Leadership Beyond The Flatulence Question

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.55.25The silver haired Senator for Rhode Island raised his head from the document in front of him and stared hard, Columbo style, at the subject of his merciless interrogation. His questioning had been forensic, the attention to detail relentless. His eyes narrowed. The sniper line of his gaze bisected the small gap between the top of his reading glasses and the flop of his fallen quiff.  At the receiving end,  the subject of his blistering inquiry shifted in the cross hairs. The committee room was hushed, electric. Unable to evade the question any longer, the accused leaned toward the microphone and spoke.
“That refers to flatulence. We were 16.”
Now the senator took one more sagacious moment to consider the evidence from Brett Kavanaugh’s high school year book, raised his eyebrows high and asked the follow up: So, had a school friend of the Supreme Court Justice Nominee also referred to breaking wind in the year book?
Clearly, no stone would be left unturned in the search for truth in a matter which, as I write this, remains unresolved. The outcome is impossible to predict from this particular moment in space and time though it is probably known to you as you read this.
In any event what I was doing at roughly the same moment in the space time continuum as the Senate Judiciary Committee examined allegations against Judge Kavanaugh was reading a book by General Stanley McChrystal. Reading the book was a vastly superior experience.  It is terrific and not at all what I expected from a decorated military leader.  I heaved the cover open, anticipating that a General’s book called Leaders would be about unshakeable self-belief, fearlessness, winning above all else,  about conviction, unswerving progress toward a singular goal, brilliant tactics, superior strategy, unimpeachable moral backbone, bombastic oratory,  and zero tolerance for hesitation and equivocation. In short, I wasn’t looking forward to it.
I was wrong. Because in the attempt to create a General Theory of Leadership, McChrystal and his co-authors have delivered an elegantly-written compendium of 13  fascinating biographies which is quite simply a terrific read in its own right, regardless of its superior theorem-building motive. Most of the time I was unaware that a theory was being investigated. This seemed simply a case of great stories being well told.
The structure is explicitly copied from the Greek-turned -Roman historian Plutarch’s book of great lives: Each chapter is a pair of stories such as Walt Disney and Coco Chanel, Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein or Maximimilien Robespierre and Abu Musab al Zarqawi. A few observations are made after each. The exception is the first chapter which is devoted to a single leader, Robert E. Lee, a welcome brave decision in these days to tackle a controversial subject neutrally, and Lee’s Confederacy Generalship in the US Civil War is certsainly that.
Plutarch’s Parallel Liveswas a widely read book, the authors claim, until the Great Man Theory of leadership fell out of fashion. A cynic might observe that it was hard for business schools  to make money from leadership training if great leaders are simply born with the X Factor.  What replaced this view of history was the idea of the leader as servant or enabler of their followers.
McChrystal desires not to resuscitate the Great Man/Woman theory but to regard the individual leader as a means of understanding the movement and change that they wrought in the time that they did so and among the people they lived alongside. Rather than compress the biography of Harriet Tubman or Margaret Thatcher into a theory he prefers simply to tell the story as well as possible and then consider what may be drawn from that. Some led by example, others led by power broking or being more ideoligically pure than anyone else. Einstein’s leadership was sourced from a theory of time and space that he suspected only 12 people could properly understand, and yet he was loved around the world anyway. Why is that?
To answer this question requires telling not only of the person’s attributes as a biographer would write it but also of their dramatic relationship with the world as a playwright would have it: We must understand the authentic, flawed human being before we can understand the spotless myth.
McChrystal writes: “Their stories are human and are better experienced rather than read with analytical detachment. No life is lived, no crisis navigated, in anticipation of being an interesting case study.”
At which point in space and time and in my reading  of this book  I paused and watched the TV as Judge Kavanaugh, found the truth of McChrystal’s observation. And while he had never expected it at school his entire life was going to be disected and live-streamed around the world.  His life in fact had become a case study. His voice resigned to the inevitable he said to the senator:  “If you want to talk about flatulence at age 16 in a year book page, I’m game.”
8.82 Newtons
I read : Leaders
by: General Stanley McChrystal
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