Leaders: Myth and Reality

Leaders: Myth and Reality

by Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, Jay Mangone


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An instant national bestseller!

Stanley McChrystal, the retired US Army general and bestselling author of Team of Teams, profiles thirteen of history’s great leaders, including Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, and Robert E. Lee, to show that leadership is not what you think it is—and never was.

Stan McChrystal served for thirty-four years in the US Army, rising from a second lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division to a four-star general, in command of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. During those years he worked with countless leaders and pondered an ancient question: “What makes a leader great?” He came to realize that there is no simple answer.

McChrystal profiles thirteen famous leaders from a wide range of eras and fields—from corporate CEOs to politicians and revolutionaries. He uses their stories to explore how leadership works in practice and to challenge the myths that complicate our thinking about this critical topic.

With Plutarch’s Lives as his model, McChrystal looks at paired sets of leaders who followed unconventional paths to success. For instance. . .

· Walt Disney and Coco Chanel built empires in very different ways. Both had public personas that sharply contrasted with how they lived in private.

· Maximilien Robespierre helped shape the French Revolution in the eighteenth century; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi led the jihadist insurgency in Iraq in the twenty-first. We can draw surprising lessons from them about motivation and persuasion.

· Both Boss Tweed in nineteenth-century New York and Margaret Thatcher in twentieth-century Britain followed unlikely roads to the top of powerful institutions.

· Martin Luther and his future namesake Martin Luther King Jr., both local clergymen, emerged from modest backgrounds to lead world-changing movements.
Finally, McChrystal explores how his former hero, General Robert E. Lee, could seemingly do everything right in his military career and yet lead the Confederate Army to a devastating defeat in the service of an immoral cause.

Leaders will help you take stock of your own leadership, whether you’re part of a small team or responsible for an entire nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525534372
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 100,528
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

STANLEY McCHRYSTAL retired from the US Army as a four-star general after thirty-four years of service. His previous books, My Share of the Task and Team of Teams, were both New York Times bestsellers. He is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a partner at the McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm based in Virginia.
JEFF EGGERS served for twenty years as a US Navy SEAL and also in government as a special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs. He is now executive director of the McChrystal Group Leadership Institute.
JASON MANGONE served for four years in the US Marine Corps, followed by positions at the Aspen Institute, the Service Year Alliance, and the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services. 

Read an Excerpt


The Mythology

Things are not always as they seem;

the first appearance deceives many.

-phaedrus, roman poet, ca. 15 bce-50 ce

In 49 BCE, with the dramatic proclamation "The die is cast," Julius Caesar made the fateful decision to cross the Rubicon River at the head of his 13th Legion. The crossing of the Rubicon was momentous because the river demarcated the boundary between Italy and the province of Gaul to the north, where Caesar was serving as governor. Suspicious of his growing power, the Senate had ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. But Caesar, defying the Senate, decided to return not in submission but in rebellion, marching on Rome with his legion. By crossing into Italian territory with an army, Caesar had irrevocably made himself a traitor.

For all it's, Caesar's river crossing was a relatively modest affair in which the future ruler and his legionnaires merely waded across a shin-deep stream. Nonetheless, this act put him in irreconcilable opposition to Rome's Senate, making the expression "crossing the Rubicon" forever synonymous with passing a point of no return.

The story about how Caesar and his legion marched on Rome survived on the parchment of the Lives, a series of profiles of famous men recorded by the Greek biographer Plutarch. Plutarch also recorded that the Senate-five years later-"in the hope that the government of a single person would give them time to breathe after so many civil wars and calamities," made Caesar "dictator for life." And yet within two months he was assassinated, the knives wielded by many of those same senators. As Plutarch explains, Caesar's "pretension" and the "extravagance" of his new title had motivated the group, including Caesar's close friend Marcus Junius Brutus, to conspire against him.

Today, those of us who know Julius Caesar's story most likely learned it not from reading Plutarch, but from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In the bard's telling of the assassination, Caesar struggles until he sees Brutus among the attackers and realizes the depth of his betrayal. Famously, his dying utterance is the poignant "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!"

Almost two millennia later, another General would become famous by crossing a river. Unlike the modest Rubicon, the Delaware could not be crossed by wading, so George Washington had no choice but to cross by boat, a scene memorialized in Washington Crossing the Delaware, one of AmericaÕs most recognizable paintings. On a canvas measuring over twenty-one feet wide, Emanuel Leutze captured the daring of AmericaÕs founding father and first president.

The parallels between Caesar and Washington go beyond the rivers they crossed as generals. Just as Caesar's final phase of leadership was reenacted by Shakespeare through the rhythm of iambic pentameter, the final act of Washington's leadership was depicted by the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, who four centuries later chose hip-hop as the rhythm to dramatize Washington's retirement in his theatrical story of Alexander Hamilton. And where Shakespeare had turned to Plutarch's Lives, Miranda found his inspiration within the pages of Ron Chernow's biography Alexander Hamilton.

The musical closes with the rap song "One Last Time," in which George Washington's 1796 decision to step down after his second term is met by a disbelieving Hamilton:

Hamilton: Why do you have to say goodbye?

Washington: If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on.

It outlives me when I'm gone.

Miranda said later that he sought to celebrate Washington's "humanity" and "frailty," lifting up the rare example of a leader who voluntarily relinquishes power. In the playwright's drama, Washington selflessly prioritizes the fledgling nation's democracy over the pursuit of power, consistent with the founding father's legacy of leadership.

For would-be leaders, the oft-told stories of audacious river crossings and of the dramatic finales of Julius Caesar and George Washington are both inspiring and intimidating. The stories would be more helpful, though, if leadership actually worked the way the legends imply. In fact, for both Caesar and Washington, leadership was hardly so simple.

History codified Caesar's "The die is cast" as a declaration of courage and decisiveness, but the proclamation also marked a moment of profound doubt. Plutarch tells us, but popular history forgets, that Caesar "ordered a halt" when he approached the river, and that he "wavered much in his mind . . . and often changed his opinion one way and the other." Before pressing on, he sought counsel when "his purposes fluctuated most." And yet "halting," "wavering," and "fluctuating" are not how we tend to view leaders, nor how leaders seek to be remembered. Truly effective leaders, we like to believe, are not susceptible to the fog of doubt-they act decisively and face the consequences. But few real leaders have actually operated this way.

So, too, Caesar's dying words, "Et tu, Brute?" were likely dramatic license taken by Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights. Plutarch's version of the assassination itself was the stuff of a very different drama.

When he is first attacked, rather than make an exclamation that might endear him to history, Caesar, more naturally, grabbed the offending dagger and tried to stop himself from being stabbed. Instead of calling to Brutus, he exclaims, "Vile Casca, what does this mean?" The rest of the struggle is an awkward affair, the great Caesar writhing to avoid the blows of his attackers, who in their own bungling efforts end up stabbing one another: "Some say that he fought and resisted all the rest, shifting his body to avoid the blows, and calling out for help, but that when he saw Brutus's sword drawn, he covered his face with his robe and submitted. . . . And the conspirators themselves were many of them wounded by each other, whilst they all levelled their blows at the same person."

Where Shakespeare's play focuses on the tension and conflict between two of his play's main characters, Plutarch's account zeroes in on Caesar's behavior in the course of dying a violent death.

In truth, neither Plutarch nor Shakespeare knew exactly what happened, and neither do we. We have no choice but to interpret events through the words they've given us. Both the biographer and the playwright do their best to capture the complexity in their own way. Alas, what we remember selectively is that Caesar crossed the Rubicon boldly and then died while uttering the three famous words that he probably never said.

Looking at the biographerÕs and playwrightÕs versions of history side by side, we see that CaesarÕs leadership was not as heroic as itÕs often remembered. So too was the case with Washington.

Inside the West Wing lobby of the White House hangs a reproduction of Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. The painting is a favorite stop for White House staffers giving tours to guests, who are entertained with a catalog of the painting's historical flaws: the Delaware River never froze in this way, the river is far too wide, the boat is heading the wrong way, the flag is wrong for the period, and so on. But the most interesting factual flaw is the boat itself. Rather than the rickety whaling rowboat depicted by Leutze, Washington is believed to have used a sixty-foot flat-bottom barge complete with artillery, a far better option for an army conducting a winter's night river crossing.

In 2011, a radically different depiction of the crossing was unveiled at the New-York Historical Society, complete with the flat-bottom barge. Artist Mort KŸnstler had been commissioned by a Mr. Thomas R. Suozzi, who told him, "I want to go up against the existing painting. The other painting is great, but it doesn't tell the realistic story." Aside from the boat, the most striking difference between the Leutze and KŸnstler versions is Washington himself. In the original, the General is fully upright in the tiny boat, seemingly lunging forward, his center of gravity elevated and perched over a miniature iceberg. In the remake, he's still standing, but he's carefully balanced, his right hand holding a firm grip on a nearby cannon to steady himself.

KŸnstler's work corrected inaccuracies of history, while also fixing a critical flaw in how we often depict the practice of leadership. It is, of course, human nature to steady oneself in a boat at night, for human balance is imperfect. Few real leaders, even military generals, present themselves riskily in a rowboat, refusing support, as if posing for posterity. And yet observers rarely see the depiction of Washington towering above a small boat in a freezing body of water-at night-as peculiar. Instead, we often accept such absurdly displayed feats of heroic leadership as normal.

Miranda's depiction of Washington as the American founder too selfless to accept a crown was similarly skewed, and there was more to the idealized story. As Chernow explains, by the time of his resignation, Washington "was suffering from an aching back, bad dentures, and rheumatism; visitors noted his haggard, careworn look." America's founding father was, after all, still human. Washington was certainly motivated by the principle of civic rule-but he was also physically and mentally tired.

A quick scan of these various accounts of two leaders tells us as much about methods of storytelling as about the leaders themselves. Biographers typically tell the stories of individual leaders, emphasizing the significance of their decision making. Unsurprisingly, leaders who draw most of their leadership ideas from biographies learn to adjust their own narrative frames to keep themselves at the center. The stories they tell themselves and others are misleading in a way that we humans crave in a complex world; biography simplifies the complexity of collective human systems down to more manageable individual elements.

The playwright often has a different perspective, focusing on the relationships among individuals, particularly when those relationships contain conflict or comedy. While the biographer helps the reader to know the attributes of the leader, the playwright gets the theatergoer to experience the drama of relationships enveloping that leader.

In truth, we crave both the biographer and the playwright. As individuals we appreciate the biographer's focus on the actors, and as social animals we enjoy the playwright's dramatic depiction of their relationships. Yet both storytellers have contributed to the mythology of leadership. Where the biographer fuels our leader-centrism, the playwright (or the painter) enables leader romanticism. Between the two effects, we devise narratives that obscure the role of followers and wrongly attribute complex outcomes to mere individuals: Caesar's strength both defined and ended his empire, and Washington won the Revolutionary War and founded the United States.

In reality, the lessons of leadership are not the ones we most naturally derive from the legends. The Rubicon reminds us that real leaders experience doubt and consult with others. Similarly, the lesson of the Delaware is not that good leaders are blasŽ in taking on unnecessary risk. A real leader might not utter a pithy line upon being stabbed; he might just quietly die of internal bleeding. When a real leader relinquishes power, he might be upholding the principles of democracy, or he might also simply be fatigued.

ÒLeadershipÓ is a famously difficult term to define. As The Bass Handbook of Leadership observes, Òoften, a two-day meeting to discuss leadership has started with a day of argument over the definition.Ó Bass also notes that leadership expert Joseph Rost found 221 definitions of leadership in 587 examined publications.

Of course, few leaders are so concerned with quibbling over definitions. In our experience, most people think of leadership as the process of influencing a group toward some defined outcome. This definition suggests that leadership is the process of one person herding the group toward goals, and that leaders at the top craft and direct those endpoints. Perhaps worse, our quest to understand leadership has followed a consistent but always insufficient pattern: we've studied individual leaders and come to think of leadership as simply what leaders do.

Here lies the root cause of the mythology of leadership-its relentless focus on the leader. For years, human beings have searched for the secret of leadership by studying why certain leaders achieve enviable results where others do not. To the detriment of the study of leadership, rarely do we look to the individuals around the senior leader. We assume the leader controls the process, undervaluing the role of followers and situational context. Moreover, we pretend that leadership is goals-driven, and that good outcomes can be gained through the correct formula of effective leadership. We wrongly believe that what happened in one leadership instance can be replicated in another.

This common understanding of leadership, when held up against the reality of how leadership actually works, reveals three myths, which we'll discuss in more detail in the book's final two chapters:

The Formulaic Myth: In our attempt to understand process, we strive to tame leadership into a static checklist, ignoring the reality that leadership is intensely contextual, and always dependent upon particular circumstances.

The Attribution Myth: We attribute too much to leaders, having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves, and neglecting the agency of the group that surrounds them. We're led to believe that leadership is what the leader does, but in reality, outcomes are attributable to far more than the individual leader.

The Results Myth: We say that leadership is the process of driving groups of people toward outcomes. That's true, to a point, but it's much broader than that. In reality, leadership describes what leaders symbolize more than what they achieve. Productive leadership requires that followers find a sense of purpose and meaning in what their leaders represent, such as social identity or some future opportunity.

The power and prevalence of this mythology of leadership rival those of religion or romance-these myths seem universal and inseparable from our existence as humans. They reflect a disconnect between how things should be and how we find them in practice and yet we knowingly live with this disconnect. For instance, corporate executives often speak of the importance of leadership, but when they're asked to list the threats to their business, they generally list exogenous factors, rarely listing their own leadership as a risk factor.

In part, we live with this mythology because it serves a useful function. As with religion, leadership offers value by crafting a narrative that helps make sense of the world around us, even when it eludes our comprehension. Leadership provides a framework for assigning causality when things go well, and equally a way to assign blame when things go otherwise. And as with romance, leadership holds our attention and captures our imagination, stirring feelings that we don't always understand.

Despite this utility, the mythology often leads us astray with adverse consequences and risks to society. When we buy into the mythology, our leadership models are made less effective, and we construct elaborate processes to select, assess, and train leaders who perpetuate existing weaknesses. And dangerously, we create and sustain false expectations about leaders. In some cases, savvy leaders exploit the mythology, enriching themselves while corroding the prosperity of the organizations they lead. In others, the mythology becomes exposed, leading to disappointment and cynicism about leadership.


Excerpted from "Leaders"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Stanley McChrystal.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents

Prologue ix

1 The Mythology 1

2 The Marble Man Robert E. Lee 17

3 The Founders 47

Walt Disney 49

Coco Chanel 69

Entrepreneurialism and Ego 91

4 The Geniuses 95

Albert Einstein 97

Leonard Bernstein 123

The Genius Next Door 146

5 The Zealots 151

Maximilien Robespierre 153

Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi 177

The Cyclic Lure Of Conviction 196

6 The Heroes 201

Zheng He 203

Harriet Tubman 222

A Human Need for Heroes 241

7 The Power Brokers 245

William Magear "Boss" Tweed 248

Margaret Thatcher 265

The Halls of Power 297

8 The Reformers 301

Martin Luther 303

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 329

Miners, Monks, and Ministers 361

9 Three Myths 367

10 Redefining Leadership 385

Epilogue 405

Acknowledgments 409

Notes 413

Index 447

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