Retired four-star US General and leadership expert, Stanley McChrystal.
Retired four-star US General and leadership expert, Stanley McChrystal. Graham Jepson

Journey of a military leader to participant

STANLEY McChrystal has been on the very edge of life in dangerous, indeed often deadly situations and has come out of it with a purpose of sharing his experiences to improve leadership in workplaces.

The retired four-star US military general did it tough in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the commander of US and International Security Assistance Forces Afghanistan and commander of the USA's military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command.

Mr McChrystal resigned from the military in 2010, well before his designated retirement age.

"I had been in the army for 34 years as an officer and four years at West Point,” he said.

"I was commanding in Afghanistan and a magazine article came out in Rolling Stone from a freelance writer, and it was titled The Runaway General, which you get from the title, it's not a good thing.

"It portrayed my command team as dismissive of our own administration, senior leadership, and all. I don't think it was an accurate depiction, but it doesn't matter.

"It created a furore and so I offered my resignation to President Obama because generals aren't supposed to create furores for the President's desk.”

Without any hobbies, other than his two granddaughters who live next door to him, and with a keen interest in working in teams, he started up the McChrystal Group leadership consultancy.

"I really like trying to make the team successful and be a respected and effective member of it,” he said.

Speaking to Seniors News at the recent AMP Amplify Festival in Sydney, Mr McChrystal talked passionately about how mature age workers can be part of workplace change.

"I don't think you should have the idea that you should step away because you are a certain age,” he said.

"You may want to slow down a bit. You may want to spend more time doing other things. But, I think you can decide what your value-add is.

"I'm not as fast or good at digital things as the younger people in my company, so I don't try and tell them how to do that. But what I have done is been in boardrooms, I have been with CEOs and presidents, so I have a perspective that comes with experience and I try to add that.

"If you decide where your contribution is, without trying to pretend you have to be the king or the CEO; it requires you to take a little bit of your ego and back off.

"Be part of the team, but not be so insecure that you have to have the answer for every question, because you don't.”

With so many mature age workers dealing with evolving workplace environments and their role within them, Mr McChrystal, now 64, said the melding of the generations within the workplace was incredibly important.

"What we provide is experience, and a lot of the time that is scar tissue and perspective,” he said.

Through reverse mentoring, Mr McChrystal discovered by asking what works and willingly listening, the younger generation didn't resent his asking, in fact they seemed to like being asked.

During Mr McChrystal's time in Iraq and Afghanistan, he found the equipment and tactics had changed, and "information technology had revolutionised the way we did business”.

"I didn't know what my small units on the ground did because I had never done that,” he said.

"I had no direct experience. So, it was preposterous for me to say here's how you need to operate. What we did was reverse mentoring.

"I would go down to them and ask what works and why does that work that way.”

His initial concern was whether it was appropriate for a leader to ask for guidance, but Mr McChrystal found they didn't resent him asking.

"Letting people teach you is the most effective leadership tool,” he added.

When it comes time to move from being a leader to a participant, learning to defer to others around you, listening to what they have to say and speaking up when your expertise is required, are all key transition skills.

"There is a certain uncomfortableness with having the king still around,” Mr McChrystal said.

"If the king is still around, the new king is going to be looking over his shoulder. You have got to help them to become comfortable.”

"We have a remarkable number of living presidents,” he added.

"There was a time when there was no living presidents as most them died right after they left office. So, what do you do when you have a lot of living presidents and they have to learn how to conduct themselves?”

Sharing your knowledge can be effective if put in the context of a personal experience rather than telling or directing.

Mr McChrystal said: "I found that if you can put it in a way that is self-effacing and say, 'there are landmines out there and I have stepped on a bunch of them. Let me describe a couple of mine'.”

But how long should you stay engaged with the workplace? To suddenly not work is fairly unnatural when you have spent most of your adult life working.

Mr McChrystal plans to stay engaged as long as he can. "The day you say I'm done, a lot of things happen. You stop keeping being informed; you stop learning, and that's bad. I think that's bad.” If you are giving much reduced percentage of your time, even 10 or 20 per cent, it can be true value-adding to almost any organisation if you do it

"The idea that we have a hard retirement age is something I don't believe in.”

Mr McChrystal recently published a new leadership book, Team of Teams, and he is now looking at writing another around risk and how it is dealt with at work and in our day-to-day lives.

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