November 18, 2017

Stanley McChrystal: Blurring the Lines between Leadership and Followership

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In the Spotlight Profiles [ Volume XII, Issue 1 ]

In this issue of The Beacon we challenge your assumptions on leadership and followership. We challenge the notion that leaders and leadership are always the most valuable part of the equation, and that followers and followership are always less valuable. We contend that every organization needs good leaders and good followers and that both skill sets should be valued and developed. We contend that with the correct attitude and skills, you can add dramatic value from anywhere on the organizational chart.

However, implicit in our argument is the assumption that to be a good leader and a good follower requires that you know the difference between the two, and know when to switch one on and the other one off. This is critical, because most organizations are a dynamic maze of reporting structures. At any point in we must have the judgment to know when to step forward and when to step back, when to speak up and when to quiet down, when to lead and when to follow. When we lose the ability to know when we should lead and when we should follow, the risks can be severe… and potentially career-ending.

Witness retired US Army General Stanley Allen McChrystal’s sudden fall from grace. To briefly summarize a distinguished career, the immensely talented McChrystal progressed to the highest ranks in the military despite a well-earned reputation for speaking his mind and stirring up trouble. The ultimate team player, he prided himself on a willingness to join his men on dangerous nighttime raids, unannounced –unheard of for a modern-day general. As leader of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for five years, Newsweek referred to him as “Jedi Commander.” McChrystal had responsibility for America’s most lethal soldiers: the SEAL teams, Delta Force and Rangers. Then, on June 15 2009, he was promoted to the position of Commander, US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), where he was America’s top military man in America’s most important theatre of counterterrorism.

And yet, one year after assuming this command, he was fired by his Commander-in-Chief and immediately retired. What happened? His inability to keep his mouth shut, respect the chain of command, and correctly judge when to follow instead of lead were the clear cause. On June 22, 2010, an article on McChrystal appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, in which the general criticized President Obama, Vice President Biden and other administration officials. He was immediately summoned to the White House and “resigned” as the Commander of USFOR-A just one day after the article was published. Within a week, he retired from the US military. It was a stunning fall from grace for a career military man who, despite his reputation as a loose cannon, was widely respected by his peers.

But as we have written many times over the last year, no one leads all the time, and career success requires that we know when to lead and when to follow. For McChrystal, his disparaging comments in Rolling Stone (his staff never denied the quotes but did claim that the author violated their “off-the-record” trust) showed a clear lack of respect for those above him, a lapse in judgment that he would never have tolerated from those below him.

Many of us may get a chance to lead, but all of us will spend most of our time following someone else. If we develop both skill sets, we will boost our reputation and increase our chances for advancement and long-term career success. If, however, we focus exclusively on leading and never on following, our failure may not be as notorious as General McChrystal’s. But our career paths will almost certainly be halted or at least slowed. Both skill sets matter. Both are worthy of our time and attention. And most importantly, we all must develop the ability to know when to stand up and lead, and when to stand back and follow.


Dean M. Brenner
Wallingford, CT
February 10, 2014


> Beacon Issue – February 2014

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