Obama vs. McChrystal: Drawing Leadership Lessons

He said what?

You can only imagine President Barack Obama's reaction when he heard about the scathing remarks in Rolling Stone magazine made by U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal about the commander in chief, Vice-President Joe Biden, and the U.S. diplomatic team. Saddled with two wars, lagging employment, and an environmental disaster, such a public display of disloyalty was no doubt especially unwelcome. As a leader, Obama couldn't afford to be undercut by a loose cannon. So he summoned his runaway general to the woodshed and returned with a message: "…War is bigger than any one man or woman," he said, noting that McChrystal's conduct undermines "the civilian control of the military" and erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives."

Inherent tensions between managers and those who work for them are much the same in the military and the civilian worlds. Leaders need to know that they have the loyalty of those who work for them. (They need to earn that loyalty, every day.) The rank and file must believe in their leaders—what they stand for, their ability to execute, and their vision. And those leaders must earn that loyalty. When there's a disconnect, lack of trust develops and undermines the ability to accomplish anything.

Conventional wisdom holds that Obama had little choice but to accept McChrystal's resignation. Here's some advice to make sure you never find yourself facing your boss in the same position.

The Business World Is Not a Democracy

In theory, the First Amendment applies to the boardroom and cube farms. In reality, companies have ways of shunning or shanking those who make waves. A chain of command exists in any organization. All operate under the same premise: Employees are here to fulfill their roles and execute the plan, regardless of how flawed or unreasonable it may be. Fair or not, any deviation from this maxim simply undermines the collective effort and must be addressed.

Don't Make Your Boss Look Bad

According to Rolling Stone, McChrystal felt that Obama seemed "uncomfortable and intimidated" around military leaders. McChrystal later said that the Vice-President's strategy was "short-sighted." By publicly speaking ill of his superiors, McChrystal placed his boss in an untenable situation: Risk further disruptions by keeping him or lose the good will of the troops and the Afghani government by removing him. Either way, the blame would fall on his boss—undeserved.

Don't Distract

The focus is always on the mission. Drawing attention to yourself only undercuts that focus. Sure, speaking truth to power behind closed doors is a noble act. And debating direction and degree is healthy in any organization. But when disagreements become public, they turn into distractions that siphon time, momentum, and resources. This jeopardizes the larger objectives.

Cut the Backbiting

Smart people can disagree, with each side presenting valid arguments. Eventually they must come together to reach a decision. Assuming that the decision follows ethical standards, don't disparage or undermine it if you're the losing party. Swallow your pride, commit to the decision, and stay on message. Put the team's interests ahead of your own. And bear in mind that the path to leadership often starts with being a good follower.

Keep Your Opinions to Yourself

You will at some point express qualms about your boss to trusted peers. There's a good chance that your analysis will be right. Unfortunately your comments will be repeated, exaggerated, and inevitably escalated. Be judicious in commentary. Remember that nothing is truly ever off-the-record. Once something is said, it's impossible to get it back.

Respect the Position

People always think they know best. In reality, few know what it takes to become a leader. Officer and civilian alike have built their capabilities and connections through sweat and sacrifice. They have earned a consensus that they're best suited to lead. And they've made promises for which they will be held accountable. Respect the rank, even if you doubt the person.

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