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Was General McChrystal insubordinate?

Was General McChrystal insubordinate?

What principles are relevant as one looks at this scenario from a leadership perspective? In order to examine this situation, one must first look at the facts. Some have opined that the granting of an interview to Rolling Stone (RS) by itself demonstrate poor judgment. Others explain that Gen. Stanley McChrystal viewed that magazine as friendly and in accord with some of his own views.

McChrystal, commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan granted an interview with a reporter from RS. Scheduled to be on the newsstands July 8, 2010, the contents of that article were made public on June 22, 2010. Reportedly, President Obama was not happy with comments attributed to McChrystal and his personal staff. The president summoned the general to the White House to explain his remarks. After a brief meeting, the president announced he had accepted McCrystal’s resignation. Many news accounts explained that McChrystal had been fired for insubordination.

I read the entire RS story written by Michael Hastings. There were few statements attributed directly to the general. And those few remarks were, in my opinion, not directly defiant or insubordinate. There were several statements quoting members of the general’s personal staff that demonstrated a lack of respect for the president and many of his personal advisors and staff, including Vice President Biden.

For example, his staff explained that after attending a meeting with the president, McChrystal reported to them that: “Obama looked uncomfortable and intimidated by the roomful of military brass.” Then after meeting with the president wherein he was given the command of the Afghan war, his staff related that McChrystal was disappointed. “It was a 10-minute photo op. … Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. … He didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."

Reportedly, this is not the first confrontation between the commander-in-chief and the general. Shortly after taking command in Afghanistan, McChrystal conducted his own policy review. This review resulted in a report to his chain of command requesting a substantial increase in troops on the ground. RS reported that this report was leaked to the media: “The now-infamous report was leaked to the press, and its conclusion was dire: If we didn't send another 40,000 troops – swelling the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by nearly half – we were in danger of ‘mission failure.’" RS reported that the president was furious. McChrystal was: “trying to bully Obama, opening him up to charges of being weak on national security unless he did what the general wanted.”
Earlier, General McChrystal “dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as ‘shortsighted,’ saying it would lead to a state of ‘Chaos-istan.’”

The principle involved here is loyalty. Loyalty means submitting to the lawful commands of one’s boss without griping down. This is a very important principle. When violated, it leads to a loss of influence and authority. This loss occurs when we teach those under us that it’s OK to disrespect and murmur about one’s boss. The most powerful way we lead is through example. When we gripe “down,” we teach our followers to gripe down about us.

In one of my favorite movies, Saving Private Ryan, there’s a classic statement about leadership. One of the members of the squad sent to rescue Ryan complains to Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) about the futility of their mission. He tries to get the Captain to agree. Hanks wisely responds: “I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don't gripe to you. I don't gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”

McChrystal knew this principle. Why then did he violate it? By all the accounts that I have read, he’s a very smart man. He claims he voted for President Obama and has many areas of agreement with his ideology. He’s also a commander who identifies closely with his troops. He’s been on many dangerous field operations to better understand the implications of his orders.

Reportedly, recently his troops have complained about the rules of engagement that they feel place them in unnecessary and life threatening danger. Perhaps he was growing more uncomfortable about the policy direction he was receiving and having to give. In the practice of leadership, one either demonstrates loyalty to one’s superior or gets out from under that authority (resigns).

If one assumes that the article accurately quotes the general’s staff, and that they accurately quote the General, then one thing is certain, the general openly griped to his subordinates about his boss, his policies and his circle of assistants. Is that being insubordinate?

Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary defines insubordinate as: “Not submitting to authority.” One of the dictionary’s definitions of submission is “to yield without murmuring.” According to his personal staff, the general murmured. 

Violating the important principle of loyalty has consequences. General McChrystal knew that. Perhaps that is why he murmured. If the general he wanted to change the rules of engagement, eliminating a firm withdrawal date and get out from under leadership he could not support, then he has achieved all three objectives by his actions. But this raises its own questions.

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