Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s life of leadership

March 8, 2013, 5:25 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Too often memoirs by former leaders are heavy on score settling and filled with phrases such as “if they had taken my advice things would have turned out better.’’ Those books are fun to read and at times juicy, but they aren’t terribly nutritious from an intellectual perspective.

Fortunately, retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s My Share of the Task is short on gossip and long on heft. Readers looking for a detailed recounting and analysis of American military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be satisfied. McChrystal, who had several key roles in Iraq and commanded American forces in Afghanistan until he was removed because members of his staff criticized President Obama in the media, comes across as a stoic yet, at times, quite compassionate leader.

He led the ultimately successful effort to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who commanded many of the suicide bombers in Iraq. The details of the lead-up to the final act would do John le Carré or Tom Clancy proud. Yet McChrystal doesn’t grandstand. “I looked back at the body. Seeing him as a man, I couldn’t exult in his death. Nor did I wring my hands. I took satisfaction, standing there, knowing that this work, our work, was necessary. Tonight, it had moved us closer to be being finished,’’ he writes.

McChrystal devotes more space to his service in Iraq than to Afghanistan, and the portions on the latter country are less revelatory. There is not much attention to McChrystal’s disagreements with the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy (McChrystal and others wanted more troops), and he doesn’t recount enough of the internal debate. He writes blandly that the “rising mistrust was disappointing. As an experienced soldier, I knew that any perceptions of military incompetence or manipulation were unfounded, and I believed that the intentions of leaders in the White House and across the government were equally focused on what was best for the nation.’’

There are only 1 ½ pages about the fatal Rolling Stone article in which some of McChrystal’s aides criticized President Obama and Vice President Biden, leading to the general’s forced retirement. “Regardless of how I judged the story for fairness or accuracy, responsibility was mine,’’ he writes curtly.

Since leaving the military, McChrystal has been teaching leadership at Yale University. His memoir is also part leadership/management treatise. He recounts how he developed his approach to leadership in part by reading biographies of other military leaders.

He contends that not enough people who run organizations know the difference between leading and commanding. “Leadership is the art of influencing others,” he writes. “It differs from giving a simple order or managing in that it shapes the longer-term attitudes and behavior of individuals and groups. Leaders take us where we’d otherwise not go. Although Englishmen rushing into the breach behind Henry V is a familiar image, leaders whose personal example or patient persuasion causes dramatic changes in otherwise inertia-bound organizations or societies are far more significant.’’

McChrystal’s ability to combine real-life spy tale, historical narrative, and management book make My Share of the Task an engaging and worthwhile book.

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