What You Can’t Say About Your Boss

By all accounts – including the now infamous profile in Rolling Stone – Stanley McChrystal is a brilliant, resourceful, brave and aggressive general.  So how did he manage to get himself fired?

It wasn’t because his strategy is failing, though it may be.  Nor was it because of his shortcomings as a leader.  Even Obama praised him for that last week for that.  His failing was being disdainful and contemptuous towards the civilian diplomats and politicians in the administration with whom he was forced to work.

According to Rolling Stone, in the year he has been in charge, “he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict.”  But the article singles out derisive comments by his staff about Vice-President Biden, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, a “clown,” Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, “a wounded animal,” and long-standing hostility towards U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.  McChrystal was also critical of politicians like McCain and Kerry who, says another aide, “turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.”  (See, “The Runaway General.”)

The profile makes it clear that McChrystal has a strong rebellious, anti-authoritarian streak, one that has gotten him into hot water a number of times in his career.  Moreover, it is not surprising that generals engaged in combat are often hot-tempered and impatient of the restraints that impede their job.  They are, after all, closer to the action and to the men whose lives are on the line.

Nor is it a bad thing that those burdened by such responsibility have the opportunity to let off steam, expressing their frustration at those who are more detached from battle, more caught up in their own careers.  Indeed, it is probably a sign of his effective leadership that McChrystal was able to wield together a team that encouraged loyalty and the frank expression of feelings.

So all of this might never have become a problem if Michael Hastings, reporting for Rolling Stone, hadn’t quoted their comments so fully.  On the other hand, Hastings was doing his job of covering the war and providing journalistic insights.  And he was operating in a culture that more and more has come to value transparency, unfettered access to raw information and frank opinions.  Indeed, it was a sign of McChrystal’s sophistication and self-confidence that he was willing to let journalists have access to the nitty-gritty details of running a war, unwilling to settle for the canned and carefully spun information they usually get.

No doubt that was also another way for him to be anti-authoritarian and unpretentious.  And yet, clearly, it was also disastrous.  According to Rolling Stone, he had the chance to review the article before it was published, but did not object.  Once published, the President had no choice but to fire him.

Was it just McChrystal’s arrogance that made him think the truth of his raw opinions could be – or ought to be – tolerated by the administration?  Or was he so angry that he didn’t care?  If they couldn’t stand it, he may have thought, did he want to keep his job?

Chances are he did not think through the implications of allowing the public a candid look at his frustrations.  Perhaps he did really believe in the overriding value of transparency.  But, perhaps, he wanted the public to know how inept the diplomats he had to deal with were – and, in the heat of the moment, he didn’t care what the price of that disclosure might be.  Maybe it was simply retaliation.