Wednesday, June 23, 2010

McChrystal's Downfall

How have you been perceived as a leader lately?

What’s fascinating about the uproar over General Stanley McChrystal's conduct is that it's not focused on differences over the war strategy in Afghanistan. Instead, it's about a leader’s behaviors. General McChrystal’s situation has a lot to teach us about leadership!

First, it demonstrates the fragility of titles, positions and roles of authority. You are in your position because a more senior member of your organization made a decision that they could trust you to be a valuable part of a team. Once that trust is fractured, your lofty title can disappear in an instant.

Second, like the General, many of us physicians have superiors who are “civilians” – e.g. not clinicians, not doctors. When we find ourselves in disagreement with our non-clinical colleagues, do we state that disagreement face to face, or do we make demeaning comments about them to our subordinates? I suspect that sometimes the stresses of leadership and management make all of us say and do things that don’t reflect well on us. One of my friends who once worked with McChrystal told me that the behavior described in the Rolling Stone article, in which McChrystal openly disparaged other high-ranking U.S. officials -- was out of character from the man he knew a few years ago. Still there’s no excuse to ridicule and disparage the thoughts and ideas of others who may disagree with us.

Third, are you a role model of professional and respectful behaviors for your staff? If your closest staff feel comfortable belittling others, they may be acting that way because you a). exhibit those same behaviors yourself, or b). you haven’t told them it’s unacceptable behavior. Do you routinely attribute not-so-flattering motives to people who disagree with you, or whom you perceive as adversaries? I find my judgments about the motives of others are more often wrong than right. I try to ask them rather than assume I know their motives. I hope my failure rate on fundamental attribution error is decreasing as I get older and more experienced!

It’s hard to imagine how this situation could have ended without McChrystal being replaced. Not only did McChrystal’s comments demonstrate disdain and disrespect for his superiors, but his inner circle of leaders was guilty of the same behaviors!Would you want to work in an organization or unit where these behaviors were the norm?

Ask yourself what you would do if you were the CEO (President Obama). Knowing that our preference as physicians is to avoid confrontation or conflict, would you have fired the general yourself? Asked HR to do it? Found a way to live with the situation while you gave the general another chance? Would you find out how the front line troops felt about their commanding officer before making a decision?

Maya Angelou says, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” As leader of your practice, business, unit, or health system, how do your staff and colleagues feel about working with you?


  1. I appreciate all of your blogs, Barry, but this one in particular is important. It points out some incredibly valuable issues around leadership, one of which is the need for leaders to possess "soft skills" (emotional intelligence). The higher up the leadership ladder, the more important these skills are for success. For whatever reason, McCrystal did not exhibit those requisite qualities, and he has consequnetly paid an enormous price for this gap or lapse.

    Barry K. Herman, M.D., M.M.M., CPE, FACPE

  2. Samuel Alfano DO MMM CPE FACPEJuly 1, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    I agree with all you have said and appreciate the incite. One thought I had was the importance of clear direction and vision for the troops ( staff, Physicians, etc.). In our senior management team we often disagree with each other and have spirited debate. However, when a direction is set it is important we as leaders do not provide conflicting information or comment and confuse our troops. This leads to poor job satisfaction, performance issues and ultimately poor patient care.


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