Bain uses cookies to improve functionality and performance of this site. More information can be found in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to browse this site, you consent to the use of cookies.

The Net Promoter System Podcast

True Leadership Means Fewer Decisions, Less Ego

Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan and former head of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, explains why leadership is more like gardening than chess.

  • February 28, 2019


True Leadership Means Fewer Decisions, Less Ego

When you sit down with a four-star general, you’re liable get more insights than you could possibly pack into a single episode. So this week on The Net Promoter System Podcast, I’m sharing Part 2 of my interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He is the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and head of the Joint Special Operations Command during the Iraq war.

If you haven't already heard Part 1, do go back and listen. You'll hear the creative ways he built trust among soldiers who were divided into rival elite units. And you’ll hear how he shared those lessons with business leaders struggling with eerily similar challenges: managing teams with members from rival functional groups, occasionally at loggerheads with one another.

We pick up that conversation where we left off: how a leader, who has successfully built trust among a team of rivals, can then push the organization to change its strategy on a dime.

You can listen to my conversation with Gen. Stanley McChrystal on iTunes, Stitcher or your podcast provider of choice, or through the audio player below.

In the following excerpt, McChrystal retires the outdated trope that an effective military leader, or any leader, plots out every possible move like a chess master. If anything, he says, they’re gardeners.

Stanley McChrystal: You know, we grow up with the idea that two generals on a battlefield or a leader is a chess master moving the pieces. They see the board and they make the decisions.

And then as we were fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, what we realized is all their pieces were communicating all the time. So I wasn't playing against another chess master. I was playing against this group of connected pieces, which was significant, and they were fast and they could think on their own, and so you had to change.

The analogy we drew to the gardener is, what a gardener does, you know, someone says, “Well, the gardener grows fruit or vegetables or flowers,” and I'd say, “No they don't. Only plants do that, because only plants can do that.”

But what the gardener does is they prepare the garden, they prepare the ground, they plant, they water, they feed, they weed, at the appropriate time they harvest.

So the gardener is enabling this ecosystem or environment, and inside it the plants are all growing simultaneously. And so you've got the ability to operate at scale and change.

Now, the big difference is someone works a long time to be a CEO or the president or general. They don't want to think of themselves as a gardener. They want to be the hero. They want to make decisions, but the important part of this is not to get down and start making decisions, because if you make too many decisions, if you're down there screwing with it, you become the limiting factor. How many decisions can you make? How much do you know? So you've got to sort of put your ego on the back burner.


Want to hear more from today's loyalty leaders?

Explore more episodes of The Net Promoter System Podcast.

Robert Markey: You create another dynamic, which is: you’re the scarce resource, which means that the contention within the organization is for your time. And that creates all kinds of funny side effects.

Stanley McChrystal: That's right.

Listen to Part 1

Battle-Tested Advice from a Four-Star General

Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan and former head of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, offers advice on forging trust among divided units, in battle or in business.


Want to continue the conversation?

We offer unparalleled analytic and organizational tools for the Net Promoter System. Together, we can create an enduring customer-centric culture.