Who’s The Boss?

Posted 06.23.2010

Mccrystal If you haven’t read the full Rolling Stone article on General Stanley McChrystal, it’s worth 15 minutes of your time to do so. The RS reporter, Michael Hastings, had pretty much unfettered access to McChrystal and his top aides over the course of a month in Paris and Afghanistan. The result of that is an engrossing article that includes a number of intemperate remarks from the General and his aides which have endangered McChrystal’s career. I took some time to read the article online yesterday and was struck by something that I haven’t seen discussed in the secondary reporting.

Several times in the article, aides of McChrystal are quoted referring to him as The Boss. Here’s the first example of that:

The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn't go much better. "It was a 10-minute photo op," says an adviser to McChrystal. "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his (expletive) war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."

The next instance comes in a passage of McChrystal’s relationship with special envoy Richard Holbrooke:

McChrystal reserves special skepticism for Holbrooke, the official in charge of reintegrating the Taliban. "The Boss says he's like a wounded animal," says a member of the general's team. "Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he's going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He's a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto… “

At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry. "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke," he groans. "I don't even want to open it." He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

"Make sure you don't get any of that on your leg," an aide jokes, referring to the e-mail.

The picture the article paints is one in which McChrystal and his aides lost sight of who The Boss really is. For them, as it is for any member of the armed forces, The Boss is the commander-in-chief, the President.  You can agree or disagree with his policies, like or not like the members of his team, but the President is still The Boss.

One of my takeaways from the article is that McChrystal encouraged such fierce and insular loyalty to himself that he damaged his judgment and that of his team. Moreover, as the Holbrooke e-mail story illustrates (as do other stories in the article which I won’t bring up here because there wouldn’t be much left after I edited out the profanity), the general allowed his disrespect for his peers to be visible to his team.  When they responded in kind, he tacitly encouraged it.

The McChrystal situation is a very visible example of what can happen when leaders forget who they’re ultimately working for. That problem can be exacerbated by the leader surrounding himself with people that are more or less a reflection of his own image. The result is a self-reinforcing loop that can eventually blow up in the leader’s face. This doesn’t just happen in the military. It can happen in any organization.