Leaders: Myth and Reality

Leaders: Myth and Reality by Stanley McChrystal

I’ll get right to it and say that this is probably the best book on leadership I’ve ever read. I only say probably because I might be forgetting something I’ve read in the past. This book isn’t your typical book on leadership in that that it doesn’t prescribe a leadership formula. In fact, that’s McChrystal’s whole point- leadership can’t be prescribed. He also draws the conclusion that leaders lead when the need arises and different leaders succeed for different reasons. Sometimes it’s circumstances, some times it’s the team, other times it’s the leader just so happens to be at the right place at the right time.

I highly recommend this book.

Here are my highlights:

  • If we did so, we were told, and believed, we might not be famous leaders, but we would serve well.

  • Successes I credited to a decision I’d made felt less impressive once I recognized the myriad factors and players who often had far more to do with the result than I had.

  • Truly effective leaders, we like to believe, are not susceptible to the fog of doubt—they act decisively and face the consequences. But few real leaders have actually operated this way.

  • most people think of leadership as the process of influencing a group toward some defined outcome

  • Productive leadership requires that followers find a sense of purpose and meaning in what their leaders represent, such as social identity or some future opportunity.

  • This was the Lee I first came to know: a leader whose flaws and failures were sanded off, the very human figure recast as a two-dimensional hero whose shadow had eclipsed the man from whom it came.

  • But staring into a bright light makes it difficult to see clearly.

  • Leadership is itself neither good nor evil.

  • Lee’s own statements on slavery are conflicting, but his overall record is clear. Lee repeatedly expressed his theoretical opposition to slavery,

  • Lee was a willing and active participant in a society and economy that rested on slavery, and he fought ferociously to defend it.

  • As uncomfortable as it might be, most soldiers understand that our cause might be no more right than our enemy’s.

  • But the moral validity of the cause doesn’t determine the success or effectiveness of the leadership.

  • Great leaders can serve bad causes as often as lousy leaders represent the most noble of efforts.

  • We fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with the truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.

  • Walt would not be remembered by his workers for ever offering direct praise.

  • Some of the so-called ink girls (female assistant artists), equipment technicians, and entry-level animators earned less than they could have on unemployment benefits.

  • To them, Walt’s style, and particularly his refusal to credit low-level employees (thus hurting potential job prospects), was unacceptable.

  • Walt was remarkably lacking in empathy for the many hundreds of employees now critical to his studio’s success.

  •  “I am not the least frivolous. I have a boss’s soul. I take everything seriously,”

  • We also have a natural bias for attributing what works out well—in the end—as being the “right” formula for success.

  • More broadly, if a leader is giving us what we think we need, we don’t always care how they get us there.

  •  “So, what are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul, or whatever else I would like to hurl at your head. . . . Why have you still not sent me your dissertation? Don’t you know I am one of the 1½ fellows who would read it with interest and pleasure, you wretched man?”

  • Planck and his predecessors cultivated an environment where even a patent clerk could mingle with the field’s giants, provided his ideas were good enough.

  •  ‘Recently I have been working on a difficult problem. Today I come to do battle against that problem with you.’

  • Einstein himself once conceded that there was “a definite connection between the knowledge acquired at the patent office and the theoretical results.”

  •  “The offer from my Israeli brethren moved me deeply. But I declined straight away with genuine regret. Although many a rebel has become a bigwig, I couldn’t make myself do that.”

  •  “I simply enjoy giving more than receiving, do not take myself nor the doings of the masses seriously, am not ashamed of my weaknesses and vices, and naturally take things as they come with equanimity and humor. Many people are like this, and I really cannot understand why I have been made into a kind of idol.”

  •  “Why is it that nobody understands me, and everybody likes me?”

  • In defending these ideals he was quite comfortable offending people—a habit cultivated in his youth and sharpened by his years as a lawyer in Arras.

  • he offered the people of France a clear, simple vision for what was possible.

  • He was not expected to make choices, but to frame and guide the choices that others—with far more blood on their hands—would have to make.

  • What is our aim? It is the use of the constitution to benefit the people. Who is likely to oppose us? The rich and the corrupt. What methods will they employ? Slander and hypocrisy. What factors will encourage the use of such means? The ignorance of the sans-culottes. The people must therefore be instructed. What are the obstacles to their enlightenment? The paid journalists who mislead the people every day by shameless distortions. What conclusion follows? That we ought to proscribe these writers as the most dangerous enemies of the country and to circulate an abundance of good literature. The people—what other obstacle is there to their instruction? Their destitution. When then will the people be educated? When they have enough bread to eat, when the rich and the government stop bribing treacherous pens and tongues to deceive them and instead identify their own interests with those of the people. When will this be? Never.

  • prey to the very rules that had propelled their Revolution.

  • Key to the group’s success was its ability to act rapidly within a broad intent, and without needing to wait for orders from above.

  •  “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive;

  •  “I ain’t got no friend but you. Come to my help, Lord, for I’m in trouble.”

  •  “Tell my brothers to be always watching unto prayer, and when the good old ship of Zion comes along, to be ready to step aboard.”

  •  “Were a white person, man or woman, to peril life & health, & spend everything he or she had earned in such a noble & disinterested cause, the name would be trumpeted over the land; but be sure you do not trumpet her noble deeds in the Newspapers.”

  • Rather, the apparent magic stems from the alignment of the right person at the right time, surrounded by a group of people who both enable their activities and find meaning in what someone like Tubman or Zheng offers.

  • We need heroes because of the values they propagate,

  • What is the role of power in leadership, how are leaders granted power, and how does it get taken away?

  •  “A perfect democracy is the most shameless thing in the world?”

  • In the UK, it would not be until 1975 that a woman could open her own bank account, and not until 1982 that she could buy her own drink in a pub.

  •  “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil . . . is that good men do nothing.”

  • To say that a leader is preoccupied with power is like saying that a tennis player is preoccupied with making shots his opponent cannot return.

  • While we speak about power as something that a leader seizes and dispenses, it is more accurate to say that power exists within the system that envelops a leader, and reflects that system’s expectations of its leaders.

  • Luther said that he married Katharina to spite the Devil and the pope—but in the end it was a loving and fruitful relationship.

  • Luther also wanted to secure a new, enduring system of religious faith, and that would require the support of the state to educate the young with Lutheran values.

  • King grew as a leader by playing a role in a movement that unfolded as a series of crises and

  • He remembered “an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.”

  • but muddied the relationship between Atlanta’s upper-class blacks and the white power structure, slowing the process of desegregation.

  •  “I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgotha.”

  • President Kennedy, like many Americans at home, was watching King speak for the first time on television. “He’s damn good,” remarked the president.

  •  “You can tell people not to fight only if you offer them a way by which justice can be served without violence. There is no other honorable alternative. Just to tell people not to fight after children are murdered and leave it at that is wrong and you are expecting and appealing to them to be less than men.”

  • Neither of our leaders intended to spark their movements, but each of them agreed to shoulder a burden at the moment that leadership was made available to them.

  • Saying yes meant both assuming control and giving it up.

  • Luther managed to poke his finger at the Church at just the right time, when it had debased itself by commercializing faith through the sale of indulgences.

  • What we call “leadership” is often some combination of the leader’s actions, along with serendipity or other contextual factors that make for a positive result.

  • And even if we’re more truthful in depicting a leader’s traits, the honest depiction of what was effective is often not the same as what we hold up as desirable.

  • Study after study shows that one’s leadership opportunities are a function of gender, height, and even face width.

  • Two Treatises of Government, concluded that obedience to leaders at all costs was absurd, dangerous, and ultimately a moral failure by followers.

  • we do not follow leaders because we have no choice; rather, we empower them because they provide things that we collectively require.

  • And it was telling because it underlines how often leadership is rooted in communication and narrative.

  •  “we don’t play chess like a grandmaster, invest like Warren Buffett, or cook like an Iron Chef. . . . It’s more likely that we cook like Warren Buffett (who loves to eat at Dairy Queen).”

  • Take, for example, the simple fact that leadership theory promotes the virtue of humility, and yet narcissists are overrepresented in senior leadership positions.

  • For example, our zealots served principally as north stars of clarity in chaotic moments.

  • This explains why followers might turn their attention to the hollow but optimistic leader, or be pulled by the leader who talks a big game but who holds a weak record.

  • since hope and fear are both essential to pulling human society forward.

  • Human systems are oddly capable of selecting or tolerating immoral and incompetent leaders because they provide a different kind of meaning elsewhere, such as social identity or ideological affiliation.

  • As a node, they shift from mere decision maker to a more powerful cultivator, and serve as both a bottom-up servant to enable action and a top-down symbol to motivate and provide for meaning.

  • Rather, they should be equipped with an understanding of leadership as a system, see themselves as the enablers of that system, and learn how to adjust their approach based on the needs of that system.

  • Where I would go, young warriors would follow—or willingly lead me.

  • I will never master leadership, and yet I will never cease the effort to do so.

  • Success, I’ve found, doesn’t always mean you got it right, and failure doesn’t mean you got it wrong.