General Stanley McCrystal has written a memoir of his life and it appears to be a promising read from the recent reviews. Now normally I dismiss most review partly because people are paid to write them and partly because the reviews tend to be biased. But as I read through a few of them I garnered enough information to make the decision to place the book on my list for future purchase and reading. Well, god knows that list is exceptionally long, like a six year old christmas list. Granted that leadership in the military is a different animal than in the civilian world, but it is one of degree in restraints. And there is a large difference between leadership in a peacetime army and one engaged in a war. In fact there is a difference between the very leadership of companies and brigades in battle and those in the rear areas performing the maintenance and administrative duties needed for support of those men on the line.
The General states that leadership is difficult to measure and difficult to fully describe. Yet by observation we can determine who the leaders are in any group of individuals. One sociological study done in the fifties on youth gangs in New York City made the discovery that these gangs were often not lead by the biggest or strongest. Indeed, the leader usually was the one who understood those members of that gang and knew them well enough to understand what each gang member want from the gang. Now this may sound a bit trite but it is never the less very true for in works in the political arena. Leaders influence us toward some immediate goal, An officer who relies solely on his authority to issue orders will find that he none in the heat of battle. He will also find that his opponent will not suspend the battle just so that officer can hold a court martial of those soldiers who have disobeyed a direct command. But we have devised no measure to gauge the strength of leadership nor compass that indicates its direction. We only know who exhibits leadership at any particular moment in time.
McCrystal also indirectly points out that leadership has a reliability component to it. That is, a leader is not always the best leader all the time in every occasion. It is one thing to lead teams of doctors and nurses in a hospital and quite another to lead teams of infantry on the field of battle. It is often difficult for a leader, particularly a general, to step aside and let a lower ranking man or woman lead in that area of expertise the leader has little knowledge. A general may be very brilliant at conducting large scale tank battles but he may also make a lousy tank driver. A good leader allows others to step forward in times of need and make their contributions. Does this apply only to the military? No, and in many cases the civilian world is rife with great examples. This really shows that leadership is really a craft. True, McCrystal says that in his experience people change over time and as a result so does their leadership. That only bolsters the idea that leadership is a craft that is never completely mastered. Good leaders learn how to use the tools at hand, how to turn the situation to advantage.
Do good leaders make mistakes? Most certainly they do. They are human and subject to all the irregular behaviors that humans embrace at various times in their lives. But good leaders learn from their mistakes. They are the stronger for having made a mistake. They also learn that mistakes can be very costly. In battle that often means the lives of good men and the equipment they carry. In business it often means the fortunes and futures of others. It’s the ability to learn from these mistakes and setbacks that win the great battles and wars, that create the great companies and wealth on nations. John Unitas was a failure for the Pittsburgh Steelers but came back to play for the Baltimore Colts and become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Leadership learns to recognize the material it has to work with. Nathan Bedford Forrest was neither a military school graduate nor an academic scholar. Yet he led one of the most feared armies of the Confederacy. If one had to judge in men as they camped one might be tempted to believe that such soldiers could hardly be called that, soldiers. Forrest could not have gotten them to march in step on parade and keep their boots and brass polished. He never tried to get them to act like regular army soldiers simply because he recognized that they weren’t and would never be. Yet he commanded and led them as one unit and one of the most effective fighting forces in the Civil War. He found the most effective leaders in his command and made sure that they had what was needed when it was needed. It is a far cry from looking great on the parade ground and being great on the battle ground. I have watched film of skilled craftsmen in Afghanistan using little more than hammers, pliers, files and crude anvils make approximate copies of working AK47s. It is that leadership skill that effectively leads organizations, not all the most expensive and precision tools one can buy,
McCrystal looks at leadership from a military perspective. He has to because that is his profession. And those men and officers who have any combat experience recognize that there is a vast difference in the leadership of those officers who have only held commands in the peacetime army. Their rewards system is based on looking like a formidable army, not actually being one. So why read about military leadership? Because one can see the principles a little more clearly in the results of war and combat. Vision statements don’t win battles, they don’t sell goods and services, people do. Their activities leave a record that can be examined and judged. So it will be interesting to read General McCrystal’s memoirs.