General Stanley McChrystal: Why the Toughest Bosses Have the Most Devoted Employees

General Stanley McChrystal explains how it is that the hardest leaders to work for have the best talent pounding on their door.



In a perfect world, the best people would work for the greatest leaders
and enjoy optimal conditions. But if your definition of "greatest"
involves genius and wild ambition, then the working conditions may be
horrible. Some of the most brilliant, creative entrepreneurs have
subjected employees to humiliation and driven them to exhaustion for the
sake of their world-changing visions. Often, employees have been OK
with that.



In his new book Leaders: Myth and Reality, General Stanley McChrystal
poses this provocative question: "If leadership is so dependent on
people, why are we so energized by leaders who prioritize their mission
over their people?" McChrystal, who led the Joint Special Operations
Command in Iraq and was top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan,
approaches this topic through case studies of Walt Disney and Coco
Chanel, two trailblazing founders who created heavenly products while
putting employees through hell.



Disney refused to share credit, was often ornery and unsociable, and was
aggressive with criticism while withholding of praise. Chanel made
nasty remarks about workers' appearance, forced models to stand for
hours, and required everyone to operate on Coco time. (The book
addresses other tensions of leadership through 13 case studies ranging
from Robespierre to Margaret Thatcher.)



Yet both Disney and Chanel attracted employees who were the best in
their fields. In an interview, McChrystal explained that "there is
something in all of us that just wants to be part of something special."
People value the esteem of outsiders, who admire the innovation or
craft of their employer, he says. More important, they want to be on a
top-notch team doing work unmatched in quality and ambition. "Coco
Chanel was very difficult to work with, but if you were on her team you
were playing for the New York Yankees of fashion," McChrystal says.
"These leaders can be a net negative in every way except that they have
created something special."



McChrystal compares employees' willingness to sacrifice their
happiness--and even their health--to the attitudes of members of elite
military units. "The discipline may be tighter. The work may be harder.
The danger may be more intense," he says. "And you say, well, why would
someone do that?"



His answer: When it comes to the most brilliant leaders doing
groundbreaking work, people don't perform a cost-benefit analysis on
their decisions to stick. "It is almost a spiritual feeling they get
from certain leaders and causes," McChrystal says.

Leader as teacher



Some people follow leaders they can learn from, even if those lessons
come at a price. McChrystal cites as examples judges' clerks, aides to
generals, and White House staffers. Such people put in insane hours
under intense pressure not to burnish their resumes but for the
opportunity to observe top-notch talent operating at the epicenter of
things. "They go in saying, 'I'm going to do this for a limited time
because I'm going to come out so prepared for other things,'" he says.
"You can work for a terrible leader and learn a ton if you just sort of
tolerate the leadership part."



McChrystal says most leaders who believe they're extraordinary enough to
inspire cult-like devotion probably aren't. But even those who are in a
position to get away with inconsiderate behavior should resist. He
acknowledges that in any organization, particularly scaling companies,
there will be periods that require intense work, where the potential for
abuse is great. "Leaders smell success, and it can get kind of brutal
if they have to push people extraordinarily hard," he says. "But on the
other side they have to come back to a more rational place."



At an earlier time in his life, McChrystal says, he was willing to
rationalize pushing people to the brink in the name of an important
cause. "Now," he says, "I think the organization exists for the people."



McChrystal quotes the leader of a counterterrorism force for whom he
worked in the '90s: "Your importance to the mission is not determined by
your proximity to the objective." What that means, he explains, is that
commandos who go out on a mission do so on the backs of procurement,
logistics, HR, and many other functions. Good leaders, he says, point
constantly to the contributions that all employees--even at the lowest
levels--make to the organization and, by extension, to the leader's
success.

Followers are complex



In the end, McChrystal comes back to the followers, people who remain
extraordinarily loyal to leaders who are abusive to them. He mentions
the enduring popularity of Robert E. Lee with his troops, despite the
fact that "if you worked for him in '62 or '63 the chances of you
becoming a casualty were freakishly high.



"Once people connect with a leader they are willing to discount the
weaknesses and flaws," McChrystal says. "What happens between leaders
and followers is not completely rational."

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