Lessons in Leadership: A Conversation with GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal

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In this week’s episode of The Burn Bag Podcast, co-hosts A’ndre and Ryan speak to retired Four Star General Stanley McChrystal about his views on leadership. We discuss the topic with the General by drawing on lessons in leadership from his own career, looking at how General McChrystal spearheaded the transformation of JSOC, or the Joint Special Operations Command, to effectively adjust to new battlefields and circumstances that insurgencies wrought. Under his leadership, JSOC went from conducting 4 raids a month to 300 raids a month, and captured Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein and killed Al Qaeda in Iraq Leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  General McChrystal gives us his take on the leadership qualities that made both of these men so lethal and deadly to American forces, and digs into how al-Zarqawi’s leadership in particular transcended his practical duties and made him in some ways more dangerous than Osama bin Laden — even after death. We then bring the conversation to contemporary issues, getting the General’s take on how COVID-19 and the fight against terrorism are similar, and how common failures have exacerbated the challenges associated with each. Lastly, General McChrystal outlines how the military needs to rethink what the ‘traditional’ soldier is in light of new challenges across a range of domains, that include cyberspace,  and how his work now with the McChrystal Group is furthering the ‘battlefield to the boardroom’ mentality.

On Whether Saddam Hussein Could’ve Maintained His Power if We Didn’t Invade: “I think that he would have maintained his power for a while. A few more years, because in reality, there was a logic to it. In the region, he was a balancing act against Iran, with their nefarious actions. At the same time, I think much about Saddam Hussein had been delegitimized worldwide, so it was going to be increasingly difficult for him to maintain power in the long-term. I think our invasion was a mistake. I think it wasn’t necessary. I think we could’ve contained him over time, and his regime would’ve either changed slowly or dropped suddenly. I think that by us going in, we actually created more problems than we solved.”

What Made al-Zarqawi so Unique, Compared to Bin Laden: “Zarqawi created this network or coalition of different groups, little locally run parts of Al Qaeda in Iraq that connected themselves by modern information technology… instead of being a pyramid shaped hierarchy, with Mister or Miss Big at the top giving detailed instructions for what people should do, he gave broad goals, he set a general tone, and then he asked each of those organizations to operate more or less autonomously. What that did, was it made them very fast, it also made them very resilient. If you hit one part, even if you hit them devastatingly hard, it didn’t bring down the whole, it didn’t even slow it down. He created this very elastic network, with himself as this moral leader, and as practical leader in pushing general strategy. It allowed him to become both a practical leader, and a symbolic leader… if you look at any time after 2005 or 2006 in Iraq, all the way up to the rise of ISIS, if you asked those Al Qaeda in Iraq or later ISIS members who their hero was, it was not Osama Bin Laden. He wasn’t the figure, the mythological figure that they admired – it was Zarqawi. By setting that tone and expectation, he created an entire cadre of terrorist leaders, who in many ways followed his example. The decapitation strategy, which is so tempting for many counterterrorist forces… in fact doesn’t work, unless you can do it in a very short amount of time, and if you could take out all of them… I’ve been on the record saying, we killed Zarqawi too late, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Why We Killed al-Zarqawi too Late: “In many ways, we started to chase Zarqawi in the fall of 2003 and 2004, and we were after him hard for two and a half years. His efforts, but also our efforts, helped to raise his stature, helped to make him more famous and more effective. We put a big bounty on his head… we never got anyone to provide any information for that, but that also reinforced him, that made it seem that in the minds of people, that he must be really special. Because he was able to survive until the June of 2006, by the time we killed him, the damage in many ways had been done. We  created this huge figure, he had been able to push the idea of a Sunni-Shia Civil War. So when he was killed… it was not enough to turn off the progress that he had already created, or even to erase the figure that even in death he became.”

On Why Killing Bin Laden was a Necessity: “I think the killing of Osama bin Laden and al-Baghdadi was necessary but insufficient. By 2011, Osama bin Laden was as much of an idea and a symbol, as he was an operational leader… just the fact that he had survived, just the fact, a full decade after the 2001 9/11 strikes, he is still out there and still talking, was a symbol to much of the world of the strength of Al Qaeda and the weakness of Al Qaeda’s opponents in taking him on. Bringing him to justice through capture or killing, was necessary. You had to take the idea that you could live with impunity, after doing the kinds of things he had done, you had to put that to bed. At the same time, because he had already done the acts and then survived for a decade and continued to talk and motivate others, you couldn’t undo what he had done. So it didn’t suddenly take away all that Osama Bin Laden was, or what he’d done. The same was true with al-Baghdadi. The longer they survive, the more impotent they make their enemies seem, and the longer they have time to get into people’s psyche. Again, I think it’s important that they be brought to justice, because you don’t want any future terrorist to think that there’s a retirement home where old terrorists go to comfortably live the rest of their years; you want anyone who makes the stark choice to do that, to understand that it will end violently and suddenly. But that mindset won’t really affect the larger population’s understanding, that for a very long time they were able to push their agenda, and their name, the fact that we’re still talking about them, shows the level of some of their power.”

On Reforming the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC): “We used to always say that it takes a network to defeat a network, we became a network that operated like a machine with very decentralized decision-making and action, with this high-level of transparency of information across this geographically dispersed force, and that allowed us to be able to see, connect, coordinate, and execute at a speed we never could’ve. When I took over in the fall of 2003, we were doing about 4 raids a month – two years later we were doing 300 a month, or ten a night, and we kept that pace up for two-and-a-half more years. The entire nature of how we operated changed, and the culture had to shift along with it.”

On the Similarities Between Terrorism and COVID-19: “A terrorist organization like Al Qaeda is an idea that spreads quickly among people In fertile ground, so you have a viral opportunistic nature to the threat, which will grow very rapidly if you allow it, and it will be lethal if you give it the opportunity to focus on elements that aren’t able to defend themselves. They’re also a bit amorphous, you can’t see them, you know they’re around, so they create fear and they create uncertainty, because of the nature of them. In actuality, a terrorist network and a virus have more similarities than differences.”

On the Failure of Leadership in COVID-19: “If you go back and read the 9/11 Commission… the failure, was literally a failure of imagination. The information to stop the 9/11 attack existed in the U.S. Government. All that had to  happen was to connect the dots, and if people were to be able to connect the dots, and to draw some pretty rational conclusions, the physical act of stopping the attack would’ve been pretty simple. But we couldn’t do that… the different pieces of the U.S. Government just couldn’t connect effectively enough, and put together a picture and act on it.

If we go back to COVID, we say, ‘well, we’ve never seen COVID-19 before, and so it’s right that this a black swan that’s appeared’ – that’s absolutely untrue. We have been approached by viruses countless times in history. Even just in months before COVID-19 arrived, Crimson Contagion, an exercise, was hosted by HHS and it had a scenario remarkably like COVID-19. Public health understood the threat of an airborne virus transmitted between humans, we knew it was inevitable, that it’d come on a certain periodic nature, it would assault society, and we actually knew the right answer.

We knew how to curtail that, we knew the public health measures that would have to occur, but we didn’t do it. If we knew the threat, and we knew it was inevitably coming, and we knew what to do about it, why didn’t we act more effectively? And you compare the American response to other countries, we don’t come out very well. It was largely because we decided to fight it as fifty different states… almost individually, we didn’t connect information wise, we didn’t have national leadership that provided a clear narrative, a set of priorities, the inspiration we needed to do it.

What you really needed against COVID-19, was to mobilize America, to mobilize us in our hearts and minds, and then practically, things like sharing ventilators, to not have a competitive process with states bidding against eachother, and then a political discourse that makes a threat that’s anything but political, suddenly become political. We made ourselves more vulnerable than we had to be. The same happened with terrorism, [but] we got better about it. If a society can’t come together to coordinate a response, it will be defeated in detail, and we’ll lose far more than we need to.”

On How the Idea of a Soldier Needs to Change: “You’ve got to do three things: I think the first thing is that you’ve got to challenge that model, that you say we’re going to bring people in with not just technical skills, but different mindsets, laterally into the force. If someone is a good cyber person, we’re not going to make them come in as a private, we’re going to bring them in as a more senior level and we’re going to operate them and not treat them like they’re some outsider. They’re going to need to be soldiers in the military culture – and they’re not going to be there for twenty years, they may be there for three years. Lateral entry is going to be key, even in the officer ranks and I would argue the senior officer ranks, we should do that and I think we’d be a better force for that.

“I think also in our vertical structure, we’re going to have to look to bring in young people with those skills and those that have different skills, we’ve got to let them mature differently than we had. Not every person as they go through their military career, should have to look and act and think like the traditional soldier – and that’s okay. I think we’ll be just fine if we create some people who aren’t quite the same. A lot of people will be threatened by that idea.

“The last thing is that I think we’re going to have to partner with outside organizations, we’ll need to put a lot more military members out in businesses and technology businesses so that they learn, they develop connections, and we’re going to have to bring the same in, we’re going to have to partner with them much tighter than we had before.”

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