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Lessons from a four-star resignation

Clemson Turregano
Clemson Turregano, a former U.S. Army officer, works with government and military agencies as a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership.

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?

By Clemson Turregano

 |  June 29, 2010; 3:41 PM ET |  Category:  Military leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The main focus of the news media on the GEN McChrystal resignation/firing has been on the fact that the President, a civilian, is the commander in chief, and by McChrystal openly questioning the actions of the President and his team is insubordination.
More attention and coverage should have been placed on the reasons behind the facts that were in the statements included in the article. Why would some one of McChrystal's caliber, and his staff officers, make these remarks? I think their intention was to bring to the attention of our citizens the real mess that exists in Afghanistan, and that this administration does not really have a handle on the situation. I guess the lesson of Vietnam have been forgotten.

Posted by: andonis | July 4, 2010 11:52 AM

This is a convenient time to wax ethically about a general who was outed for making off the record comments that all soldiers utter from time to time about their leaders. It just so happens that he works for someone with a thin skin. Perhaps he thought that an apology would be accepted in the spirit that it was given. Before we get too eager to blame, let's remember what is driving Wall Street and the thirst for ever higher profits from "immoral" corporations and Wall Street executives.

It's us.

We are the ones who want our 401Ks to grow. We are the ones who will not tolerate anything less than 12% growth per year from our pension funds. Perhaps, we should all- collectively- agree to quit and allow the more giving souls among us, those who are filled to the brim with a higher moral character, to take our place and request a lower standard for the good of the nation.

Yeah- get rid of profits. We try so hard to tame the beast of capitalism when it was never meant to really be tamed. For every corporate "fat cat" (my thanks for not insulting canines) out there, there are at least 100 small entrepreneurs out there who are trying to make a profit that- percentage wise- makes the fat cat look rather slim. But that is okay because, in our headline driven society, we look for the big numbers; the new morality is taking a smaller profit.

Finally, why do we insist on giving the immorality of that weasel from Rolling Stone a pass? When was it okay to lie? When are the private insults of an admittedly important public figure worse than the baldfaced lies of someone who claims the mantel of truth?

In all of the big numbers and the names that make headlines, I'm afraid that we've missed the real point.

Morality isn't who you are. It's what you do.

Posted by: Labrador1 | June 30, 2010 12:11 AM

RE: "Pay a general a seven figure salary, and he will be quite as insufferable as a Wall Street tycoon."

I don't think the captains of American industry on Wall St.and elsewhere will get out of bed in th e morning for only a seven-figure salary. Eight or nine figures, yes. Seven figures is for underlings.

The behavior of Wall St. confirms the common belief that there is an evil intelligent force at work in the universe. The pride, greed, lack of remorse (except to lose money and/or get caught), shamelessness, disregard for others, to name only a few of the qualities one finds at the heart of the American capitalist system, are right out of the evil one's playbook.

Posted by: Matthew_DC | June 29, 2010 11:51 PM

"Why can't Wall Street leaders apologize and resign"?

Because... it takes a "Moral Conscience" to own up to ones mistakes, greed, lying, cheating, blaming, stealing, deception, market manipulation's, et al.

To own up to ones mistakes, no matter how small or how big will be perceived as a failure, by the person who made the mistake and others. By apologizing, resigning, or both makes one look WEAK (a failure.) People who think like this are the ones who have very LARGE egos (self-serving attitudes), but in reality are highly insecure. Having an EGO and being secure and confident in ones self are not one in the same.

Wall Street leaders are not trained to be moral leaders. They are trained to profit and make money in any form, shape, or fashion that it can be made. The more profitable, the higher the success rate, the bigger the ego grows. There is no personal growth or responsibilities when ego and insecurities get in the way. There is no moral conscience.

Folks in the military, including the "good" general was trained to be a "man of honor" and also trained at some point during their career to put ego aside. They are also trained to follow a moral code. The General was not trained to profit for money, but was trained for democracy and to live and work by the code of honor.

Finally, the Wall Street Bankers, Hustlers, and Money Changers do not report to the Commander In Chief; therefore, the General had no other choice.

Posted by: lcarter0311 | June 29, 2010 11:34 PM

Resign? Hell, he was fired.

". Why can't Wall Street leaders apologize and resign"

I don't know. Why can't all those running FNMA that turned a mortgage program into a welfare program and lot's of Toxic Assets that was the chief cause of the this crisis, resign?

Posted by: jblast2000 | June 29, 2010 10:56 PM

It takes character and a sense of morality to admit guilt and resign. We cannot depend on any in wall street to resign. It is the duty and obligation of the government to prosecute wrong doers that broke existing law. This includes lawmakers who took part in the evil deeds which destroyed our economy. Rather than fulfilling their constitutional obligation politicians bailed out and further rewarded those who were at fault. All of this resulting in the further disintegration of the middle class. It is apparent that the fox is in charge of the hen-house and it is going to be curtains for us chickens. It is no longer a question of if only the when is in doubt.

Posted by: gvelanis | June 29, 2010 9:49 PM

Pay a general a seven figure salary, and he will be quite as insufferable as a Wall Street tycoon.

Posted by: pneogy | June 29, 2010 9:25 PM

I completely agree. All three individuals demonstrated hallmarks of outstanding character and leadership in dealing with this most unfortunate situation.

Posted by: MCHopewell | June 29, 2010 8:48 PM

McClown did not recognize his "mistakes", he acknowledged his f.uckup. It is different.

Posted by: analyst72 | June 29, 2010 6:48 PM

Unlike Gen. McCrystal Wall Stree tycoons got bailed out to the tune of billions and without and sacrificing on their part.

Posted by: truth34 | June 29, 2010 6:30 PM

Unlike Gen.McCrystal Wall Street weasels got bailed out to the tune of billions and without and sacrifice on their part.

Posted by: truth34 | June 29, 2010 6:29 PM

I think it speaks volumes when a four-star general can find no way out of an impossible position other than dump on a reporter and get fired. Missing from all this discussion about McChrystal is the basic message the general was trying to get across: that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan are failing, and the administration's insistence on the deadline for withdrawing is screwing things up. The reason for my interpretation is that McChrystal knew ahead of publication what the article said, and didn't object. Michael Hastings said he was sent a draft of key parts of what he wrote.
That aside, we are leaving the country and Karzai (who interestingly enough strongly backed McChrystal in this dispute) is trying to cut a deal with the Taliban. I see Karzai as realizing he's a goner as soon as the troops fly away. The deal he's negotiating aims split the country in two, with the Taliban half and Karzai keeping the other. So what have we lost more than 1000 lives for? This is a disgrace, and I think McChrystal saw this, too, and sought a graceful way out for himself and his staff rather than going down in defeat. Obviously, I don't see this at all as a defining moment of American leadership. Sorry to see a great military career end up this way

Posted by: edwardallen54 | June 29, 2010 5:25 PM

It is pretty easy to resign when you disagree and you get a $100,000+ a year retirement salary for life and full medical for the rest of your life.

I think he did the right thing but a retirement salary like that makes it pretty easy to do as well.

Posted by: tbastian | June 29, 2010 5:16 PM

Few people would disagree with the proposition that military officers who disgrace themselves or demonstrate insubordination or incompetence should resign. When Obama called for an $800 billion stimulus plan he promised that if approved the plan would produce unemployment that would not exceed 8%. It has never fallen below well over 9%. Now the man wants more money. Obama should resign in recognition of the fact that he is incompetent. What is good for the military is good enough for the commander-in-chief.

Posted by: mhr614 | June 29, 2010 4:57 PM

Why won't the Congressmen and women that are responsible for our current terrible financial recession apologize and resign? That would be the first time they ever demonstrated leadership.

Posted by: staterighter | June 29, 2010 4:41 PM

Good, positive article! It's nice to see important people behaving like responsible grown ups ...

Posted by: ThomBeck | June 29, 2010 4:30 PM

The humility McChrystal really needed was the instant before he opened his mouth to Rolling Stone.

Posted by: GarrisonLiberty | June 29, 2010 4:21 PM

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