Leaders: Myth and Reality by Stan McChrystal, Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone
By The Army Leader Team
“Leadership is not what you think it is – and it never was”
Last week the Army Leader team went to the Emmanuel Centre in London to listen to General McChrystal talk about his latest best-selling book, Leaders: Myth and Reality. During the discussion McChrystal gave a candid and mesmerising insight into the realities of leadership and the myths that surround it. These myths and realities force us to ask three big questions: if leadership isn’t what we thought it was, then what is it; what does this mean for us as leaders; and does this change how we develop leaders going forward?
“We’ve been looking at leaders through myths…if you have no other explanation, why would you not believe them?”
Leaders: Myth and Reality is McChrystal’s third best-selling book. Following on from My Share of the Task and Team of Teams, this book is a must for anyone that is studying leadership or who wants to become a more effective leader. McChrystal and his co-authors organise their book into thirteen short and fascinating leadership biographies. Grouped into six genres of leadership – zealots, founders, power brokers, geniuses, reformers, and heroes – each biography asks what sort of leaders the subjects were. In answering this question the authors uncover three myths:
- “The Formulaic Myth: In an attempt to understand process, we strive to tame leadership into a static checklist, ignoring the reality that leadership is intensely contextual, and always dependent upon particular circumstances.
- The Attribution Myth: We attribute too much to leaders, having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves, and neglecting the agency of the group that surrounds them. We’re led to believe that leadership is what the leader does, but in reality, outcomes are attributable to far more than the individual leader.
- The Results Myth: We say that leadership is the process of driving groups of people towards outcomes. That’s true, to a point, but it’s much broader than that. In reality, leadership describes was leaders symbolise more than what they achieve. Productive leadership requires that followers find a sense of purpose and meaning in what their leaders represent, such as social identity of some future opportunity.”
If leadership isn’t what we thought it was, then what is it?
By recounting the stories of important and influential leaders from Margaret Thatcher and Robert E Lee, to Coco Chanel, Albert Einstein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Leaders: Myth and Reality demonstrates these myths transcend continents and centuries. And their very existence forces us to ask once more what leadership is. Acknowledging that leadership is difficult to define, McChrystal argues that leadership is not simply inspiring others to achieve an outcome, but is in fact “a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members”.
What does this mean for followership? In tune with the lessons McChrystal shared in Team of Teams, a networked approached to leadership requires followers to take more responsibility. In the modern world, followers cannot wait for leaders to make decisions. Empowerment is more important than ever, and followers need to take the responsibility for this. They need to push for information, give feedback and make timely recommendations. In a networked model of leadership “followers should be more willing to shape and confine their leaders’ style”.
What does this mean for us as leaders?
“For leadership to work it needs to be about the future. Making people feel that it will be better. Creating that vision in your people”.
McChrystal argues that there are three realities that correspond to the three myths of leadership:
- “Leadership is contextual and dynamic, and therefore needs to be constantly modulated, not boiled down to a formula.
- Leadership is more an emergent property of a complex system with rich feedback, and less a one-directional process enacted by a leader.
- The leader is vitally important to leadership, but not for the reasons we usually ascribe. It is often more about the symbolism, meaning, and future potential leaders hold for their system, and less about the results they produce”
McChrystal argues that these will force us to significantly reconsider how we lead, follow and teach. Rather than sitting at the top of a pyramid, leaders should reposition themselves as a node as part of a network. A network that is based on human relationships. This shift will highlight the importance of humility, of listening, and of cultivating the team. Just as networks morph and change, so must we. As leaders we need to “serve as both a bottom-up servant to enable action and a top-down symbol to motivate and provide for meaning”.
In London, McChrystal reflected on his own leadership style in Iraq, recounting that, “the more I worked on creating an environment and giving people freedom, the better the results”. Simply put, the emphasis should no longer be placed on the leader, but on their followers, those that give the leader their legitimacy and power. In his book, McChrystal goes further. He highlights the one commonality between all of the leaders in his book. “Many of our leaders were made powerful not so much by what they did, or even by what they said, but by what their followers perceived they had to gain either individually or collectively by buying into what their leader was asking. They stood for the hopes and fears of a future state of being, and their role as leaders was in crafting a visceral sense of the possible”. All of this suggests that leadership is not bold and heroic, but is in fact deeply human and all about relationships. Leaders enable their followers to succeed, and provide the motivation to do so through an attainable meaning and purpose.
Does this change how we develop leaders going forward?
In his book, McChrystal argues that it does. “Leaders shouldn’t be given a checklist of attributes. 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”. He reiterated this when we asked him in person what all this meant for training military leaders. He told us that “followers are looking for an emotional connection. This means leaders need to focus on a network of relationships and adapt to the requirement. You learn leadership from what you see, and a lot from trial and error”.
The British Army focuses its basic leadership training on formulaic theories. So this presents a significant inflection point in the way we develop our leaders. Our leaders need to be educated through practice over theory, and by learning from others. This means a widening of leadership study to incorporate a greater variety of leaders, contexts and environments. There is more to gain through studying the situation that made a particular style of leadership effective than by trying to attribute a certain theory to an individual’s success. Critical to this is increasing the diversity of leaders that we study, and the range of industries that we expose our people to. McChrystal proves this in spades through the breadth of his studies. Positively, we are already seeing signs of a shift in the Army’s approach to leadership, most notably at this year’s Centre of Army Leadership Conference. But we still have a way to go.
Leaders: Myth and Reality is an important book and one whose true impact cannot be expressed in a short summary. The value lies in each of the biographies, carefully selected and studiously examined. They, and the conclusions that General McChrystal and his team draw, turn any pre-existing notions of leadership upside down, forcing genuine reflection and reminding us why the study of leaders is so fascinating. As the authors say, leaders “are the beating pulse of change. They start companies, invent things; and they lead nations, courtrooms, and countries; they make others happy and fulfilled, frustrated and desolate, hopeful or inspired”.
If you like the idea of leadership biographies as a way to learn but prefer reading about sporting legends, then check out The Captain Class. In it, Sam Walker works out the leadership styles of the world’s most successful sports teams.