Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal says people make the choice to lead when the opportunity arises.

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal says people make the choice to lead when the opportunity arises. McChrystal Group photo

You Don’t Need Leadership Training to Lead

An interview with retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal on the nature of leadership.

In November 2018, retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal published his third book, Leaders: Myth and Reality (with Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone). The retired four-star general, a legendary Special Forces operator whose last military assignment was commander of all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, has devoted decades to the practice and study of leadership. His two previous books were Teams of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (with Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell) and My Share of the Task: A Memoir. He’s now a partner at the McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm.

Leaders examines six types of leaders: founders (Walt Disney and Coco Chanel), geniuses (Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein), zealots (Maximillian Robespierre and Abu Musab Al-Zarqaqi), heroes (Zheng He and Harriet Tubman), power brokers (“Boss” Tweed and Margaret Thatcher); and reformers (Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.)  A separate chapter is devoted to Robert E. Lee in which McChrystal discusses the evolution of his personal assessment of the Confederate general as a leader. Government Executive recently sat down with Gen. McChrystal at his office in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss the book and reflections on his career.

Mark Abramson: Tell us about the evolution of Leaders. How did you decide the write the book?

Stanley McChrystal: When I came out of the military, I thought there was much to learn from my experience as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. I thought our experience with “team of teams” was not unique to the military. I started working with companies on management and leadership. I also started teaching leadership at the Yale University Institute for Global Affairs. I became interested in better understanding leadership. I wanted to understand how leaders emerge. My team and I selected 13 leaders to study.  

MA: What is the message you want readers to take away from Leaders?   

SM: Too often, people put leaders on pedestals and think leaders are special persons. I don’t think that is true. I wanted to demonstrate that there are many opportunities to lead. People can make a choice to lead when they see an opportunity to do so. All the leaders profiled in the book saw opportunities to lead and made a choice to use an opportunity to lead.   

MA: Did you have a favorite leader in Leaders?

SM: I have always been impressed with Dr. Martin Luther King. I was impressed with his flexibility and his ability to compromise. He never lost sight of his goals. He consistently demonstrated leadership and took advantage of the situations to lead when opportunities arose.

MA: What can mid-level managers in government learn from Leaders?

SM: I think there are many lessons about leadership which are relevant to organizations. I want individuals to ponder leadership. You don’t have to be trained to be a leader. Leadership is complex and there is no one model for leadership. I hope that readers will see opportunities for them to lead in their own unique situations.  

MA: What can agency heads in government learn from Leaders?

SM: Managing in government is indeed a challenge. There are many external expectations on these leaders. They have to move toward goals. I have seen many good leaders in government. I was impressed with both George Tenet and John Brennan during their tenures at the Central Intelligence Agency. They tried to develop a culture of pride in their organization. They knew they had to manage the culture of the organization. They had a sense of what needed to be changed in their organization and knew how to go about moving toward change. Many appointed leaders in government don’t understand that.

I also admired Gen. Colin Powell during his time at the Department of State. He did a good job in managing the organization. The civil servants at State really admired and liked him and he worked hard to lead internally. I saw the same qualities in Robert Mueller during his tenure at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He led the organization internally. I was also impressed with Leon Panetta during his career in government. He was a leader who always listened.

I have also seen leaders in government who don’t accomplish as much as they would have liked. In many cases, these leaders may have been “right” about their preferred course of action but they did not know how to work effectively within their organizations and did not accomplish their goals. It is often a case of leadership styles and knowing how to work within the culture you are leading.  

MA: I enjoyed your memoir My Share of the Task. Which leaders had an impact on you during your career?   

SM: When I was a cadet at West Point, I had a counseling session with then Maj. David Baratto. He told me that he saw me as a potential leader in the military. Nobody had talked to me about my potential and this built my confidence. Throughout my career, I remembered the importance of being people focused and lifting people’s expectations of themselves. I was also influenced by a sergeant during my time at the 82nd Airborne Division. This individual often led by sarcasm.  He was overweight and did not look like a leader. But he knew his job and he taught me that everybody might not look like a leader and that leaders come in all shapes and sizes.

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is