve committed to me, and I’ve got a big commitment to them. The idea that I’m gonna fail that is scary. It’s scary not because these people think that I’m 10 feet tall and won’t fail, but they’ve taken a leap of faith to sign up. That’s what always scared me the most. There were moments in Afghanistan when the idea that you could just blow it was pretty significant.
When I’m in those situations, I focus on the problem. Don’t focus on the fear. Focus on the thing it is you’re trying to do. Ask “What have I gotta do to avoid a problem or to have a good outcome?” That allows you to feel like you’re doing something about it. You can say, “If this thing doesn’t come out well, it’s not because I didn’t do my best at it.”
I think the most frightening thing would be not being able to plan. People used to talk about the great courage of my teams that would do these night raids, get on helicopters, and go right into enemy positions. And that’s scary. But we chose the time and place. We got our minds straight as we went in. I think of the young private on a checkpoint in Baghdad, waiting for someone to drive up with a vehicle-borne [improvised explosive device], just to blow up that checkpoint, and that private doesn’t control that. He can’t shoot everybody that comes near him, because most people are absolutely innocent. That private has almost no control and lots of time on his hands to think. When I look at courage, I look at the 18-year-old kid from you-name-it America, standing out there doing that. He doesn’t get to focus, analyze the intel, and plan. He’s just out there, and we ask him to be brave. That’s pretty humbling.