Last week, President Barack Obama accepted the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal after the highly decorated soldier and members of his senior staff gave an ill-advised interview to Rolling Stone magazine. The interview produced embarrassing, awkward and, in the eyes of the President, undermining comments that clearly demonstrate what can happen when leaders communicate in a sloppy and undisciplined fashion.
The military prides itself on the concept of policies and procedures that must be strictly adhered to in order to move up the ranks. So, McChrystal should have known better when he let one of his top aides refer—in Rolling Stone—to an initial meeting that the president had with General McChrystal as a “10 minute photo op.” The aide added; “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him (McChrystal), who he was”.
Those comments communicated in such a public way were embarrassing to the president and to McChrystal. They undermined, in the eyes of many, the relationship between the military leader in charge in Afghanistan and the commander-in-chief, President Obama. McChrystal reports to the president, so to have their initial meeting characterized in such a negative way would produce nothing positive.
In that same article, McChrystal’s top aides described how the general was reluctant to meet with a top government official in France (an ally with Afghanistan) for a dinner appointment that he described as “gay.” Further, McChrystal and his people mocked other top federal and White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor James Jones and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. The overall tone of the article was that McChrystal and his people thought that those closest to the president were boobs, incompetent and that the American public shouldn’t have a lot of confidence in the civilian leaders in charge of the war effort.
What does all this mean to the rest of us who often must function in an organizational hierarchy in which the chain of command may not be as rigid as in the military, but is still significant? It matters a lot. This is a classic case of what can happen when professionals forget, regardless of the stature they have achieved, that “everyone has a boss”. It also demonstrates that while you can have disagreements with those who you report to, if those feelings are communicated in public, rarely will the outcome be good.
Biting your tongue regardless of how strongly you feel about your boss or an organizational strategy is often the best and most prudent communication approach. Unless you believe that the leader of your organization is doing something morally, ethically or legally wrong, any disagreement you have should be communicated internally in private. You can’t go public unless you are prepared to leave the organization or, in General McChrystal’s case, resign. That’s not just true when it comes to communication between a general and the president; it is the same for a top level manager and his or her CEO, a teacher and a principal, or a player and a coach.
Disagreements over policy and decisions happen all the time. Personality differences are par for the course in organizational life. But, any smart professional must think through the way his public communication is going to look, sound and feel once it’s public. What does it look like in print? How will others perceive it? How will my boss be likely to react? How will it impact my standing in the organization and in my professional community? And, finally, can I live with myself if I just keep my thoughts to myself?
Without answering these questions in an honest fashion before you open your mouth, you are very likely to make the same stupid and sloppy communication mistakes made by General Stanley McChrystal, whose career is now in shambles.