Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star general in the U.S. Army, rightfully had a lot to say about leadership, during the “Alchemy of Leadership” talk Saturday morning at Carnegie Hall. As the former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, his insights were intercontinental. “There aren’t a series of qualities that you can have to be a perfect leader. It’s much more reacting to the moment, reacting to the requirements of the situation,” he explained at the HistoryTalks event.
Other heavy-hitters like former FCC chairman Michael Powell, former U.S. National Security Adviser and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, West Point professor Elizabeth Samet and Tulane University professor Walter Isaacson also spelled out firsthand accounts of leadership. As the former commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces Afghanistan and the former commander of the premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal detailed various pinnacle career points including overseeing a 46-nation coalition and 1,700 non-government organizations and “trying to get somewhat unclear set of mission done.” Along with intelligence, state diplomacy and other key pieces, he emphasized the need to get different tribes to work together.
“When I took over Joint Special Operations Command counter-terrorist forces, it was Delta Force, [SEAL] Team Six, the [U.S. Army] Rangers — they are all wonderful cohesive proud organizations. People committed to the nation. But they’re very insular, very proud, very tribal in nature. As a consequence, Delta Force didn’t like the Seals very much, the Seals hated Delta. Both of them looked down at the Rangers and nobody wanted to talk to the aviators, because why would you?” he said. “As a consequence, you had all these great organizations, but they’re not worth the sum of their parts. They’re actually less, yet they’re all good people.…When you say what’s the biggest challenge you face in war, I say culture and everyone says, no, no it has to be faking out the enemy. No, it’s getting the culture right. Once you get the culture right, you’ve got all the talent in the world to get the job done.”
Referring to “Leaders: Myth and Reality,” which was cowritten with Jeff Eggers and Jay Mangone, McChrsytal vouched for his interest in Coco Chanel. “I wrote a book about leaders a few years ago. I picked 13 leaders. I think people thought we’d cover generals, admirals and things like that. We actually covered a wide range of people — Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Walt Disney. And we covered Coco Chanel. The reality was when we started the book, I didn’t know that was a person,” he said, momentarily drowned out by the crowd’s laughter. “Then I find out this wonderful resilient lady who was really focused, grows up as an orphan becomes sort of a courtesan for someone who underwrites her. Then, she, by personal force, really personality and grit, she creates this fashion empire well into a late age. Now, she was not an easy person to get along with, but the reality was that someone right on the eve of World War decides that women’s fashions need to change dramatically, because women need to get in the work place. They can’t wear just anything. And people weren’t spending much money in a time of war.”
McChrystal continued, “She changes fashion radically and she does it by personal example.” Affirming Isaacson’s remark that Chanel helped bring women into the workforce, McChrystal said, “Exactly. She brings women into the work place at the end of the war.”