Leadership Lessons from the McChrystal Meltdown

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

Much ink and few tears have been spilled about President Obama’s firing of Army General Stanley McChrystal, following his insubordinate remarks in Rolling Stone. Most political commentators and management experts seem to believe that, while it was a setback for the war effort in Afghanistan, Obama ultimately had no choice and did the right thing. I agree. But what to make of McChrystal’s underlying motivations? And what can we learn, beyond the obvious canard that “it’s a bad idea to trash your boss in public”?

The question “What was he thinking?” is often asked after public figures do something stupid that topples them from grace. But it’s the wrong question. What they’re thinking often has little connection to what they’re feeling, and it’s those subterranean feelings  existing outside of conscious awareness  that motivate so much of human behavior, particularly those actions that on the surface appear irrational. I suspect that if you asked McChrystal what he was thinking, after the obligatory hair-shirt explanations he might say that he thought his comments to the Rolling Stone reporter were off the record. Of course a media-savvy military leader like McChrystal knows that nothing is really “off the record” in public life  although I suspect he might have been much more careful and deliberate with a reporter from the New York Times. But that begs the question: why did he do it?

As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs, boards and investors, I’d like to offer a few speculations on McChrystal, at a distance. Clearly his behavior was self-destructive, as it effectively ended a proud and distinguished military career in one fell swoop. In this case, he may have let his guard down in part because of the reporter’s skill in making him feel comfortable, and in part because he was  deep down  dying to unburden himself of what was weighing on his mind. In this regard, good journalists are like good psychoanalysts.

Military officers sublimate their fundamental aggressiveness in the most socially acceptable of ways: by making a career of it. It’s no wonder then, that they tend to lean Republican, the more militaristic party, and that they are naturally critical or even contemptuous of those who are more cerebral and diplomatic. There must be an inherent tension for McChystal and others warriors working for Obama. At times of great stress  like now, with the disastrous state of the war in Afghanistan  the pressure to express themselves (rather than bottling it up as is politically necessary in the service of one’s country and of one’s own job security) is serious. McChrystal was undoubtedly expressing his true feelings about Obama and the members of his White House staff, but he may also have been expressing his unconscious need to share internal emotional tension that had become unbearable.

Presumably his feelings were already known to his close associates, but that’s preaching to the choir and does little to relieve his inner state of tension. Which leads to the tragedy of the McChrystal affair: that in the hierarchy of government, there was no place for him to safely open up about what it was like to work for a White House he did not respect. In the absence of real communication about that, the emotions have no place to go but underground  until the pressure builds and the opportunity presents itself for those feelings to explode self-destructively. What if McChrystal had had an outlet to discuss his views directly yet privately with Obama? What if some of his opinions about the White House were valid? And what if Obama could have opened McChrystal’s mind to an alternate point of view? Such an avenue, I contend, could have saved a career now in ruins and  even more importantly  led to real progress in Afghanistan