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Ret. U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal
Ret. U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal Photograph by Brendan Smialowski—Getty Images

What VW can learn from Gen. Stanley McChrystal about imperfect leaders

Oct 14, 2015

The title of Chief Executive Officer commonly conjures up images of a sharply dressed, smooth-talking individual who paints an inspiring, mesmerizing picture of their company in images and words. But it is underneath this veiled exterior that an organization’s real story lives.

When the Volkswagen scandal broke, my first thought went to the leaders of the company. Of course, there is the obvious question: Did former CEO Martin Winterkorn and Volkswagen America CEO Michael Horn know about the cheating (both have denied this)? But for me, a leadership scholar, the fiasco raises much more interesting questions about Winterkorn and Horn’s leadership styles: Did the CEO image or illusion they projected blind them from the realities of their own business? Did they perpetuate a culture where employees were fearful of sharing problems with those at the top? Though we may never know how much knowledge these leaders had prior to the public exposé, it is a compelling case of what can happen when leaders become too focused on an image of perfection. Rather than trying to conform to a pre-cast mold, I believe leaders should abandon their bogus two-dimensional views of leadership.

To understand why leaders put on these superficial shields and how to breakthrough them, I recently sat down with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and of the Joint Special Operations Command. Gen. McChrystal comes from an environment that those of us on the outside might think (or Hollywood would like us to think) breeds the very stereotypical image that I propose we toss in the trash. I asked him to reflect on an experience that most influenced his work as a leader. He told me about a commander he met early in his career. On the surface, this commander was hardly someone you’d expect to have such a deep influence on Gen. McChrystal:

“He had a little bit of a paunch, he smoked heavily, he drank now and again … he was sort of the opposite of some of the ramrod-like leadership traits [we expect] — except he was frighteningly competent and he cared deeply,” said Gen. McChrystal, who today advises companies on leadership and management as co-founder of the McChrystal Group. “He was this phenomenal leader without having to paint himself in the stereotypical cloak of leadership; he was so good at making the unit better that he didn’t have to take on the outside trappings.”

Standing in stark contrast to how most expect a leader to look and act, Gen. McChrystal’s mentor shows that real leaders should be defined not by outward appearances, but by actual performance. All too often, a CEO’s hype, charisma and ability to articulate things create an illusion—one that’s far off from reality. And sometimes the illusion isn’t received as intended, isolating the very people it’s supposed to inspire and insulating the leader from the truth.

How can leaders resist these outside trappings and avoid perpetuating illusions that can hold them back? My discussions with Gen. McChrystal and several other high-impact leaders show three things you can focus on.

Seek feedback to see things as they really are

Of all the research assistants I’ve worked with during my 30 years in academia, the ones who stand out hold one thing in common: each approached me within two weeks of starting to ask how they were honestly doing. Regularly reaching out to others—colleagues, peers, superiors, direct reports—is critical to recognizing messages you may be sending (sometimes unknowingly) that may inhibit your ability to lead.

Gen. McChrystal recounted to me the time someone called him arrogant. The person pointed out that he rarely talks to people, particularly peers, when he enters a room. Admittedly, Gen. McChrystal—a self-described introvert—has rarely felt comfortable at a cocktail party setting where his reflex is to pull back. It took this difficult criticism to wake him up to how his actions—or rather inactions—were negatively impacting others’ perception of him.

Asking for feedback demonstrates to others that you value their perspective. It humanizes you and stamps out a counter-productive image of over polished perfection. If people become comfortable sharing feedback—good, bad and ugly—about your personal performance, they are more likely to do the same when it comes to critical business issues.

Ask questions to break down barriers

We all have weaknesses, our Achilles Heels that we may be trying to mask. By bringing them to the surface through feedback, you can build a better coping response to reflect your constant commitment to becoming a better leader. For Gen. McChrystal, shedding his introverted tendency required developing the coping skills to become more approachable to those around him. Like many leaders, he found his greatest ally in this pursuit was questions. Once you start asking catalytic questions, genuine conversation takes you down all kinds of roads; you’re acquiring insights you wouldn’t hear otherwise even in superficial small talk. A few years ago I was visiting with Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce.com, at a World Economic Forum Davos meeting. I asked him how he figures out the right questions to unlock new avenues of insight. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “One word, listen.” Along these lines, more extroverted leaders—like Benioff—may find their own tendency to energetically steer a conversation could be holding them back. Actively listening could be the key to gaining new insights when assessing complex situations and building deeper connections.

Remove distractions to make meaningful connections

It can be challenging for leaders to make meaningful connections given their incredibly intense schedules. Despite these demands, productive face time is critical for shedding the “cloak of leadership” – especially at the top. When you are in the room, are you 100% present?

Prompted by feedback received as a young officer, Gen. McChrystal still literally removes the “barrier” between him and his guests in his office, getting out from behind his desk to sit with the individual at a separate coffee table. Other leaders may silence cell phones or get out of their offices entirely. Simple gestures like these create a safe space where individuals can feel more comfortable opening up. It also signals that you’re more than the “outside trappings” of a senior leader, and are willing to fully engage. At the core, it’s a spark of empathy, compelling you to get your hands dirty and make a difference.

Ultimately, shedding the cloak of leadership is a liberating force. So why waste another minute trying to live up to a baseless stereotype? Get out of your self-imposed comfort zones. Seek serious feedback. Ask catalytic questions. Be fully present. Savor the surprises – especially uncomfortable ones. Becoming the best version of yourself possible, as an introverted Gen. McChrystal learned, is far more important to your leadership success than perpetuating old illusions. Cast off the cloak.

Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. . He is director of “The Innovator's DNA: Mastering Five Skills For Disruptive Innovation,” which is an MIT Sloan School Executive Education program built around his best-selling book, The Innovator’s DNA. As part of the MIT Leadership Center Video Series, he sits down with innovative leaders to explore how they are solving the world’s most challenging problems.

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