Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, knows a thing or two about leadership. But he recently changed his mind about one of his long-time heroes: The leading Confederate general, Robert E. Lee.
“In the minds of the military, Robert E. Lee was sort of a perfect soldier,” McChrystal told the audience at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Reinvent conference in Chicago on Monday evening. His thinking on the man—and what he stands for—has now evolved.
In 1976, McChrystal’s wife gave him a picture of Lee, which he kept on his wall for decades. A little over a year ago, though, McChrystal says he went through “a journey” and gave Lee’s legacy a closer look. The result? “In the summer of 2017, I went and took it [the photo of Lee] off the wall and put it in the garbage,” said McChrystal, explaining that the symbols Lee is associated with (white supremacy and slavery, for example) are not things he is comfortable with. “This otherwise extraordinary soldier, we had simplified him.”
McChrystal shared his thoughts on other leaders, including a much less controversial figure, fashion designer Coco Chanel. (Chanel and Lee are two of 13 notable personalities explored in McChrystal’s upcoming book, “Leaders: Myth and Reality.”)
“The thing about Coco Chanel, [is that] she was hard as a woodpecker’s lips,” said the retired general, who now runs McChrystal Group, a business consultancy. Chanel’s business and creative skills, said McChrystal, “intersected with opportunity.” As more and more women were entering the workplace, she took advantage of the timing and created a larger-than-life brand. “She made herself the exemplar of what you wanted to be,” said McChrystal. “The idea was: I want to look like Coco.” (McChrystal admitted that, prior to writing his most recent book, he didn’t even know Chanel was a person.)
Inevitably, the evening’s conversation also turned to the topic of another, more timely leader: President Donald Trump.
“I think [New York Times columnist] David Brooks said it best when he said that Donald Trump is the wrong answer to the right question,” said McChrystal. The army general-turned-business consultant and author stressed the importance of electing centrist leaders in today’s politically polarized climate. “If we reinforce the vitriol it will be hard to get anything done in this country,” he told the audience.
McChrystal also emphasized that this is a moment and an opportunity for self-reflection: “We select the leaders, we deselect them, we support them or we don’t.”