Influence and Goo

Review: 'Leaders: Myth and Reality' by Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone

Stanley A. McChrystal / Getty Images

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Leadership. Dozens of universities around the country offer courses in its study. Every other year casts up onto the bestseller list another book on the topic. And all of it is basically goo. The people writing about leadership can't even agree on what it means. A few years ago, Bernard M. Bass pointed out that "a two-day meeting to discuss leadership" will often start "with a day of argument over the definition." Joseph Rost looked at almost 600 academic papers on leadership and found well over 200 rival definitions of the word, bitterly dueling within them.

Or so, at least, reports the latest bestseller on the topic, Leaders: Myth and Reality by former general Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jay Mangone. And with this book, we have reached something approaching peak goo.

Now, you might think Leaders: Myth and Reality is trying to escape the gooey constraints of its genre—a saber-tooth lion clawing its way from the tar pits. McChrystal and his aides argue that contemporary understandings of leadership are distorted by myths. There is, for example, the "Formulaic Myth," in which writers on the topic demand a checklist of characteristics in leaders. In McChrystal's view, successful leaders vary greatly. And he means that not so much in the varying conditions of history, since his 13 case studies—from Martin Luther to Margaret Thatcher—presume a kind of ahistorical unity of definition among history's different leaders. Rather, he claims that leaders vary according to their fields and their types.

Thus, Walt Disney and Coco Chanel are both leaders worth studying, in the category of "Founders." Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein are paired leaders in the category of "Genuises." Maximilien Robespierre and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are leading "Zealots." Zeng He and Harriet Tubman are his examples of "Heroes." Boss Tweed and Margaret Thatcher are "Power Brokers." And Martin Luther and his namesake Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of leaders as "Reformers."

McChrystal is surely right that no static, formulaic listing of characteristics will capture what was extraordinary about either Albert Einstein or Boss Tweed. Unfortunately, nor will any other definition of leadership. What Leaders: Myth and Reality is really seeking is the characteristic of influence—and that is never quite the same as leadership.

This is what leads McChrystal to denounce what he calls the "Attribution Myth" among those who study leadership. We tend, the book argues, to attribute to leaders all that happens under their leadership. Now, you'd think that this was pretty much the idea of leadership—which is, after all, not the same as heroism. Heroes and heroines can exist by themselves. Leaders cannot.

But by rejecting the attribution of group successes to the leaders of those groups, McChrystal sets up his claim that leadership is best understood by studying the followers rather than leaders. The "Results Myth" hides from us the fact that leaders are created primarily by coming to fill symbolic roles in the minds of their followers. And the possible symbolic roles that leaders can play are the ones that Leaders: Myth and Reality lays out in its pairings of leaders—the leader as Founder, as Genius, as Zealot, as Hero, as Power Broker, and as Reformer.

By looking to the followers, McChrystal is not wrong, exactly. However incomplete the categories, they suggest that leaders thrive because of a genuine human need. Bad followers may follow out of a slavish hunger for submission, but those are the kind of followers who don't much help leaders achieve their goals. The best followers follow because of the human need to have a goal and feel a purpose to those lives—a goal and purpose that define, for McChrystal, the symbolic value of leaders.

Leaders: Myth and Reality would have benefited by examining, for example, the work that has been done on Admiral Nelson and his Band of Brothers, for even while being a genius at naval strategy (and thus a leader, in the older, non-McChrystalian sense of the word), Nelson also possessed that strange, ineffable quality of inspiration. Why should we be surprised that his Band of Brothers set the tone of the British Navy for a century—a century in which Britain ruled through seapower the largest empire the world has ever seen?

But Admiral Nelson's greatest admirer may have been the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. And here we start to see the problems of a view of leadership that defines itself by influence and wants to call Albert Einstein a leader. Captain Mahan was surely influential. Judged by measurable impact on the subsequent century, his 1890 The Influence of Sea Power upon History may be one of the most consequential works ever published. But Mahan himself couldn't have organized a two-ship flotilla. I doubt he could have even convinced a contingent of sailors to follow him to free rum. Influence simply won't line up with an ability to lead.

Nor does leadership quite line up with historical happenstance in the way McChrystal imagines. A good chunk of luck is necessary, as well. Aristotle mentions luck as a virtue, and it's one of the places where undergraduates seem to feel the most discomfort with an ancient account of ethics. But any real feeling for history will force us to recognize that a lot of leaders' success derives from chance: the luck not to be killed in the first parts of a conflict, the luck at being selected out for an early command, the luck at being available for a purpose. History may find the people it needs, but people don't necessarily live in the historical moment in which their leadership might find its symbolic expression. For every person touched by fire, there was someone just as qualified left out in the cold.

Stanley McChrystal was a four-star Army general who received command in Afghanistan in 2009. But when a 2010 article quoted him disparaging the vice president and other civilian leaders, the Obama administration compelled his resignation in 2010. Deprived of the leadership positions he held through his decades in the military, McChrystal repositioned himself as a civilian expert on leadership, lecturing on the topic, forming "The McChrystal Group" to advise corporations on leadership, and publishing a 2015 bestseller called Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.

With Leaders: Myth and Reality, McChrystal has extended the franchise—just as nearly every successful writer on leadership has done. Bernard Bass, for example, did it with his book The Bass Handbook of Leadership and a dozen other derivative volumes, as though he were producing multiple iterations of Chicken Soup for the Soul of Leaders.

Leaders: Myth and Reality opens with a critique of previous accounts of leadership, and the book follows up with a not uninteresting claim that leadership isn't really to be judged by leaders. Followers matter more in the making of a leader. But the book's 13 biographies (6 pairs plus a renunciation of McChrystal's prior admiration of Robert E. Lee) prove canned recapitulations of the most hackneyed secondary sources. And at best we arrive at the book's conclusion with only a kind of meta-goo: a vague definition, in the mode of self-help books, that promises to aid the reader in becoming leaderly.

In that, McChrystal ends up walking the path of most writers who think they have a take on what makes a leader. It's a path, sadly, that seems to lead nowhere but the tar pits.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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