What Makes a Great Leader? General Stanley McChrystal Has An Answer

what makes a good leader

What makes a great leader? It’s a question that has been researched and answered by many people across many years, decades and centuries. Leadership is a topic that stimulates a lot of conversation, and is probably the most written about topic in business. Leadership, in comparison to other topics in business, is about self and other improvement; meaning the improvement of others not just oneself.

With so much of it written about, another book is just more of the same right? Not so.

Retired Four Star General Stanley McChrystal, who’s written about leadership and teams, wrote a book about leadership that deserves your attention. Leaders: Myth and Reality is General McChrystal’s exploration of “what is leadership today?”. He approaches this question by profiling 13 historical leaders as follows:

  • Robert E. Lee, who was a big influence in the life of the author.
  • Founders. Coco Channel and Walt Disney.
  • Geniuses. Albert Einstein and Leo Bernstein.
  • Zealots. Maximillian Robespierre and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.
  • Heroes. Zheng He and Harriet Tubman.
  • Power Brokers. Boss Tweed and Margaret Thatcher.
  • Reformers. Martin Luther and MLK.

By examining these historical leaders, Leaders is a deeper look into the definitions and perceptions of leadership in the modern age. But this book is not a step by step guide, rather an examination of leadership. Sticking to his point of not making a step by step guide, General McChrystal debunks the three largest myths about leadership:

3 Largest Myths About Leadership

1. Formula myth. We’ve all read articles on how to excel at leadership, which basically aim to show that leadership is attainable by following a procedure or checklist; it’s not true. Leadership is highly dynamic and situational.

2. Attribution Myth. When you read about people who’ve achieved the success there’s this dominant ideas that they made it all happen, that the result was directly attributable to the leader; it’s not true. Leaders are not necessarily heroes, and the success is largely dependant on the team involved, the resources available and the time / context of the success.

3. Results myth. Another myth is that leadership is mostly about results; not true. The appearance, actions, and style of the leader are highly important as they symbolize what the followers want / need.

What is leadership?

There are many traits that determine great leadership, General McChrystal closes with this definition of leadership: The goal of the leader is to viscerally craft a sense of what is possible by understanding the hopes and fears that the team has about their future state of being.

Finally, General McChrystal on What makes a good leader:

“A leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they’re willing to learn and to trust. This isn’t easy stuff. And it isn’t always fair. You can get knocked down, and it hurts and it leaves scars. But if you’re a leader, the people you’ve counted on will help you up. And if you’re a great leader, the people who count on you need you on your feet.”

Bottom line: Leaders is a great book. I like to read biographies because you can somewhat put yourself in another person’s shoes and examine their mindset. While this is not a biographical book, you do examine leadership from the perspective of various people from all walks of life. So if you want to understand leadership, read this book.