3 Lessons in Humble Leadership from Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal

October 10, 2018

By Christopher Lochhead(opens in new tab), co-author of “Niche Down(opens in new tab)” & host of the “Legends & Losers(opens in new tab)” podcast

In short:

  • Stanley McChrystal is a four-star Army general known for leading American forces in Afghanistan during the Iraq War.

  • He recently visited the “Legends & Losers” podcast to offer leadership tips from his 34-year military career.

  • McChrystal’s advice for leaders includes identifying your role in the big picture, being open about your weaknesses and taking responsibility for your team’s actions.


Too many leaders think it’s their job to know everything. They fall into the trap of trying to have all the answers, to appear infallible all the time.

But leadership(opens in new tab) isn’t about being omniscient or omnipotent. Your responsibility, whether you’re a Fortune 500 CEO or the commander in chief, is to provide direction to others and create an environment that fosters their success. Good leaders stoke success by ditching their egos and figuring out how they can best benefit their organizations.

I recently had a guest on my podcast(opens in new tab) who knows this especially well: Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal(opens in new tab)

McChrystal led the Joint Special Operations Command(opens in new tab) in Iraq during the Gulf Wars and was the top commander of American forces in Afghanistan under President Obama. He’s now in his second phase of life as an author, entrepreneur and teacher.  

During our conversation, McChrystal shared three habits he believes are essential for every leader.


1. Identify your role in the big picture.



Good leaders understand that not everything is about them.

For his forthcoming book, "Leaders: Myth and Reality(opens in new tab),” McChrystal studied “Plutarch’s Lives,” a collection of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans. He concluded that for millennia, we've looked up to leaders who are perceived as strong, near-mythical figures who single-handedly shaped the course of history. But by focusing on the individual, we’ve downplayed everyone else.

In reality, leadership is an emergent property(opens in new tab)—it stems from the interaction between a leader and their followers. Success or failure comes down to the larger context of what everyone can accomplish together, as well as what’s happening in the world.

McChrystal said the sooner you accept that a leader is just one part of a much larger equation, the more people will want to follow you.


2. Don’t hide your weaknesses.




Successful leaders think strategically(opens in new tab), make tough decisions and communicate well. They also know when to ask their teams for help. 

They seek out opportunities to learn from younger team members, which McChrystal calls “reverse-mentoring.” 

The Army’s tactics and equipment changed dramatically between the time McChrystal joined and his eventual ascent to four-star general. In those critical later years of leadership, his decades of experience weren’t directly relevant to the younger soldiers, and he wondered whether he should be in charge. 

McChrystal realized he had to be honest with himself and his troops. He admitted he didn’t know how some things worked and asked his subordinates to teach him. In turn, he promised to provide them with wisdom from his experiences. 

Rather than questioning his legitimacy as a leader, McChrystal’s troops gave him credit for admitting his weaknesses, he said. And his entire battalion benefited from the exchange of knowledge.

We all have weaknesses, and asking for help can create an advantage.

When you have the self-awareness to acknowledge your flaws and the courage to admit the gaps in your knowledge to others, your team will likely respect you more.

3. Take responsibility for your team at all costs.


You can’t be a leader, let alone a legendary one, without guiding and developing your team. Relationships determine your success or failure as a leader. The key is treating people right and building a reputation for honesty.

In 2010, while McChrystal was leading operations in Afghanistan, Rolling Stone published an article(opens in new tab) in which he and his staff made unsavory comments about government officials.

Rather than point his finger at individual team members, McChrystal took responsibility for his team’s behavior. He owned it, and the controversy ended in him stepping down from his role.

Reputation, relationships and results are interconnected, and a good leader knows when to take the blame for mistakes--even if it’s difficult and even if it means public failure.

Great leaders understand that leadership is more about how well they interact with their teams and their willingness to ask for help than knowing all the answers.

Christopher Lochhead is the host of “top 30 business podcast” "Legends & Losers(opens in new tab)” and co-author of #1 Amazon best sellers “Niche Down(opens in new tab)” and “Play Bigger(opens in new tab)."

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