Lessons from a four-star resignation
When General Stanley McChrystal resigned last week amid controversy over an article in Rolling Stone, it was a sobering time for all concerned. But several of the key players in this controversy provided some enduring leadership lessons from which we can all learn -- and that will linger long after this event has faded from the news.
Starting with General McChrystal, we witnessed the importance of accepting responsibility for our actions. After the publication of the Rolling Stone article, he apologized and did not try to deny, dodge or quibble. Knowing it was too late to make amends, he acknowledged his actions and, in the best interest of the country, offered his resignation. Stepping down after a high-profile mistake is tough to do. Given how litigious American society is, other leaders might choose to fight the situation instead - in fact, they many times do. But McChrystal, wisely, did not.
President Obama, meanwhile, reminded us that when a handpicked, high-profile, high-potential subordinate acts out of accordance with established rules of conduct, it's important to take the same actions we would with a more junior employee. It's crucial to handle the situation with grace, compassion and speed. That means talking with the offender's superiors and peers and naming and supporting the right replacement, all of which reinforces an emphasis on high-quality standards.
The easier road might have been to allow McChrystal's transgression to float by on the notion that it would negatively impact military efforts in Afghanistan. But Obama supported the rules of military conduct, schooled his team in his intolerance for divisive behavior and demonstrated how a civilian commander can and should levy discipline.
General David Petraeus, who was tapped to relieve General McChrystal, showed that when duty calls, a positive response is required. Even if it means a lateral appointment that might not be on our wish list, we need to grab the reins and do the best we can. Success in these situations starts with focusing on policy and not the person who has been replaced. Next, it's vital to put our own stamp on the challenge and make it a success.
Perhaps most significantly, McChrystal, Obama and Petraeus all modeled real humility in their responses -- and that's a quality we can never see too much of in our leaders. McChrystal demonstrated it by admitting he had compromised the mission in Afghanistan. Obama, rather than blasting his general or airing the conflict in the press, treated McChrystal with respect while still doing what he needed to do. General Petraeus might have argued to remain CENTCOM Commander. But setting aside whatever personal desires he had, he accepted the new posting to Kabul.
Some of the most important leadership lessons we can learn are forged during tough times. In this case, three veteran leaders made hard decisions in a responsible, humble way. Would you have done the same?
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