#ChiStories Podcast: General Stanley McChrystal, Leadership, and National Service

What makes a good leader? Do we create false leaders? What role does context play in leadership?

On this week’s episode of Chicago Stories podcast, Mayor Emanuel was joined by General Stanley McChrystal for a fascinating conversation on the myths and realities of leadership and how they continue to shape our society today, as well as discuss finding the right balance between civilian leadership and the military, share a captivating retelling of Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and advocate for creating a universal national service.

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“There’s not a generic set of leadership traits because it’s intensely contextual, and it has to change constantly.”

In his new book Leaders: Myth and Reality, General McChrystal set about developing a stronger definition of leadership by removing the entrenched misconceptions we have about the nature of leadership and its role in creating outcomes.

As he described in his book, General McChrystal’s inspiration came in part from the “humbling” experience of writing about his own leadership career, which forced him to reevaluate his own role in the outcomes of events he participated in and consequently his own understanding of leadership itself.

“I got to this point in my life after 63 years and I realized I studied leadership, I practiced it, but I really didn’t understand what leadership itself actually was,” General McChrystal told Mayor Emanuel. “It was pretty disturbing to me.”

Modeled after Plutarch’s ancient classic Lives, Gen. McChrystal’s Leaders profiles 13 individuals across history, pairing 12 with six different functions, including “reformers,” “founders,” “power brokers,” and others.

As General McChrystal told Mayor Emanuel, our commonly held view of leadership is overly simplistic and ultimately inaccurate. We give leaders credit when leaders succeed, blame when they fail. We think that leadership is made up of a set of fixed traits leaders are either born with or have been hammered into them at some point in their lives. And we think people follow leaders if they are successful.

“What we found was that in all three of those cases that’s not true — that’s not actually what happens,” General McChrystal said. “At the heart of it you’re interacting with a set of requirements and a set of followers, and you’re trying to produce some kind of movement or influence or outcome.”

In other words, leadership is varied, leadership is complex, and above all leadership is contextual.

“ When we talk about ‘service’ we shouldn’t equate that with service in uniform, we should equate that with service in general. I think civilian national service is the other side of the same coin.”

General McChrystal and Mayor Emanuel also spoke at length about current stratification of American society and the need for the United States to develop a program of universal national service for young people in order to create a greater sense of national mission and identity.

“I think it’s the greatest threat to America today,” Gen. McChrystal said. “The ‘balkanization’ if you want to call it into these little groups that are echo-chambers of themselves. All of us in someway or another threaten to be in them.”

As General McChrystal told Mayor Emanuel, we shouldn’t equate “service” to only being service in uniform, but that civilian national service is the other side of the same coin.

“The real value of [universal national service] is not what they do while they do service,” General McChrystal said. “It’s producing people who have experienced that, because when someone comes out of that you feel differently about your responsibility to other people, and about your responsibility to the nation.”

Be sure to listen to the entire episode as the General and Mayor Emanuel also talk about the similarities between Maximilien Robespierre and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the dangers of the politicization of the military, and why every new presidential administration should go whitewater rafting with their military leaders.

Listen to the full episode as General McChrystal and Mayor Emanuel discuss:

0:24 — Myths and Realities of Leadership
4:19—Studying Leadership Profiles
13:45 — Killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
22:23 — Communication in Leadership
25:33 — Balance Between Civilian and Military Leadership
34:44 — Universal National Service

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