As the Covid-19 pandemic intensified its assault at home and abroad, retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal found himself in pressing demand. Since 2011, McChrystal--who, as commander of U.S. special operations in Iraq after 9/11, had orchestrated the capture of Saddam Hussein--has applied his military acumen to building a business consultancy, McChrystal Group, with former Navy SEAL Chris Fussell. The pair codified their leadership insights in a best-selling book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.
When the country shifted, perhaps too gradually, to war footing against a new and unseen viral enemy, McChrystal emerged as an authority for the authorities, a motivator for the motivators--and wrote an impassioned call to arms for The New York Times. He's provided advice to executives at companies such as Deutsche Bank and Verizon, and became manager of the Covid-19 response strategy for the city of Boston.
Still, McChrystal generously took time to speak with Inc. and share his wisdom about motivating teams when the world seems on the verge of derailing. He stresses empathy, authenticity, and leading by example.
"Priority one is candor," McChrystal explains. Challenges during a crisis can shift rapidly and unforeseeably. So, a leader needs latitude to improvise, which requires having the team's faith. "You need to make a reasoned argument to support what you're asking your team to do," McChrystal says. The request can be unconventional, and even out of line with company policy, "but it can't be something they won't buy into."
More businesslike than Patton-like, McChrystal defies military stereotypes. As a decorated general, he continued to take the same risks he was asking of his people. "If the personnel in the field think you aren't willing to undergo the same hardship or danger or sacrifice that they are," the general says, "you just don't have a leg to stand on." To demonstrate his unwavering commitment to them, McChrystal accompanied his troops on an operational raid at least once a week when he was in war zones: "I went because my own psyche said I had to do it. So that they wouldn't doubt my courage or my commitment."
After McChrystal assumed leadership of Joint Special Operations Command in 2003, he took up a forward command for five years rather than work from JSOC's headquarters at Fort Bragg in North Carolina or some other remote post. "This gave me an emotional advantage," McChrystal says. "If I asked them to do something, they could look at me and say, 'Well, the boss is legit. He's with us.' "
Leaders in a crisis must also act with integrity, the general says. Hours before McChrystal talked to Inc., he had spoken with a client who runs a major national retail chain selling products considered essential--which meant the client's stores needed to remain open during the Covid-19 quarantine. This increased the risk that his employees would be exposed to the virus, even as the company board mandated that all executives stay at home.
"How does he handle that? He feels disloyal to his team. He wants to share the danger," McChrystal says. "In this case, he has to be really honest with them and say, 'I feel like I should be there with you, but I can't be.' "
McChrystal reassured the leader that he was doing the right thing, and should not worry about a backlash from the ranks. "All you can do is fall back on your integrity," he says. "I've found that if you've built a track record with your team, they will give you credit for that. They will accept the fact that you're making a difficult decision."
As a crisis wears on, and changes its direction and intensity, frequent communication becomes more and more important. While leading JSOC, McChrystal held a daily, 90-minute videoconference with commanders and others in the field, a novel approach at the time. "We ordered about 400 people to be on the video teleconference," the general recalls. "What we ended up with was something like 7,000 team members from around the world, in different time zones, meeting for 90 minutes a day. It was partly about building empathy and connection."
The benefits accrued both to team members and leaders, McChrystal explains. "Everyone on the teleconference was getting pure information from all over the world--that's where the real stuff is, out on the edges," he says. This gave leaders the data they needed to strategize and prioritize, and it gave team members not just the facts, but also the comfort that fellow warfighters were having similar experiences, regardless of location.
The videoconference was literally a lifesaver: McChrystal's leadership grew sharper and more responsive with the intel from the front, and the forward personnel better understood the risks and goals of their assignments.
Now that remote connection has become standard ops for office workers through regular Zoom or Slack meetings, McChrystal cautions that a leader's behavior must still resonate emotionally through these channels.
"Whatever you do, it has to be genuine," he says. "I've worked for a few leaders who sort of put on the act, but then pretty soon you realize it's not true. That's unsettling to me. I'd feel guilty or uncomfortable if I were to do that. Sometimes I wear my feelings on my sleeve too much, and I admit that. But again, I've always found that the people you lead are extraordinarily understanding. But you have to be honest with them."
McChrystal punctuates the point by quoting a guest speaker at the leadership course he teaches at Yale. "She says, 'People will forgive you for not being the leader you should be; but they won't forgive you for not being the leader you claim to be.' "