Why leadership is an emergent property, not a magic wand

Leadership is one of the most complex and difficult-to-accomplish processes required for any successful organization. To learn more about what leadership actually is, and why it’s important, we sat down for an extra-long interview with retired United States Army General Stanley McChrystal, co-author of the recent book Leaders: Myth and Reality.

ABERMAN: When people talk about leadership in our society, how are they describing it?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think most people think of leadership as the ability of one person in an organization to influence other people to do something, and that’s kind of simplistic. People argue over exact definitions, but it kind comes down to there. And I believed that for an awfully long time. I thought it was something you had, or you didn’t, or you learned, or you didn’t. Now, I’m in a very different place.

I now think that leadership is actually an emergent property that comes from the interaction of leaders and followers, and then contextual factors in any environment at any time. And so, it’s almost like a chemical reaction. What comes out of that? What that means is, the leader doesn’t have a bag of leadership, and they reach in and then they throw something at you, it’s not a club that you beat people with, and it’s not something you can automatically create. You have to get the right dynamics at the moment to get the amount of, or kind of leadership you want out of it. It’s very organic.

ABERMAN: Interesting. So, there’s not a leadership arrow I can shoot at somebody, but yet, you really do get the sense when you talk with people, generally, they really do think leadership is something that comes from above. Why do you think that is? Why are people so confused about leadership?

MCCHRYSTAL: It’s simple to put your mind around. Think of trying to get a complicated physics idea that Albert Einstein would have done one of his famous thought experiments on, and you try to get your mind around it, so you draw analogies. The trampoline, or the bowling ball, or whatever is you’re trying to do. We simplify leadership so we can get our mind around it. And we simplify our understanding of leaders so that it makes sense: we call it mythology in our book, or three major myths. But I go back to when I was a child, I loved to read my mythology.

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My mother was very fascinated by it, and there was one where you have a picture of Atlas holding up the sky. And the thing that was amazing about it is, for hundreds and hundreds of years, people accepted the idea that if the sky stayed up, somebody being must be holding it. So, it was a very simple understandable explanation. So, we use leaders as a simple, understandable explanation for why things happen or don’t happen, why we succeed, or why we fail. And as a consequence, we’ve simplified what leadership is, we put unrealistic expectation on leaders, we select with a skewed view, we elect, we support, and we pay a great cost for that.

ABERMAN: Very interesting to me, because if you had asked me, I would have said that leadership and the way people look at leadership, is a product of how they’re socialized. But what I’m hearing you suggest is that it’s really much more the human condition.

MCCHRYSTAL: It’s very much in human condition, and leadership is as much in the followers as in the leaders. How the followers respond, because they empower the leader. Absent followers, the leader is who knows, but the followers respond to the leader, and they give reality to that leadership, that emergent property. And so, the followers have much more control, much more agency, much more responsibility, than we often admit.

ABERMAN: It’s interesting. To me, when I talk about leadership, say, with my MBA students, what I often suggest to them is that if you want to understand leadership, go to a comedy club and watch the group dynamic. What do you think about that?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that’s very true. We went down and talked to President George W. Bush, and we talked about that famous moment when he stood on the pile of rubble at the 9/11 site, and he talked through the megaphone to the crowd. And he described it, he said, I got there and it was only a couple days after the attack. There was anger. There was a desire for revenge, almost an animal atmosphere. And so, as he talks, he stands up there, it wasn’t planned, and they give him megaphone, and he starts to talk, and he’s not connected.

Everybody is just talking to each other, and almost ignoring him. And then somebody yells, hey George, we can’t hear you. And he responds, I can hear you. And then suddenly, a connection was made with the crowd, everybody paid attention. There was now a two-way transaction, or interaction, going on. And he started, and pretty soon, it became this magic moment. But he described it to me, it was completely unplanned, and it wasn’t until they responded, and he responded, that some kind of connection was made. And then, leadership existed.

ABERMAN: So, leadership emerges from below, leadership occurs when there’s a connection. Now let’s turn to your book, and bring that into the conversation. In Leaders, you use a device of describing, you juxtapose two different types of people within a category, say, genius, entrepreneur, power broker, and so forth. Why did you approach learning about leadership, describing leadership in that way?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we wanted to get different kinds of personality. So, we wanted a diversity of sex, nationality, background, area which they worked. And then we decided for the genres, power brokers, reformers, and whatnot, to put them together that way because, that’s the way we have it sort of identified in society. We’ve got heroes. We’ve got a famous Chinese admiral named Zheng He, and then we’ve got Harriet Tubman. Not because everything they did was perfect, or in some cases, even real, but because they had become heroic icons. They’d become symbols.

We had power brokers. We have Margaret Thatcher, and Boss Tweed, because they had grown up in political systems, Tammany Hall and the British Conservative Party, and they had been able to grow opportunities and become leaders in that system. So, instead of being politicians, they dealt in power. They identified with that. So, we looked at these pairs that way so that we could not judge them as leaders, but identify, why did they emerge as leaders? What caused that to happen? What did they do, what were the contextual factors that caused that?

ABERMAN: You’ve looked at so many different leaders over the years, you’ve advised different companies around how to grow their own leadership style. Who’s the most interesting leader you’ve met, or learned about during your career, and what made them so interesting and important to you?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I’ve been lucky to be around a lot of pretty interesting leaders. The one that jumps out to me now is probably, unexpectedly, Coco Chanel. Born in 19th century France, became an orphan at a young age, she goes into a convent. She becomes a seamstress, and then, when she’s old enough, she’s opportunistic. She goes out, she sings in local clubs, and she becomes a courtesan. Essentially a highly-paid prostitute of sorts, but she starts to take her opportunities, and she identifies that fashion is at a period when it can’t be sustained. Women are wearing heavy clothes, they’re corseted in, it’s expensive, it’s impractical.

And as you got toward the beginning of the first World War, the expense of that was a big problem, and also, there was a nascent beginning of the women’s liberation movement, as more women entered the workforce. So, as a consequence, she sees all these factors. She decides the time is right for a change. But it’s hard, at that time, for a female to break into business. She gets some help from a male friend, some advice and some financing, but then she does something brilliant. She becomes the brand. She starts to change, and what she does is, she becomes almost her own mannequin. She wears clothes that are more liberating.

They are attractive to people, they’re more vibrant. She goes after materials that are different, and then she wears them, and lives a lifestyle. And what she does is, she entices a whole generation of women: be like Coco, live my life, wear my clothes. And later, after Chanel number five is created, wear my fragrance. It was a fascinating way. She was in advertisements, she lived a lifestyle that was alluring to people as well. So, she essentially becomes not only the business mastermind, the fashion designer, but also her own marketing movement, and it’s an extraordinary branding at a time, probably a hundred years before we even used that word all the time.

ABERMAN: That’s a theme that very much comes through in that vignette with Coco Chanel, and leaders, and there are others as well. It seems that a very recurrent theme is that leaders either intentionally or unintentionally become myth makers.

MCCHRYSTAL: They do! It’s funny, because in some ways, you can understand why they do it. They build their own myth up. They become more admirable in people’s eyes. They become more powerful than they might really be. They do all of those things which increase fallibility, or their political power, or whatever. At the same time, we buy it. We, the followers, we the public, because we want to buy it. We want to believe there are people stronger, taller, smarter, that can deliver what we want. And it’s very dangerous, because we develop unrealistic of those leaders, then we’re disappointed when they can’t live up to it. And the leaders, I would argue in some cases, create unrealistic expectations for themselves. And then, when they turn out to be simply human, and able only to do a certain amount, then we’re very disappointed.

ABERMAN: And is this where the feedback loop we were discussing in the first segment comes into play? I’ve known, and I know you have as well, some supremely arrogant people who really believe that they are, in fact, mythical centaurs. I mean, they just do, but they’re terrible leaders. So, what is about these mythical figures that makes them effective leaders? How do we close the loop on this?

MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, and that’s an interesting thing, because in fact, we have a feedback loop that tells people they’re powerful, and they’re handsome, and they’re beautiful, and effective and all those things. They start to believe it, and then there’s a certain arrogance or self confidence on steroids that comes up. And so, people are enticed to believe it. They’re reinforced to believe it. If they show a lot of self confidence, we see this in movies and we see it in real life, then we assume they must be effective and powerful, because they act as though they don’t have a doubt in the world. Whereas someone who’s more tentative, more introspective, more self-doubting, we assume they must not be that good, because they don’t think they’re that good.

ABERMAN: But that reveals something that I find fascinating. We have a cult of extraversion in our society, when we look at leaders. But as Susan Cain wrote in her book Quiet, and what other people pointed out, introversion is incredibly important in an organization, and some of the most successful leaders I have known are not particularly comfortable in front of a crowd. You’ve got examples in your book. How do you coach somebody whose winning strategy in life is data-driven, quiet, confident leadership? How do they succeed in the world where many of us associate leadership with myth-building, arm-waving, and brass bands?

MCCHRYSTAL: We think about the leader who walks into the room, and they’re just supremely confident. They can make small talk, can work the room, they look people in the eye and they just seem to bring energy. Bill Clinton was famous for that. And then, we think of the people who are more awkward. I have found that the best leaders, who are introverted, and I’m off the charts introverted, but I don’t claim to be one of the best leaders, you develop a coping mechanism. What I have done for years is have people around me. I attract people, I seek to be partnered with people, who fill in those gaps. My wife is very good for that, but she’s next to me, I’m a little bit better. I operate with other people who are a little more extroverted than I am. I may bring some strengths to it, but I realized, when I’m part of a team, I’m far better. And so, I don’t pretend differently. I find out that if I’m alone, and I’m operating through social environments, I’m pretty dismal.

ABERMAN: So, you’re definitely an advocate for the cliche that A-players hire A-people, and C-players hire mediocrity?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that’s true, but I think I’m also a believer in the yin and the yang. And that is, you hang around people, hopefully, who fill in things about you that might be weaker, instead of just finding someone exactly like me, so we have two Stans. What we really need is a Stan and somebody who’s all that I’m not.

ABERMAN: Last thought before we take another break. Your last book, a book that influenced me, was Team of Teams, where you really talked about the delegation of authority, and servant leadership. How does this new book, Leaders, talk, and how are you feeling about, leadership? What’s changed, in your mindset, from when you wrote Team of Teams?

MCCHRYSTAL: I had not thought about this when we wrote Team of Teams, but it actually is part of the natural journey towards it. Because, if you think of Team of Teams, it’s important that the organization collaborated, it’s important that the pieces fit together. When we talked about the leader in Team of Teams, we talked about them becoming the gardener. They create and nurture an ecosystem in which the organization operates well. It’s a less egocentric kind of leadership. It’s giving up a little of the overt power, for indirect shaping capability.

What we find here in this book is, as we go forward, that is a reality. People interact with followers, so that ability to shape, and that constant interaction, to produce what we call the emergent property of leadership, is much more effective than the idea that I ride in on the white horse and I point my leadership gun at people, and I anoint them with leadership. So, I think it’s a natural movement in the direction that, unconsciously, we’ve been pursuing for a long time.

ABERMAN: I know that, over the years, you’ve done a lot of work to really try to encourage national service, and just getting citizens to participate in democracy, and have a stake in the game. How does that dovetail with this concept of emergent leadership? Do we ultimately, in society, have a responsibility for the leaders that we get?

MCCHRYSTAL: Complete responsibility. If you think about it. We elect, we select, we support, we do all the things that lets a leader be a leader. At the bottom line, without being trite, we need to all be leaders. If we think about what a nation is, it’s simply an agreement between a bunch of people to form a nation. I mean, the gods didn’t come down and decide the United States of America, we did. And we said that we will band together, and we’ll each get certain rights and benefits from that. And we’ll have certain associated responsibilities.

Our leadership, now, needs to come from stepping up, and living up to the citizenship, which means we need to lead each other. We need to do the things that make society better. We need to be parts of government. We need to be parts of our defense, our policing. We need to do things, volunteer in communities, that simply represent: I will do something that needs to get done. And when someone steps forward, that’s a kind of example leadership.

The chance for everyone to have experience of doing service for a part of their life changes their psyche. It changes their sense of what responsibility is. People who served during in the Second World War became known as the greatest generation. I would argue not for what they did in uniform, but what they did afterward, because they had a habit of serving, of feeling responsible for what happened in the country. I think we need to recapture that, and I think we need to give every young person that opportunity to build up that experience inside them.

ABERMAN: So, as we bring together your experience over the last number of years since you left the Army, it seems to me like you’re creating an overall paradigm where leaders emerge, leaders are myth-makers, but leaders have to be attached and connected to those that follow, and those that follow need to understand that they have a shared responsibility for outcomes. So, that’s a very compelling paradigm. And that’s why we’re here together, talking about it. In the world that we’re in right now, just current events: take this paradigm and apply it to a current situation that you think is troubling, and is a crossroads moment for how we should be applying leadership.

MCCHRYSTAL: Sure. When I look at the films of the migrant caravans that are coming toward the United States, it’s a really interesting moment. It’s a practical problem. We have challenges with our immigration laws, and we have disagreements, and we need to sort those out. But this is coming faster than that reform will occur. It’s a group of between 5,00 and 14,000 people desperate to leave their homes, coming to the United States, or trying to. The United States must protect its sovereignty, must control its borders, as all countries must. And we must do that equitably. But we’ve also got a near-term challenge that we’ll either get wrong or we’ll get right, and we should think about it.

We should think about what right would look like. Now, we could build a wall, we could put troops on the border, we could shoot them when they get close, we could do any number of things to keep them out, but I don’t think we’re going to be very happy with the optics, or the feel of that, associated with our values. I think it’s time for our leaders to help us decide what right is like for us. To decide, okay America, these are our values. This is how we process, these are our practical responsibilities, but here’s how we make those with how we want to be viewed in the world, and how we want to view ourselves most importantly.

Back in 1932, the group of people who were veterans in the first World War had been promised bonuses for their service in that war. They needed it during the Depression early, so they came down to Washington D.C., and they did a big campsite, something like 25 thousand people, and they established a campsite, and they asked for early payment. They were there for months.

Congress eventually voted not to give them the money early, and after a period of disagreement with that, the President ordered the United States Army to just disperse them, to drive them out of the capital. In uniform, United States Army troops under Douglas MacArthur came out with tear gas and bayonets, and forced out the bonus marchers. Veterans, fellow Americans. Think of the optics, think how the soldier felt: that could be them in ten years. And we create a moment that we’re embarrassed about now, that doesn’t mesh with our values, and we have to live with it for generations.

ABERMAN: Well, in effect, that cost Hoover the White House, and Roosevelt got elected. It sounds to me that what we’re getting at here is that, a myth is not just what a leader tells followers. A myth is what a nation tells itself and others about its role in the world. And what I hear, strongly, is we need to be very clear about what our myth is if we expect the rest the world to respect us.

MCCHRYSTAL: That’s right. And what we want from our most senior leaders is to help us in that journey. Help clarify that for us, because nations and populations can get inflamed about something, or confused, or ill-informed, and the leader should say no, okay, this is the issue. This is the clarity. These are the realities of it. Here are our values. Now, we as a nation should live those values. They should pull us up. When the senior leadership in America talks, we should stand taller. If we’re angered, they should calm us down. If we’re too complacent, they should energize us. If we’re frightened, they should make us feel better, but they should not let abrogate our responsibilities. Senior leaders should make us better Americans.

ABERMAN: So, effectively, as we conclude our conversation together, your book Leaders, and your work, is a call to action that organized society, leading our society, is a collective enterprise, and anybody who tells you that it’s top down is just sadly, mistaken.

MCCHRYSTAL: That’s exactly right. Without us, leaders have no position. But without leaders, we’re not as good as we can be.

ABERMAN: What’s next after you’re finished promoting this book?

MCCHRYSTAL: That’s a great question. We’re talking about another book, but I’ve got that fatigue my eyes when I think about it. So, we might take a look at the same idea of leaders with teams, and see what we can make of it.

ABERMAN: Well, one thing I know for sure is that whatever you do, you’re going to lead. And for that, I really appreciate you taking the time, and I’m sure everybody listening also learned from our conversation.

MCCHRYSTAL: It’s been my honor. Thank you.