Listen, Learn, and Lead: Gen. Stanley McChrystal

My reflection from US Gen. Stan McChrystal’s TED Talk

In Feb 2017, I was privileged to meet retired U.S. Army Gen. Stan McChrystal at a team offsite. From reading his book and listening to his keynote, to our brief meeting, I was inspired and fascinated by his stories. Recently, I watched his TED talk and it left me with goosebumps and tears. They made me reflect on my own learning.

Reflection 1 – Teaching you how to wait

When I was ten, I had to wait 3 months for my dad to buy a nondescript, red, wristband for me. I was a huge fan of Chris Evert and I too wanted to wear a wrist band and be “Cool like Chrissy”. Every day, I saw it in the store. And every day, I longed for it. I couldn’t believe my dad wouldn’t consider my request. It cost 6.00 INR (less than $1) but he just wouldn’t relent. I think he wanted to know just how badly I wanted it. This was my own, home-military, teaching me the gift of delayed gratification! When he finally bought it, I wore it every, single day until it wore out completely. At the time, I was mad at him. Little did I know then that he was building character and teaching me that nothing was going to be offered on a platter. I had to earn it.

Reflection 2 – Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure

As a rookie, clinical research assistant, I was involved in clinical drug trials, which were often placebo controlled studies. There were several boxes of drugs and placebos, sealed and marked with specific labels. While navigating through the seemingly innocuous and simple task of organizing them, I had ended up mixing them. My inefficiency had just jeopardized a potential, $6000 USD contract with a pharmaceutical company. Not to mention the damage to my team’s brand, reputation and my relationship with them.

As I sat crying in a corner trying to figure what had gone so horribly wrong, my boss asked me to take time off and return to work the next day. After a long, sleepless night, I walked into his office for an emotional 9 a.m. meeting. During our discussion, he narrated the story of an unforgettable day in his life. His unintended but reckless driving on a lazy, Sunday afternoon in the 1980s had almost killed a little girl. But he got away with it. There was no cop. No ticket. And no explanation. Nobody had seen him (except the little girl). He said he’d been spared by a huge stroke of luck because the universe had given him a chance to redeem and reflect. How could he possibly not pay it forward to me, a few decades later? 

We’d both made terrible mistakes. His was a lapse in judgment. Mine was gross inefficiency, arising from inexperience. One would’ve cost a life. The other could’ve cost a blossoming career. But my boss taught me an invaluable lesson that day. He let me fail and yet not let me be a failure.

Reflection 3- A Ranger Promise, more powerful than marriage vows 

For Gen. McChrystal, the Ranger Creed is not a mindless mantra. It is not an elegant poem. It’s a promise. A promise more powerful than marriage vows. When I think about my own career, I feel blessed and fortunate to have been surrounded by leaders, mentors, coaches, and teams who have all been my “ranger comrades”. Through good times and bad. They have leaned in during life and death situations and celebrated during moments of joy. They were good, not because they were right. But because they were willing to learn and trust. They have been my little platoon, right here, exuding a “broad culture of responsibility, mutuality, and obligation”.

*Check out the link to Gen. Stan McChyrstal’s TED Talk and also Paratroopers Static Line Jump from the C-17  to understand the experience earned by the very best.

Featured Image Courtesy: Flickr CC


Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams. 

This is a personal blog and views don’t represent Cisco’s strategies or opinions. 

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