How Humility Expands a Leader’s Vision

Listening to Leaders, a new book by the George W. Bush Institute, is a collection of interviews to guide current and future leaders in the essentials of moving an organization, a team, a group, even a nation, towards toward a common purpose. The leaders in the book come from the worlds of business, military, politics, technology, and education. Many also are rising leaders, whose skills will become even more apparent as they lead their respective fields in the future. In this series of interviews and essays, the contributors have a simple focus: the elements of great leadership.

Read more: Holly Kuzmich | President George W. Bush | General Stanley A. McChrystal | Michael Sorrell | Jon Meacham

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General Stanley McChrystal’s leadership positions have included heading U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq. Since leaving the military, the West Point graduate has taught at Yale University and written widely on leadership. In this Listening to Leaders exchange, McChrystal emphasizes that great leadership is rooted in timeless, positive values and that a leader’s vision is expanded by having the humility to keep an open mind, all while learning and listening from others on their team and their own defeats.

How do you define great leadership?  

Great leadership pursues things that are of value to people individually and at large. It has to reflect positive values.

The values don’t have to be everybody’s values; everyone is slightly different. But they have to be grounded in values that have a generally positive intent. They are concerned about something bigger than the leader. They need to be focused on producing an outcome that makes things better. 

To what extent should values be timeless? To what extent should they reflect the age?  

There are some timeless values. They are about integrity, which is honesty and consistency wrapped together. You have a desire to produce a good outcome, something that is generally positive.

Beyond that, there is an awful lot of contextual reality to everyone’s times. A great leader in one era has to be viewed in the context of how they were raised, the values they were given, and the factors impacting them.  

It is unfair to put a 21st century lens on everyone we look at before today. But it’s incorrect to say that certain things done in certain eras are okay just because they aren’t being done right now.  

You wrote the book Team of Teams. What should leaders look for in choosing a team? 

The first thing is there has to be a purpose for the team. And that purpose has to be understood across the team. If everyone has a different purpose, it’s difficult to stay aligned.

The other thing is that you should not go out and get the 10 best people in the world — the smartest, the most talented — and think you have the best team. You should be looking for the team that can mesh together, a team that can work together. 

The "dream team" concept, where all the best talent means you automatically have the best team, has been disproven over and over. Armies, sports teams, and political movements have proven that people committing themselves to a cause as well as to each other leads them to operate effectively. The greatest weakness in most organizations is the inability to operate together effectively.  

How do you view the meshing of diverse capabilities and perspectives, like the coalition approach that Leonidas used in defending Sparta, versus having a naturally cohesive force?  

The military takes people from across society and puts them through what the Army calls "soldierization." It cuts their hair, puts them in uniform, goes by rank, and gives them common ways to talk. That is all designed to bring people into a common values set, a common lexicon, and things that will make them work together better.  

The strength of that is you get predictability. You can become very efficient and do a lot of things by committing people to a common cause. 

The danger, and it doesn’t always happen, is that you lose diversity. In the best case, you take the diversity of people and give them common things, such as a mission, a values set, and a uniform, but you retain the diversity of talent, background, and experience — all the things that enrich the team. 

The military is constantly trying to find that balance. One of the things that is so powerful about a mass military is you automatically get diversity. That is very positive. 

The danger of a professional military is you attract the kind of people that want a certain thing. Maybe not intentionally, but you’re apt to automatically limit your diversity. You start thinking the same way, talking the same way. You have very similar values. That weakens you an awful lot. 

We are waking up to, or re-awakening to, diversity. It is utterly essential. 

You mentioned during a Bush Institute presentation that most good leaders go to where work is being done. How did you come to that conclusion?

We find that good leaders go to where things are happening because that’s where they can make the biggest contribution. They get to influence the situation. And they are able to understand and empathize with the people involved on a much greater level.  

You can judge wars, sports teams, or anything from afar. And you can ask, "Why can’t those people figure this out?" Really good leaders have the ability to get there and understand a situation, but that doesn’t mean they have to stay there all the time. If they’re so close to it, they often can’t do the larger effort that they have to do. 

In my new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, we talk about one of Martin Luther King's greatest challenges was multiple places always needed him. When young African-American men were doing lunch counter sit-ins in Atlanta, protesting and getting arrested, they came to Dr. King and told him they needed him with them. The profiles of their actions would get raised if he got arrested with them. 

Part of him wanted to be there and get arrested. But he knew that if he got arrested, he couldn't do the bigger part of his job. He couldn't earn the speaking fees that the movement needed to help fund it. He had to strike this hellish balance.

Most leaders run into that challenge. They may not face the same level of passion, but it is a problem knowing how close to get and when to be far enough away to maintain your perspective and ability to act freely.

How did you do that in your own leadership?

We were doing raids every night when I was in command in Afghanistan. I figured out I needed to go out on a combat raid about once a week. I had to do that to first understand what was happening on the ground.

We were watching the raids from full-motion video from Predators and what not, but that creates an allusion. You start to think you understand what is happening on the ground better than you actually do. Going out about once a week would remind me how the situation was on the ground and what we were doing. 

The force also liked the idea that I’d share some of the danger. I was not doing anything dramatic, but I was showing by my presence that I would be there if it goes bad. I had to do that often enough that people knew it was real, that it wasn’t a stunt. I also didn’t go so often that people thought I was a shooter, when in fact I wasn’t.

You also have emphasized that leadership has to be humble, collaborative, and a flexible endeavor. What does that mean in practice, and how do you teach that?  

I am not sure how you teach humility. The first thing about humility is realizing that you are not as in control of things as you may pretend you are. 

When I started writing my memoirs in the fall of 2010, I had this view of what I had done in my life because I had been there. When I got to the Iraq and Afghanistan part, I had this view that I’d given an order or guidance and there had been activities and an outcome. I started to assume that my decision was the reason for the outcome.

As we did interviews to get more background information, we found there were a thousand things that happened that actually determined what occurred. They could have been for the positive or the negative, but I didn’t know about them.

This made me more humble about what I had done and what I had not done. It reminded me that it’s really not you. You’re a factor, but you’re not the factor.

The ability to be humble opens your mind up. It allows you to be empathetic with your people. Not sympathetic, because you don’t have to agree with people or what they do. But you have to be able to see things from their side of the table. 

Whether it’s your own followers, or someone you’re opposed to, you often find they are as rational as you are, maybe more so. And they are trying as hard as you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give guidance or correct mistakes. It means you don’t start out with an assumption that everyone is clueless until they get your guidance. 

The best way to learn this is get in as a leader and get muddy. You also need feedback loops from people who work for you or alongside you that constantly give you the broader view, the reminder of where you’re wrong. I don’t want to undermine the leader’s confidence, because a leader has to have confidence. But the leadership should never stray into hubris.

You’ve written about organizations only needing a critical mass to change course. How do leaders create or facilitate the creation of a critical mass? 

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this but I don’t claim to have the right answer. We believe that in the average organization, you need about 10 percent of the people who are actually pushing things in the direction you want to go. But it can’t just be the 10 percent. You've got to find people who have influence.  

The work charts of an organization will give you a sense of some things, but it will not identify your primary influencers. We started doing this with al-Qaeda in Iraq when we we’re trying to understand them. We realized that when we organized them on our slide, and then tried to fight that organization, they had never gotten that slide and didn’t recognize that organization. I should have sent it to them actually.  

We found that was not the way they operated. Then you think about your own organizations and say, "Who really makes things happen? Who do you listen to, who do you go to?" The answer is usually different from the line-and-block chart. We started looking hard inside organizations to find the influencers. We did surveys and interviews, and they uncovered that pretty effectively. 

What is the role of defeat in learning great leadership? We think of great leaders being victorious, but do defeats teach you just as much? 

Defeats teach you a lot more. When we win, we can assume we just had our act together. 

An organization and individuals need to realistically look at why they got defeated, and yet not start to think of themselves as permanent losers. You see some cases in business of people who’ve gone bankrupt, but they come back again. It is a very maturing exercise.  

I’d almost rather see someone who has been scuffed up a little in life and knows that, than I would someone who plays in the game and their uniform never got dirty. 

Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield from Listening to Leaders: Values, Empathy, Humility, and Relationships, edited by William McKenzie (copyright 2019) 

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