On Being “McCrystalized” – Living Lessons in Leadership

Effective leadership is often in short supply even in the best of times. But, when complicated and contradictory situations arise that are rife with conflict of organizational cultures, then leadership authority becomes fractured, and accountability shunned.

The McCrystal muddle is a classic living, real-time example of this type of leadership challenge.

In the McCrystal brouhaha all that is right about leadership was wrong and while General McCrystal is the face of the failure, the real villain is poor leadership on the part of President Obama. More about Obama in a minute; first a word about McCrystal’s self-made meltdown.

Clearly, the actions of McCrystal and his staff (who were reflecting his viewpoint) were wrong and his dismissal was appropriate. The reason why is as simple as it is obvious: McCrystal broke the rules of the game he had agreed to play and for that he was dismissed.

For those who are familiar with my management philosophy, that conclusion may strike you as a blasphemy. After all, I have always argued that rules are meant to be challenged and that progress is often achieved only by breaking rules.

But my caveat has consistently been that you break the rules that have become dishonest, not those that are inviolate or those that the participants are mutually compliant. And military rule is a perfect example of this exception.

At the founding of our country, one of the most inviolate precepts set forth by the Founding Fathers is Article II of the Constitution: The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. The core of this rule forbids any type of military insubordination that might usurp civilian, i.e., presidential, authority. And when such a threat arises, the president’s obligation is to obviate it.

The best example of this rule’s application was the sacking of military superhero Gen. Douglas MacArthur by President Truman.  MacArthur, as you may remember from history books, was openly critical of Truman’s “limited-war” strategy in Korea. It was an open an shut case of unvarnished insubordination.

Sure, the Truman/MacArthur case seems to be a limited issue. But the efficacy of this rule is so deeply ingrained in the military psyche that members of the military are not only reticent to speak out on issues, but senior officers rarely vote in national elections. (Eisenhower had never voted or registered for a political party up to the time he was elected president.) It is a simple rule that says when you button up the uniform you also button your lip.

Unlike MacArthur, however, McCrystal was not insubordinate to the war policies of President Obama. McCrystal agreed with these policies and was, in fact, one of the chief architects of them. But he did violate the rule that “loose lips end careers,” and he had to go. The irony in this case is that the man considered the most effective at implementing the war policies of the President – General McCrystal – is no longer available to do so. And, that’s an important distinction here.

McCrystal was wrong and deserved the penalty he received, but it is President Obama who is really at fault on two counts.

Grant Leadership Authority

First, President Obama has violated a number of fundamental rules of effective leadership, the most basic of which is this: When you give someone the responsibility for doing a job, you must also give that person the authority to do it. President Obama gave McCrystal half a loaf. He was handed the responsibility for implementing and carrying out the anti-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, but he was given no clear authority to do so. That is an inexcusable recipe for failure.

Not only was McCrystal required to serve the President, but he also had to answer to a slew of bureaucratic generals in the Pentagon, Vice-President Joe Biden, Karl Eikenberry the US ambassador to Afghanistan and State Department Special Representative Richard Holbrooke. Each of these constituencies had their own personal objectives, egos and ideas as to how to accomplish the stated mission.

It does not excuse his actions, but is it any wonder that McCrystal, who thought he had President Obama’s clear directive and support (only to find that he didn’t have either), would become frustrated?

What President Obama should have done was to make it clear to the conflicting constituencies that McCrystal was “his guy” and their job was to support, not block or challenge his efforts. Only with such a leadership approach can an effort to achieve an objective be consistent.

Once a plan has been approved, then one person should be in charge and accountable for the results. Of course, this may be wishful thinking in a hyper-bureaucratic government culture, but even in such an environment it is possible to follow the rule.

For example, during World War II, the most critical mission was to develop an atom bomb before the Germans (who had a head start) could do so. This was a complicated, detailed and, some considered, virtually impossible task. Yet, the effort was successful because President Roosevelt picked one person – Gen. Leslie Groves – and gave him not only the responsibility but the authority to complete the task. General Groves was the go-to person who had the power and authority to steamroll bureaucracy, sift through the conflicting issues and complications to make the final decision. One has to wonder if the project could have been timely completed if General Groves have been required to accept the same type of bureaucratic meddling that confronted General McCrystal.

The challenge in Afghanistan is highly complicated and not susceptible to simple answers. But violating a basic tenet of effective leadership can only make the situation worse.

Choosing the Right Leader

Now to Obama’s second leadership failure. Essential to effective leadership is the ability of the leader to pick the right person for the right job. To do so the leader must understand the potential, the strengths and weaknesses of his people. Only when the leader is able to position the right people in the right job, is there real opportunity for success. To miss the mark here is to preordain failure. And in this case the President not only failed, but failed miserably.

The challenges of Afghanistan are as much political – if not more so – than war-making. Anyone who clearly understood the situation in Afghanistan and the background and experience of McCrystal would have known that putting him “in charge” was a set-up for failure. Not that General McCrystal is not a highly talented, qualified and experienced commander. He is. But he was the wrong person for that job because the job did not fit his talents.

In essence there is a clash of cultures here. It is like trying to mix and entrepreneurial culture with a bureaucratic one. General McCrystal is imbued with a can-do, get-it-done, entrepreneurial philosophy who was cast into a, be-cautious, don’t-be-too-aggressive, bureaucratically driven situation. Virtue in an entrepreneurial culture is to get along by getting things done. Virtue in a bureaucratic culture is to get along by doing nothing.

The parallel that comes to mind is that of Gen. George Patton in World War II. General Patton is recognized as probably the greatest warrior of the 20th century. And yet, he is remembered as much for his controversy as his success. General Patton was clearly a better fighting general than was Eisenhower, but it was Eisenhower who was picked by Roosevelt to lead the war effort. Why? Because the effort to win the war was as much political as it was military. Eisenhower was a politician, more than a fighter. This point was proved after the war when Patton was placed in political charge of Germany. The results were a disaster and Patton was quickly fired. Of note is that the man picked to take McCrystal’ place in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, is known more for his political savvy than his field exploits. (This worked in Iraq, but the jury is still out as to whether this strategy will succeed in Afghanistan.)

And the Moral of the Story . . .

Successful leadership – in any situation – calls for putting the right person in the right job and then giving that person the responsibility and full authority to accomplish the objective.

Failure to stick to these fundamental precepts of leadership is a sign of only one thing – poor leadership.

From now on, when you see a person given the responsibility to do a difficult job, but is not given the power and authority to do so, you can say that he has been “McCrystalized.”

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