Who are your bosses from Hell? Maybe the supervisors so full of themselves you just want to scream—leaders who live large in their own egos, who demand credit for everything, proud and arrogant because, as long as they’re winning, leadership is all about them. Why do they have to be that way?
That question started my recent conversation with Stanley McChrystal, the distinguished former military general and now business consultant. We were discussing his new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, and the impersonal forces and silent biases that perpetuate the concept of heroic leadership—and also breed the arrogance of so many bosses from Hell.
McChrystal suggested that historical concepts of individual causality, coupled with media exultation of celebrity leaders has obscured the more complex nature of leadership. And that’s undermined what organizations in the network age must do to perform.
The general ticked off personal and societal cues that keep elevating full-of-themselves leaders. With each new success, they feel more the super hero. When the stock price rises, the commercial press touts their brilliance. Business schools celebrate their industry disruption. Boards grant compensation a hundred-fold above those who actually deliver the star-studded results. “The accolades, HR systems, and pay scales make them think they’re like Superman. It kills the culture of learning and collaboration vital today.”
OK, now look in the mirror. You manage people too. What do they think of you? Are you guilty of too much amour-propre? Do you define your own leadership by what you think you alone bring to the job?
Do you imagine your skills match those of great leaders of history? Do you believe the impact your company achieves has little to do with other people or the accident of occasional good luck? Have you ever boasted—or silently muttered to yourself, “I alone can fix this!”
For McChrystal, heroic self-love is one of the deepest mistakes any leader makes today. He’s seen it again and again on the field of battle and in his consulting work, and confesses candidly how his own varied experience has led him to challenge leadership worship: solo titans make less of a difference than most people realize. His book is a lively exploration (with a touch of Augustinian confession) about why that’s true. Through a series of engaging case studies, McChrystal and his co-authors (Jeff Eggers, Jason Mangone) articulate three great misconceptions of leadership: i) The Formulaic Myth—that leadership can be reduced to an eternal checklist of “great leader” attributes; ii) The Attribution Myth—that leaders alone create performance, with little agency exercised by followers, partners, or other collaborators; iii) The Results Myth—the leadership is solely about driving subordinates to specific outcomes.
McChrystal and company argue for a more nuanced understanding of “taking charge.” Thus, for every checklist of leadership qualities, there are paradigm-destroying exceptions: “Leadership is situation dependent. Leaders sometimes make a real difference with certain skills. But it depends on the moment. Churchill’s style and thinking were utterly critical to rallying the British war effort in 1940. But during peacetime, he fell out of popularity. Same man and qualities, but now out of step with his former public.”
McChrystal likewise reframes heroic attribution: “Leadership is really an emergent property of complex systems, arising from the learning and collaboration among leaders and followers.” He similarly sketches a more textured picture of driving results. “Leaders can be vital to mobilizing an organization but that’s often less about producing outcomes, and more about inspiring people for the future, and affirming some deeper purpose to animate their culture.”
From Theory To Practice
I pressed McChrystal: what should today’s leaders actually do—to develop and learn, and be more effective for a world of networks, greater egalitarianism, and diminishing faith in all-powerful heroes? How to develop the emergent, multi-directional sense of leadership he describes? I took away five insights:
1. Understand why “all-about-you-leadership” holds you back. McChrystal warned how self-absorbed leaders undermine organizational effort at scale. When it’s all about you, other people are demotivated, have less interest in innovating and learning to adapt, and don’t execute collaboratively against strategy. “One CEO we worked with,” he recalled, “finally had the game-changing epiphany: he couldn’t always be the ultimate rainmaker. When he started sharing more information about opportunities, and encouraging others to do the same, other leaders started to see there was now a chance not just to win deals, but also grow the whole pie for everyone.”
2. Reframe your leadership as building an ecosystem, shaping its culture, and operating like a node in a larger network of followers, collaborators, and other leaders. If leadership is emergent, you need to keep developing relationships among people that learn and create value, and a culture that supports that. “We worked with another CEO that couldn’t understand why people didn’t just follow his orders. We helped him see that the other executives were intensely competitive, always maneuvering against one another—with the same disastrous results of a pilot and co-pilot fighting while flying a plane. When the CEO shifted from giving commands to building processes and accountabilities for more collaboration, and modeling that behavior himself, performance rapidly improved.”
3. Learn how to let go of power. All-about-you leadership stems from insecurity—you think if you don’t give the orders, and make all the decisions, you can’t be “a real leader.” Sometime you do need to set direction and make decisions—but operating in an emergent ecosystem depends on developing a sense when that’s needed, and when it gets in the way of “other nodes.”
McChrystal recalled one of his own ah-ha moments. “When I became a Ranger Company commander, I had a lot of leadership experience—but I wasn’t appreciating the leadership abilities of others now in my charge. In one Alaskan mission, when I was handing out assignments, one of the ablest platoon lieutenants suddenly told me off: ‘This is bull****.’ I was floored—but I swallowed my pride and listened. It became clear the lieutenants knew how to do their jobs, and just wanted the space to do them. So I let them do the work their way. You have to develop a sense when to hand off to subordinates, and when to push for yourself. Working in dialogue with followers is a crucial role for any leader.”
4. Your most critical tools are building others’ capability, encouraging them, and expressing disappointment when they screw up. In an ecosystem approach, every leader must continuously improve the skills and learning of others. But motivation sometimes depends on correcting behavior that goes off-course. McChrystal again remembered some of his own learning. “When I was head of Joint Special Operations, building a huge collaborative network of different units across the Middle East, the culture of accountability and respect I was trying to instill was at odds with top-down punishment by me, the named commander. Much more effective, when someone failed in a critical task, was to talk to them privately—and explain how they had let both me and the broader mission down. My personal disappointment helped them do better next time.”
5. Be proud in your leadership but accept the influence of situation and luck in what you can accomplish. McChrystal does not plead for self-defeating humility. “Leaders can make a major positive difference, but they have to understand that the impact they want to have is never guaranteed, even with all the right skills and plans. We’ve all known bad leaders — abusive, autocratic, dishonest—who can still succeed. But in the end, it all comes out. You have to keep learning to be better for the long term.”
Rethinking Leadership For Democracy
I closed by asking Stanley McChrystal about political leadership—and the future of our democracy. He offered a practical adaptation of his concepts to today’s troubled environment.“The U.S. presidency more than ever requires a team effort. Future presidents cannot know everything or do everything alone. The best presidents— in retrospect, Ronald Reagan was one—are hands-off.
But they create a culture with other leaders so as a team they can develop and implement big ideas.”
“We should be more overt with that model. What if future presidential candidates position themselves as not knowing all the answers—and instead, before the election, identify some 50 other leaders—experts or experienced people in Congress, or business, or the military, etc.—who would publicly commit to working with the future president as a team, and follow certain shared principles about policy? Why not bring the best working model of networks and modern organizations to running our country, giving citizens a chance to choose a team of teams to serve them?”