General Stanley McCrystal‘s sudden and rapid fall from grace was unnecessary. Not that he didn’t deserve to be relieved of duty. What he and his team said about other civilian, diplomatic and military leaders was impolitic at best and supremely toxic at its worst. Militarily speaking, what the General and his team said out loud was a firing offense. The complaints about the Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings violating “ground rules” while traveling with the General and his team are coming in, but face it—too little, too late. It didn’t have to be this way. What prompts a supremely talented, smart, and capable leader with 34 years of service to act against his own self-interest and against organization excellence?
While the pundits cite hubris, insensitivity, callousness or conceit as reasons for this type of behavior, the words seem to miss the mark. Something more is afoot in leadership when some of the best and brightest among us “flame out” in their careers. Turnover for top leaders has always been a fact-of-life. Nowadays the average tenure of a CEO is running just over 8 years. McChrystal’s self-immolation only took 12 months. According to Challenger, Gray and Christmas, Inc. 2009 marked the lowest level of CEO departures in the past five years. A few big names left the stage including Bank of America‘s Ken Lewis, General Motors‘ Rick Wagoner and his successor Fritz Henderson were all shown the door. Maybe these shifts were overdue and maybe they were in the best interests of the shareholders. It’s hard to say from an outsider’s vantage point.
What is clear is they lost the support of their respective benefactors, just like General McChrystal did when he let his team disparage the Vice President and other leaders on the national security stage. It was after all President Obama who selected General McChrystal in the first place. Disrespecting your benefactors from afar—even rhetorically—is incredibly poor form bordering on stupidity. Sadly, too many leaders among us have failed to heed this hard learned lesson. General McChrystal’s career-ending implosion has given all of us an indelible reminder and vivid lesson in leadership for the ages. Godspeed Stanley McChrystal.
The day after the head of the White House Military Office stepped down, President Obama could joke about the fiasco. Sasha and Malia are grounded said the President speaking at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner this past Saturday in Washington, DC. “You can’t just take Air Force One on a joyride to Manhattan. I don’t care whose kids you are…we’ve been setting some ground rules here.”
Ground rules or not, the photo of Air Force One flying over the Statue of Liberty in Manhattan—serves as a reminder of the dangers of flyover leadership. The Air Force photo-op frightened New York and New Jersey residents reminding many of the nightmare of September 11th. The flyover created a public relations firestorm for the White House. The President and his Press Secretary were queried as was the Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, each of whom said they were unaware of the decision. While claims about proper procedures being followed and notifications to the proper agencies including the FAA, Secret Service, FBI, US Park Police and New York City Police being made, they forgot to tell the people who mattered most—the citizens of greater New York City. So after spending $357,000 for the photos and following an internal review of the decision process by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, the man in charge of the White House Military Office former Secretary of the US Army Louis Caldera, who had been quick to accept responsibility for the decision, just as quickly tendered his resignation.
There are vivid lessons here for leaders. The cynics say its just politics as usual when a staffer is dismissed over a poor decision. Yet, if you are determined to be a leader, whether it’s the White House or your house, leadership requires a strong dose of the political. Leadership most assuredly understands that foresight is far better than hindsight; (b) vetting your thinking and decisions beyond your own “inner circle” pays big dividends; (c) being certain information is flowing up, as well as down in the chain of command is Job 1; (d) making sure those who most need to know are absolutely, positively in the loop—no excuses; (e) assume nothing—ask the tough questions to make sure you fully understand what actions or steps are being proposed, double-check by personal contact if necessary and perhaps finally, expect to be held fully accountable for the quality (or lack thereof) in your actions and decision-making. I’m certain there are even more leadership lessons to be found here and I invite you to share them so we can all learn from the lessons of flyover leadership.