Berkeley Haas - Dean's Speaker Series | General Stanley McChrystal, Founder & CEO, McChrystal Group

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  • Good afternoon, everybody.

I’m Ann Harrison.

I’m the Dean at the Haas School of Business.

Welcome on this beautiful sunny day.

This is a very special Dean’s Speaker Series.

It is co-sponsored by the Haas Veterans Club.

I am deeply honored to introduce General Stanley McChrystal,

who is today’s distinguished speaker.

General McChrystal was educated at West Point,

the US Naval War College,

and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

He has practiced and established effective leadership

throughout his army career,

which has included numerous leadership and staff positions.

Most notably from 2003 to 2008,

General McChrystal commanded

the Joint Special Operations Command

with responsibility for leading

the nation’s deployed military counter terrorism efforts

around the globe.

In 2009, he received his fourth star

and assumed command of all international forces

in Afghanistan.

In 2011, General McChrystal founded the McChrystal Group,

an advisory services firm that encourages businesses

to challenge the hierarchical command and control approach

to organizational management.

A passionate advocate for national service,

McChrystal is the Chair

of the Board of Service Year Alliance,

which envisions a future in which a service year

is a cultural expectation for every young American.

He’s also a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s

Jackson Institute for Global Affairs,

where he teaches a popular course on leadership

and is a bestselling author of a number of leadership books.

General McChrystal, thank you so much

for taking the time to speak with us today.

We are so grateful you are here,

and we are really looking forward to today’s discussion.

Today’s conversation will be led by two MBA students,

both veterans, and part of our Haas Veterans Club.

We will have time for audience questions

after the conversation.

So Nate, go ahead, and let’s get started.

  • Hi, General.

My name’s Nate Mason.

I enlisted in the Air Force,

inspired by the attacks of 9/11,

and actually end up serving 12 years on active duty

before separating.

Thanks for being here.

  • [General McChrystal] Thanks for having me. It’s an honor.

  • My first question, sir, is when you were a young officer,

you were taught to trust your gut,

to go with your instincts,

but later you said that mindset was wrong.

At Haas we’re taught to make data driven decisions.

I believe decision making takes a balanced approach

of trusting your gut and using data.

Do you still believe trusting your gut is wrong?

And if not, like what changed your mind?

  • Yeah, I don’t think there’s a single answer to this

because the answer is if you have enough data,

theoretically, you have the answer to the problem,

but we almost never have enough data.

And if we have a lot of data,

we don’t know if we have all the data that we need.

And so the answer is, I think it’s always a combination.

What I would say is the best approach that I find

is first to be voracious about trying to get information

that informs you about the problem

or the decision you’re gonna make,

but don’t be scared to make a decision

with your instincts either.

Often you know so much more than you think you do.

And there’s also, one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen is

people will try get more and more information

to mitigate the risk that they’re wrong down to zero.

And by the time you’ve gathered that much information,

the opportunity’s passed or the risk is arrived.

So the reality is it’s always a balance,

and you are gonna have to

unless things change dramatically,

go an awful lot with your instincts.

Often more than you really would like to.

  • Thank you.

Recently, I had a class with Angela Duckworth,

an American author and researcher

who’s best known for research on grit,

a strength she defines as passion and perseverance

for long term goals.

Her research found a positive correlation

between grit and highly successful people.

What would it be if you had to name one characteristic

of your most successful leaders?

  • Yeah, this is an interesting one

because we could sort of hang it on the word successful.

If somebody is an effective leader,

it doesn’t mean they’re a good person.

It also doesn’t, because if we say successful,

I mean, in that mind,

Adolf Hitler was successful too by many metrics,

and there are a number of other people

that we don’t admire their efforts or the outcome,

but they were effective at what they did

and therefore you could argue successful.

But what I would say, I think the most important thing,

without trying to dance around that is I agree

with the idea of grit in generally successful

in accomplishing what you want to do.

I think empathy is critical for leaders.

And when I say empathy, I don’t mean sympathy.

I don’t mean rubbing people’s back and making ’em feel good.

What I mean is the ability to put yourself in a position

where you can respect

what the other person’s perspective is.

Be able to put yourself on the other side of the table

and understand that the people you’re dealing with

or leading are probably and usually are rational people.

They have a view.

They have a mindset that is a result

of their life experience to that point.

And so sometimes we think that if I speak louder

or if I have a very clever argument,

I’m gonna talk people into a different perspective on life.

And I found that that’s typically not the outcome.

Typically, if you are empathetic enough

to respect people’s viewpoints, then you have an ability,

a starting point to start and connect to them.

And in many cases provide the kind of leadership

that is effective.

  • General, in your book “Team of Teams,”

you describe a gardener analogy to leadership.

Can you briefly describe that approach to the group?

And then the second part,

how can leaders create and foster that type of environment?

  • Yeah, I’m happy to.

And I really came up with that gardener analogy

from working in my mother’s garden when I was a kid.

Where I was sort of unskilled labor carrying stuff around,

but the reality is for much of the leadership training

that I got, it was really sort of based on the idea

of being a chess master.

And it was designed to build as much competence as you could

at the military art in the case of military leadership,

and in the ability to be a strategist.

And that crosses beyond just military.

But the idea is, if you are a brilliant strategist,

you maneuver your organization like chess pieces on a board.

And if you’re better than your opponent,

then your organization will be more successful than theirs.

You’ll win the battle or the business interaction.

What I found in the later parts of my career

as I got into increasingly complex environments,

and I think this is more and more true in the modern ages,

variables and the speed of things increase.

Therefore the complexity of the environment

that we’re operating at increases.

What I found is that doesn’t really work

because I haven’t run into anybody

that’s good enough to do that in that kind of environment.

Even though we have this siren’s call of modern technology,

where I can talk to anybody with a cell phone,

connect with ’em,

I can see where they are using unmanned aerial vehicles

or tracking systems.

So if I wanna micromanage,

I’ve got more tools than any time in history,

but I would argue that this is exactly the time

we need to take the opposite approach.

Because in a complex environment,

what I have found works best

is to take this gardener approach.

And that is really the gardener creates the garden.

The gardener doesn’t grow anything, only plants do that.

But the gardener creates an environment

where plants do that which only plants can do.

And so the idea of the gardener is somewhat less ego driven,

somewhat less leader centric,

but the gardener creates this opportunity

for the people in this case in the organization to do more,

to be more effective themselves.

Instead of being chess pieces, in fact,

they are thinking, acting, decision making entities,

and what I found in a very complex environment

that is far more effective.

And it’s also, has second and third order effects

of helping develop people over time.

Will you have some missteps?

Will you have some junior leaders

who don’t yet have the experience or the competence

to get it right all the time?

You will.

But the reality is I believe that in the aggregate

you have fewer mistakes and a much better outcome

when you push that down to people lower in the organization,

closer to the problem.

  • One of the “Team of Teams” framework is trust.

With more and more companies allowing employees

to work remotely, how can you effectively build trust

across organizations in the remote setting?

  • I’m not sure we know yet to be honest.

I think we have a lot of theories about it.

And we say we are going to trust you.

And trust goes both ways.

It’s the organization, trust up into the organization,

to the values of the organization, to their leaders,

to their fellow teammates.

But in my experience,

much of trust comes from a lot of interaction.

You know, I often jokingly ask people,

who do they or what do they trust?

And they say, well, I trust my family or my pastor

or my best friends.

And I typically go, you trust McDonald’s,

and they go, no, I don’t. You know, I don’t like that food.

And I say, you do trust it

because when you see the sign on the roadway,

you know what to expect.

They have through repeated interactions convinced you

that you know about how good the quality will be,

about how clean it will be, exactly what it will cost.

And therefore you can make a decision

based upon a level of trust, and you go or don’t go there.

And so I think in organizations where we are remote,

we are gonna have to take a journey here

and figure out what really builds that trust.

What gives us enough interactions, where I, for example,

would trust your good intentions and your competence.

Because if you say you’re gonna do something,

I’ve gotta trust both of those.

One I think you’re gonna do it for, you know,

my best outcome,

but also that you’re capable of delivering what you say.

And so I think it’s gonna take us a little while,

and it’ll vary for different organizations and people,

but I think it’s a journey that’s really just starting.

  • In your book “Leaders,” you debunk what you call

the attribution myth,

which purports that successes and failures of a team

are all the results of its leader,

which I know is really big in the army.

Instead, you suggest that the best leaders,

like you mentioned a little bit earlier,

are those who are able to maximize

their team members’ potential

without putting themselves on a pedestal.

Here at Haas, we have a lot of people

who will soon be in situations

where they’ll want to make a lot of impact.

What would you recommend to them

to attempt to make that impact

without putting themselves on a pedestal

or trying to do too much?

  • Yeah, it’s a really interesting tension

because it pulls in several directions, not just two.

First off, when I left the military

along with a great young man

who’s just graduating from Yale Law School,

I wrote my memoirs, and it was a humbling experience

because you write your memoirs,

you know what happened because you were there.

Well, the reality is we spent two and a half years

researching all the parts of my life

that were interesting enough to include in memoirs

or at least I thought they were.

And what we found when we did all these interviews

is in many cases, I had a pretty superficial view

of what had happened in a case.

We had, I’d made a decision.

This had been the outcome.

And so I connected my decision to the outcome.

And then when we did interviews and got more background,

we found in many cases

were all these other things happening

that had much greater actual causation

to what happened than my great or bad decision.

And so I suddenly stepped back and said

I’m not even the star of my own memoirs.

The reality is things are much more complex than that.

And so the idea that the leader is the person that causes

the corporation to be successful or the country to do it,

or the team to win,

whatever, you know, you want to connect it to

is usually a gross oversimplification.

And it’s partly the way we write history.

It’s also reinforced by things like our incentive programs.

If someone leads an organization, they want to get credit,

so they’ll get promoted.

Or if they’re in a financial thing, they want to get credit

so they’ll be paid more.

So there’s a temptation to try to personify

to say that’s the reason we succeeded or didn’t succeed.

Now, I’m not trying to say that leaders are not important.

They are.

And other members of organizations are very important.

But I think that when we try to attribute the outcomes

to one or even a small number of people,

we run a great risk of putting the spotlight

on a single person,

ignoring everything that’s right out of that field of view

and missing the actual full story.

And when we think about that further,

and we talk about creating good organizations,

we start to say, well, if we go get a great quarterback

or a great coach we’ve solved the problem.

And actually the organizations that do best

build organizations.

They build full teams, and they are then less reliant

on the superstar CEO or something like that.

So I think it’s important we not, you know, bow down

or salute every time we pass somebody up on a pedestal.

  • Thank you.

In one of your TED talks,

you mentioned that leaders can let you fail

without making you feel like a failure.

And that leaders increasingly need to adapt to environments

and teams where they may not have expertise.

And you mentioned this a little bit earlier

in the complex environments.

What advice do you have for MBA students

who will soon be leading diverse teams

with divergent skill sets,

where they may not have expertise?

  • Yeah, it’s, I’m gonna take both of those,

‘cause you mentioned the first part

about you can fail without being a failure

because that’s really important

because if we have a sense that we cannot fail

without being a failure, and the military,

the army particularly has a bad habit

of zero defect situations.

If you get anything significant on your record,

an officer or senior NCO is not likely to move

to the next level of promotion or responsibility.

What that does, it’s insidious.

You say, well, what we’re gonna do

is we’re gonna pull out the people who don’t do well.

What you do is you cause people

to be extraordinarily risk averse

because they don’t want to take a chance

where they could get a ding.

And the problem with that of course is there are less dings,

but there’s also less accomplished

because people are unwilling to take the kind of risks.

And I’m not talking about

being frivolous with people’s lives.

I’m talking about risks in reasonable things

that produce greater outcomes.

The other part of that you talk about is

you’re gonna go into organizations,

and you’re not gonna be the expert.

Well, in some cases you will.

In some cases, you’ll be a very narrow expert

or you’ll be the person most informed on a single issue.

But as soon as you get more senior

that will become less and less the case.

You may have more experience, more instinct,

more general kind of ability to add to it,

but you’ll have less granular information.

And I remember as I got more senior in the army,

another senior leader, I said,

how do you get briefed 15 times day?

And someone comes in and briefs you

on a pretty complicated thing, and you,

how do you make a decision?

‘Cause there’s no way you can understand

all of the background information

and the data the person puts in front of you

for that decision.

He said, well, what you learn to do is judge the briefer.

You learn to judge whether that person speaking to you

has credibility.

If they have a track record, that’s very useful.

If they don’t have a track record,

you learn to get an instinctual response.

Does that person seem to know?

And really good leaders I’ve seen

learn to ask some very strategic questions

that sort of ferret out whether the person

one understands what they’re talking about

and two is it rational?

And it’s still not foolproof because, as you know,

people can come in and they can be very loquacious

and convincing, and in the limits of senior leadership,

where you’ve gotta go through decisions, you’re,

in many cases, you’re a little bit vulnerable to that,

but over time you get better and better at it.

So what I’d tell you is particularly as you get senior,

leadership and problem solving is more about people

than it is about the nuts and bolts of the issue.

Particularly as you get the wide swaths of things,

and you can’t try to become an expert on all of those.

And if you do, I think it’s a fools errand

because you’ll start to grab onto certain parts of it,

and you won’t be able to step back

and make the broader judgements

that I think are really the best way to go.

  • Yeah, that’s great.

Building on that maybe,

leadership is often used synonymously with management.

You’ve you’ve said a lot about both here today.

How would you distinguish between the two?

And what advice do you have for people

who aspire to be good leaders

who are going into managerial positions?

And how would you kind of delineate between those two?

  • Yeah, I think that they are not easy

to completely separate.

We tend to think of leadership as inspiration

or developing of people,

and we tend to think of management as, you know,

assigning tasks and tracking things.

In 1994, I was commanding a parachute infantry battalion

in the 82nd airborne division.

And on a March morning,

I had paratroopers down at Pope Air Force Base

preparing to do a practice parachute jump.

And there was a freak accident above the airfield.

An F-16 and a C-130 collided.

They later attributed it

to an air traffic control mistake.

And in the process, the F-16 pilot ejected,

and the plane went down and crashed onto the airfield.

Now it crashed onto the airfield,

and it hit a parked airplane, a cargo plane, a C-141,

that was loaded with fuel, but not with people,

and it created a fireball of fuel and wreckage.

And that fireball of fuel and wreckage

went about a hundred more meters

and ran right into where elements of my battalion

and another battalion were preparing for a parachute jump.

So in an instant young paratroopers

were engulfed in flame and wreckage.

21 were killed.

45 were badly injured, in many cases,

burns, amputations, and whatnot.

Now over the next really months,

but really over the next days right after that,

I was a leader who had just had 10% of my battalion

made casualties.

And you expect casualties in war time,

but this was in peace time.

And just in an instant, 10% of the battalion were casualties

of a pretty shocking nature.

Now I had to try to be the best leader I could be

and provide inspiration and interact with people.

But the other thing I had to do was be a manager

because in that moment,

we had to organize our battalion

to provide people to take care of families.

In many cases, there were families that had been left

by somebody who’d been killed or wounded.

Other families came in, parents and whatnot,

to take care of people.

We had to arrange meals, hotel rooms, travel,

and then fairly soon we had to arrange burial parties

who go around the country and conduct the burials.

Now in that case you could say

that that second part was logistics, and it was management,

but I’d say it’s pretty hard to parse out that management

from leadership because it was so incredibly important.

So what I’d say is good leaders

have gotta be competent managers so people get paid,

so people get healthcare.

So in the case of soldiers, so they get fed,

so that the mess hall, things that seem mundane,

but at the end of the day are the welfare of people,

I think it overlaps into leadership.

And so I think that’s true at every level.

And so I would say that we don’t wanna to pretend

that there is more separation than there is.

At the same time,

I think if someone is skewed totally towards management,

and they don’t understand

that the other human aspects of leadership,

they’re unlikely to be as effective in critical moments

as they might be.

We’ve all known people who that is their greater strength.

  • Got it.

In “Leaders,” you mentioned lessons you learned

from the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Can you expand on some of those lessons?

And why did you choose specifically to focus on Zarqawi?

  • Yeah, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a young Jordanian

who’d grown up in the town of Zarqa, an industrial town.

And he had as a young man gotten more, well,

first he had a lot of issues, petty crime.

He was kind of a thug, got into drugs and alcohol,

and his mother put him in a more fundamentalist school.

And then he became more imbued with the tenets of Islam.

And then he went to first to Pakistan then Afghanistan

to try to fight the Soviets.

But he got there after the Soviets

had pulled out of Afghanistan.

So he did operate against the remnants

of the Soviet-backed government

under President Najibullah,

but he became more and more extreme.

He came back to Jordan a few years later

and got himself thrown into prison by the Jordanians

who considered him a dangerous extremist.

And he spent five years in prison.

And during that period, he became more and more extreme,

more and more committed,

more and more fanatical, we would say, or zealous.

He came out of there, went back and formed an organization

that was allied with, but initially not part of Al-Qaeda.

And I tell you this story because he took a road

to get to lead an organization

that eventually became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

He was not particularly well,

in fact, he was not well educated at all,

but he was extraordinarily committed.

He was inflexibly committed to his beliefs.

And that’s not always a bad thing.

I mean, there’s a, you know,

there’s a reason to admire someone

who believes in something strongly.

Now I believed in something different,

but the reality was he had a level of zealotry

that was very inspirational to people, to bring to him.

And he committed people to a level of extremism

against the government of Iraq

and against American and allied forces

because he was so committed to it.

And he was also a very effective retail leader.

He dealt well with people.

He was kind of soft spoken around those.

He did the things

that people expected a terrorist leader to do.

He dressed the part.

He went out and did operational things.

So I say all of this is

while I very much was opposed to him.

I thought he was a psychopathic murderer.

I also thought he was a very effective leader.

And for two and a half years,

my force fought him, and we ultimately killed him.

But the fact that I thought so different from him,

shouldn’t color my admission that he was damn good,

and he almost beat us.

And he almost beat us because he was very good,

not because his cause or whatever.

And so I say that.

And so he had a leadership style

that was fairly decentralized.

It was very flexible, constantly adaptable.

You know, a lot of things.

He probably couldn’t walk into a Fortune 500 Company

because he had some other issues.

But the reality is he was, he was good.

And we have got to learn from people who are effective,

not just people we like or agree with.

  • [Nate] One last question for you, General.

  • Yes, sir.

  • When I served on active duty,

I spent a career in a joint serve service environment

where it was rare to know the political affiliation

of other service members.

However, political conversations took a turn

later in my career,

and before I separated from the Air Force in 2016,

I noticed a culture shift across the organizations

that embraced overt tribal politics.

I’m interested to hear your perspective

on how leaders should manage

fast moving corrosive culture shifts.

  • Yeah, this is gonna be something

that we’re gonna have to learn to do

because my experience was yours.

When I was in the military, we didn’t talk politics

of a partisan nature.

I didn’t know who was a Republican, Democrat or whatever.

It just wasn’t considered the right thing to do.

And yet, as we see this growth

in this cultural or tribal politics,

it’s almost identifying with a part of our society

as opposed to a traditional political party.

It’s pretty dangerous.

And it’s fueled by,

in many cases by misinformation or disinformation.

I think that the first thing we’ve gotta do in the military

is we’ve gotta stay absolutely focused with people,

the importance of an apolitical military,

and the importance is because if we lose

that nature of our military,

we will be like many other countries

that have had military overthrows on a pretty regular basis

because the military starts to rationalize

that they are the actual stewards of the nation.

And so they will overthrow a civilian government and say,

we actually have the best interests of the people at heart,

and we know best.

And I think in many cases, they actually believe that.

But once you create that dynamic, and the military

who are uniquely armed, and therefore, it’s, you know,

they are advantaged in a competitive environment.

Then suddenly you don’t have a democracy.

You have something different.

You have something that’s been corrupted.

I think that we’ve gotta start by constantly pushing,

not just to inside our military force but outside,

the importance of an apolitical military.

The second is discipline.

There are certain things you just don’t do

because you’re in the military.

And if you choose to be in the military,

you follow orders.

You don’t do other things.

And so the reality is, I think we’ve got to understand

that military people are not like every other citizen

because we give them weapons.

And so the reality is that when a person joins the military,

they make a vow that they are going to follow certain orders

and not become partisan.

I think we need to nail that as well.

And then we need to have a discussion across our nation

that once our political conversation, discussion, argument,

whatever we wanna call it,

once it starts to tip past a certain point,

it’s really hard to get back.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading

about the decades before the US Civil War recently.

And the reality is there was a period for several decades

where there was always disagreements

between the north and the south political party

and even over slavery.

But then it tipped, and it started to tip about 1850.

And then of course the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,”

and then it became a cultural disagreement,

not just a political disagreement.

There was always that in the background

and in economic issues, but then it became tribal.

And once it became tribal,

arguably it may have been impossible

to stop the carnage that began in 1861.

And that’s what we don’t want to see in my view.

  • Thank you, General.

  • Call me Stan, please.

Come on, guys.

We talked about that.

I’ve been called a lot worse, so don’t worry.

  • Okay, Stan, if I may.

  • [General McChrystal] Please.

  • Thank you.

So we have time for question from the audience,

and this is a wonderful opportunity.

So if any of you would like to go to the mics

and ask a question of General Stan, please do so.

And can you please identify yourselves also?

  • Hi, Stan.

My name is Peter.

I’m a full-time MBA.

Thank you so much for being here with us.

So here at Berkeley Haas,

one of the core tenets of our school

is to learn how to challenge the status quo.

So you mentioned that in the military

you have to follow orders from your commanding officers,

not really much of a dialogue,

you just do what he or she tells you.

So how do you reconcile that

with becoming an independent thinker who uses your autonomy

to make important decisions?

Thank you.

  • Yeah, it’s a great question.

And there’s a tension in the military and always has been.

You want iconoclastic thinkers who will question doctrine,

who will question processes in the military,

who will push the bounds of the way things are done.

Look at Billy Mitchell with air power,

and there are always history like that.

However, there is a time for that and a way to do that,

and then there’s a time not to do that.

As I tell people, you know,

when the landing craft hits Omaha beach and the ramp drops,

that’s not the time for people to question

whether this is a good idea.

That is the time when you follow through and execute.

It’s a little bit of art.

I mean, people have gotta understand

there is a time in a warm, cool, dry, calm place

where you can push things.

And you can have that conversation,

even with your very senior leaders.

There’s not a time for the kind of character attacks

or arguments that weaken the institution

that aren’t a conversation.

Many of you, and I doubt many of you are married

at this point, but if you are,

you know that a marriage consists

of a number of conversations,

and those conversations have gotta be conducted carefully

within a certain rule set

because once you cross by,

cross outside too often and too far,

it’s hard to resurrect it.

And so I would say that’s kind of the way it is

in the military.

Unfortunately, we too often become too rank conscious,

too status quo conscious, too limited.

And so I think we can push the bounds courteously,

respectfully a little more than we do.

  • Hi, sir.

My name is Emma Levy, and I’m a second year MBA.

I was an analyst at the McChrystal Group back in 2013.

It was my first job outta college

and remains a really foundational part of my career.

And I know the McChrystal Group.

  • [General McChrystal] Thanks for all you’ve done.

  • Good to see you again.

So I know the McChrystal Group has changed and evolved

since I was there in 2013.

I left in 2014 to go back to grad school,

but I was wondering if you could share an example

for how the application of your leadership principles

has transformed corporations.

  • Yeah, and that’s a really good question,

and again thanks for all you’ve done.

What we do is we try to partner with organizations

basically to unlock their capacity.

You know, most organizations,

they’ve got pretty good people.

They’ve got, they’re in a good market, or if they’re not,

those are problems that we really can’t take on for ’em.

They’ve gotta, they’ve gotta have certain things,

but what we can do is we can unlock their ability.

So what we found is there are several things

that work pretty well.

First is to understand the problem and do a diagnostic

to get down and see why the engine’s running rough.

The second is to get an operating rhythm that works.

That seems, that seems so basic.

It’s really a schedule.

It’s how you do things.

You control interactions, and people say, ah, that’s basic.

That’s simple stuff.

It’s actually not.

Creating an effective operating rhythm

that creates processes and passes information

on a constant basis is key.

Creating decision space,

identifying what decisions are made where,

and it’s not inflexible,

but it creates the ability for decisions.

And the heart of that, of course, is communication.

At the end of the day,

I would say that the most important thing

that organizations seek

is what we call shared consciousness.

And that is a common, contextual understanding

of what the organization’s trying to do

and what the situation is in the moment.

And therefore people are empowered to make decisions

down at a lower level

because they’re now armed with information

and not just authorities, but expectations

that they make decisions closer to the problem.

And we found tremendous success as organizations do this.

And again, it sounds basic, but it’s really easy to say.

And, as you know, really hard to do.

A little bit like, you know, doing a nuclear reaction,

you bring a bunch of things together

and think it’s gonna work.

Well, you can have a really bad outcome

or you can produce great energy.

Thanks so much.

  • [Emma] Yeah, thank you.

  • My question is in regards to your involvement

in Afghanistan.

From what I understand, you played a significant role

back in 2009 and pushing for

tens of thousands of more troops to be sent to Afghanistan

as part of a counterinsurgency strategy.

And basically to give time to the US to train

and build a larger Afghan National Army Police Force,

and in a meeting with Biden,

you along with Petraeus and others were asked, quote,

“If the government’s a criminal syndicate a year from now,

“how will the troops make a difference?”

Quote, “if a year from now,

“there is no demonstrable progress in governments,

“what do we do?”

And according to Woodward “Obama’s Wars,”

no one in that room recorded an answer in their notes.

You later admitted in an interview last year, that quote,

“I don’t think we sat around a table ever

“and talked about where this is going to be in 20 years.”

It’s documented extensively how leading US generals

and officials have lied profusely

regarding the wars following 9/11

and the quote unquote progress that they were making.

And none of them have been punished yet for their deceit.

You’ve of course continued on in building a career

after your time in the military.

And as we know, Afghanistan is now in complete shambles.

There are nearly 20 million people on the verge of famine,

millions of others that are now refugees,

hundreds of thousands civilians killed,

and thousands of our own troops dead as well,

all for the price of over $2 trillion.

I don’t know what it’s like serving in the military.

I don’t know what it’s like being in a position of authority

where you need to make decisions with limited information.

But what I do know is that when people are put

into extremely high positions of power,

they deserve greater scrutiny as well.

And so my two part question is one,

do you believe you share any responsibility,

an iota of accountability

in the current humanitarian crisis,

the largest of its kind right now in Afghanistan?

And two, what is the US military

and the US government’s responsibility

in uplifting a people whose country that we helped destroy?

  • I’m not sure what you want my response to be here.

I mean, that was more speech than question.

I have a different view.

I believe, and I will tell you what I saw.

I saw from 2002 on,

which is the first time I actually went to Afghanistan.

I saw forces from the west,

the United States being the preponderance,

go there and find a country that was literally in tatters

from almost 20 years of war at that point.

As you remember, 10 years of war against the Soviets

and then a brutal civil war,

and first amongst the Muj groups

and then with the Taliban.

So when we arrived in 2002,

there was a requirement in Afghanistan

for the Afghans to put back a nation, put it together.

And yet the pieces were in pretty bad shape.

So you run into a pretty difficult situation.

There was an argument that says

we should have turned our backs

and walked away at that point.

And that’s not the decisions that were made.

And I personally think that that would’ve been

a very difficult decision to make.

The actions that I saw after that, every year,

and I was there part of every year from 2002

until I left the service in 2010.

I never saw the version

that some of your question described,

I never saw stupid people.

I never saw people lying about the situation.

I never saw the kinds of things that you either believe

or the tone of the question.

What I saw was good people working hard,

trying to get a good outcome.

Now we didn’t get a good outcome,

which ought to give us an awful lot of cause

because if we do have good people

trying very hard to get a good outcome,

and we don’t get the outcome we want,

that’s actually more disturbing

than if we can find some generals who lied

or something like that.

Because in reality, if we do, give it our best shot,

and we struggle, then I think gotta look at

a whole bunch of things, processes and whatnot.

You ask the question whether I feel responsible?

Of course I do.

I believe, well, lemme put it this way.

I only know what my intentions were at my decisions were,

and I’m very comfortable with what my intentions were.

I don’t think all my decisions were right.

I don’t think there’ll be many senior leaders

who claim that every decision they made was right.

But the reality is I think that as I look at the decisions

of others as well, I think there was a good faith effort,

a lot of, again, a lot of mistakes made,

but I think that you probably oversimplify it

in my interpretation,

in the way that you’ve concluded.

And as we go into a situation like this again,

what we’ve gotta do is be able to step back and say,

okay, how are we gonna get better next time?

One morally, will we make the decision to do anything?

Will we just say, well, we touched the stove,

and it was too hot, and therefore, we can’t do that.

And I would point to things like Rwanda,

where we made the decision to do nothing.

And there’s certainly questions

about whether we would do that particular decision again,

but this is what’s gonna make it hard.

And that’s why I think studying this kind of thing

is of value for you.

  • Thank you so much, General.

Thank you.

Can you please identify yourself?

  • Hi, my name’s Austin Lavin Fulton, MBA Class of 2022.

That’s gonna be a tough act to follow.

My question’s a little easier.

So prior to Haas, I worked for the Intel community

and served as a consultant for the IC.

In my time in the IC, I learned that faith

and democratic institutions are really key

to a country’s stability.

My question for you is

how do we get faith in democratic institutions in the states

back on track, given the fact that right now

the faith is at an all time low

given like corrosive political commentary?

  • Yeah, I agree with you completely

that the most important thing

is to have faith in our democratic institutions

to include elections.

I think they’ve been undermined by misinformation,

disinformation, and also by some people

who have conducted themselves in a way

that I think gives us a big question mark

in whether our institutions are as strong

and provide as fair an outcome as they need to.

The problem is now, even if they do provide that,

there’s enough people who doubt it,

that it gets a certain reality in perception.

And if people doubt that the outcome in fact

is either real or, you know,

reflects the will of the people,

then you suddenly are unfettered.

You can make an argument that says,

if the election was not fair,

then why should I limit my actions

to those things within the law?

Why wouldn’t I use violence or other things

to overthrow the government?

Because the foundation

upon which the legitimacy of the government,

which is the validity of elections, is in doubt.

That’s why this is so incredibly important.

So incredibly sacred.

And yet we are trying to figure out in this new environment

of the way information flows and whatnot

how to deal with it.

And I’m not sure that we,

I don’t think we’re mature enough yet as a society

for the information technology we have at our fingertips.

I think we’ve got more power

than we have maturity to use it

because we can, as we know, we can influence people

in ways that are pretty dangerous.

  • [Austin] Thank you.

  • Hi, I’m George.

I work for the Department of Energy,

so I’m intimately familiar

with the command and control structure

and the serial defect policies you describe.

Also, I’m forbidden to make Third Reich comparisons at work,

but you started in the beginning with, you know,

Adolf Hitler was a very efficient leader.

So thank you for that, I’m gonna bring that to work.

But to my question, if you have an organization

that is very command and control,

how did you manage to get the decisions down to the people?

And how did you, I guess,

manage up and like stand behind the shift

in organizational structure there?

  • Yeah, well, imperfectly would be the answer,

but the reality is the military is perceived

as the ultimate command and control organization.

The ranks are clear, the chain of command,

and everybody thinks that if a leader in the,

military leader tells the organization to go left,

it all goes left.

That’s not really accurate.

The reality is it’s much more like a civilian organization.

On the parade ground, privates will follow a Sergeant

because that’s an environment,

and they’re certainly frightened of the Sergeant there,

but in combat, they’re more frightened of the enemy.

And so the reality is they do things for leaders

in difficult environments,

and particularly when you are spread out.

So the leadership that is needed to be effective

in that situation is much more

the influence kind of leadership and inspiration,

and them trusting that the decisions made by their leaders

are in the best interest of them, that individual soldier,

but also of the cause for which they fight.

There’s always institutional pressures on organizations

if you try to change as we tried to change

at the counter-terrorist world.

When we pushed things a certain way,

there would be almost an equal and opposite reaction

that says, no, you can’t do ’em that way

because we’ve not done it that way before.

I found, in some cases, you’ve gotta make the argument

to senior leaders, and you gotta go up and say,

this is what we have to do.

And I had a fair amount of success

because the moment that was most difficult,

and that was the Iraq years from 2003 to 2008,

people felt like it was very necessary

to do something different.

So I think we got additional leeway to do things

that we probably wouldn’t have gotten

in a peace time environment.

It just, the bureaucracy sort of closes in on you.

And then there are times when you’ve just gotta act.

There are times when you have gotta act

and seek forgiveness.

And that doesn’t mean you are trying to be disloyal

or trying to violate things.

That just means there are times

you’ve gotta push the boundaries

because if everybody waits and asks detailed instructions

for everything they do,

that will cause an organization to seize up

just as badly as the leader.

So it’s not just a micromanaging leader

that can be the problem.

It can be a lack of willingness on the part of people

down in the organization to push and accept responsibility

and in some cases put themselves a little bit at risk

to do that.

And a lot of the organizations we deal with today,

what leaders will tell us is they are most frustrated

by the decisions their subordinates won’t make.

You know, we talk about risk and whatnot.

And they say, I keep telling my subordinates

to take more risk.

And of course that’s a trust issue,

but I think it goes both ways.

And so junior people at times

have gotta be willing to push that.

  • [George] All right, thank you.

  • Hello, my name is Danny M.

I’m a current senior studying electrical engineering

here in the undergraduate program here at Berkeley.

I’m also an Army ROTC Cadet.

And I actually had a question,

with our army currently rapidly changing

and our society and country as a whole

rapidly getting polarized, I was just wondering, you know,

you were in the same shoes as me one time,

and I was wondering if you had any advice

for junior officers or, you know, soon-to-be lieutenants.

  • Yeah, sure, I think the age, I came out in 19,

I went into West Point in 1972.

It was a pretty polarized period.

The 60s were pretty difficult.

‘72 the army was in a pretty difficult way.

It was coming out of Vietnam

and not coming out in a healthy way.

And so I graduated from West Point in ‘76.

Things had gotten a little bit better,

but I will tell you that my experience was

it starts at home.

And when I say at home, it starts with the individual.

The most important thing I think each of us can do

is sort of figure out who we are and what our values are.

You’re going to be pressured in many ways,

not always intentional and not evilly, but organizations,

your friends, society,

everything is gonna push you in multiple directions.

And you’re gonna have to decide who you are.

There’s an extraordinarily good article,

“The World of Epictetus,” written by James Stockdale,

which describes his time at the Hanoi Hilton.

And of course in an era, when for five years,

he loses all control over his physical life.

He’s tortured, he’s abused.

He can do, he can make no decisions

that we would take for granted on a daily basis.

What he learns is what he can hold onto is his values,

the identity that he sees for himself,

his personal narrative.

And I think many of us don’t spend enough time on that,

trying to do that.

Now that doesn’t mean that I think at a young age,

everyone should know exactly who you are

and everything you believe in

and therefore you become inflexible

for the rest of your life.

I think you will, like all of us, you’ll mature and grow,

but I think paying attention to that,

understanding the importance of that journey.

I think the most important things in my life

besides some of the key relationships that I value heavily

are the idea that I want to be somebody

that I can look in the mirror and feel comfortable with.

I want my granddaughters to be able to look at me

or read about me and have some sense

that I was somebody that they could be comfortable about

and proud of, and whatever a person metrics for that are,

that’s what I tell you.

It’s more important than learning how to fire maneuvers

as a Lieutenant.

You get that part right, and everything else gets easier.

  • Roger, thank you, sir.

  • [General McChrystal] Thank you.

Good luck.

  • Hi, Stan.

My name is Rohan.

I’m a third year year at the undergraduate Haas program.

I was sort of wondering, you know,

I’ve been hearing a lot in the media,

both on both sides of the aisle

that people are sort of very bearish

about America right now.

What is sort of one contrarian argument that you have

in the case that

you’re sort of very optimistic about America?

What’s sort of one reason in that respect?

  • Well, if I’m optimistic about America,

it’s gonna be because generations that come up,

and this just sounds like a trite answer, but America is,

our history is interesting,

but it doesn’t define who we are because that’s history.

It’s not the reality anymore.

The reality is who we are now

and who we decide to be going forward.

So if there is reason for optimism,

it’s in the room with you now.

It’s in other rooms like this.

It’s in young people who make a decision

on what they’re gonna do.

And in some cases, people my age make a decision

on what values we’re gonna support.

You know, too often we say we’re exceptional.

America is an exceptional country.

I don’t think so.

America is a country.

It’s exceptional if we get up this morning

and act exceptionally.

And if we get up tomorrow morning,

and we don’t act exceptionally,

we’re not exceptional anymore.

There’s nothing, there’s no greater being

that came down and touched America

and said we’re better than everybody else.

You know, there’s nobody who says our values are better.

Or our economy’s better.

It’s only if we do that work and we embody those behaviors.

On the one hand, that’s kind of disappointing,

and say, well, we’ve had 200 plus years

of people working hard to create this great thing

that we’ve inherited.

No, actually they got us into the room,

and now it’s all up to us.

And so what I’d say is, that’s the opportunity.

The bad thing is we’ve gotta understand, but it’s up to us.

It’s what we do now.

It’s what we do going forward.

It’s not what’s in the rear view mirror

that I think is gonna make a difference.

And I think there’s every reason in the world

that America can do very, very well.

And we’re gonna have to

because we are entering into the equivalent

of a cold war competition, whether we want to or not,

I think it’s just gonna come upon us.

And so we’re gonna have to not militarily only,

but as a society,

we’re gonna have to be a society that other people admire

because ultimately if they don’t admire us as a society,

they won’t support us in the world.

  • [Rohan] Awesome, thank you so much.

  • Thank you.

  • Thank you so much, General McChrystal.

You have given us so much food for thought.

You’ve been inspiring.

You’ve been honest, you’ve been empathetic.

You’ve been humble, really insightful.

We’re very grateful to you for this opportunity.

We’re very grateful to our Veterans Club at Haas

for making this opportunity possible.

So thank you, and thank everyone in the room.

Thank you.

(audience applauding)

  • My pleasure.

Thank you.

(audience applauding)