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Gen. McChrystal Speaks

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We wrapped up the first of our three day-long Excellence in Government conferences this evening with a closing keynote by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

He talked about his "plywood" theory of leadership, inspired by the building material of choice for military forces in Afghanistan. (The theory has to do with being adaptable and relying on multiple layers of strength in an organization to bond together to form a stronger building material).

Along the way, he made several observations about leadership, in the context of both the military and civilian worlds. The events of Sept. 11, McChrystal said, represented a "failure of leadership at many levels." While a great deal of information about terrorist plotters was available prior to the attacks, he said, "a lot of people didn't coordinate well enough to protect Americans."

On the issue of facilitating coordination within organizations, McChrystal said properly using technology was critical. "People say, 'I'm not a technical person, I'm a people person.' I say that's absolute hogwash."

He was forthright in addressing questions about his unplanned retirement in the wake of a controversial Rolling Stone article about his tenure as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, saying he believed that once he made President Obama's job more difficult, it was his responsibility to step aside.

While not directly referring to that incident, McChrystal indicated the latter part of his career was a learning experience. "I had to learn so much in those last years to shut up and listen," he said.

"I don't know anybody good that doesn't make a heckuva lot of mistakes," McChrystal told the audience at the end of his appearance. "I made some pretty big screwups in my career and I had bosses that supported me."

(Photo by Chris Flynn)

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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