Gen. Stanley McChrystal: ‘ISIS is like AIDS’

The legendary General speaks about how his experiences in the Middle East can help civilian organizations adopt a more effective fighting stance. 

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has learned many lessons the hard way. In 2010, when a Rolling Stone article led to his dismissal as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, he learned that investigative journalists don’t always make the best drinking buddies. But before one of the greatest military careers of our generation was felled at its zenith, Gen. McChrystal — who graduated from West Point in 1976 — had undergone a trial by fire of a much different sort. Following the nearly three-decade gap between Vietnam and 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were waiting with a fistful of hard lessons about warfare in the 21st century, and Gen. McChrystal, who oversaw the capture of Saddam Hussein less than three months after assuming command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOC) in 2003, was right there at the tip of the spear learning them all. “We had this new kind of environment – information rich, very fast, very interconnected – and in walks Al Qaeda,” he recalls. “Suddenly, there’s this terrorist organization that can operate like a very fast franchise.”

Charged with dismantling Al Qaeda’s leadership, Gen. McChrystal swiftly and dramatically reorganized the Task Force to carry out its mission against an enemy that flew in the face of conventional military doctrine. And it did so with staggering efficiency: by the time Gen. McChrystal left JSOC in 2008, the task force had killed or captured thousands of insurgents, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. “It was an ability to constantly keep changing that turned out to be most effective for us,” he says.

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Now, Gen. McChrystal is on a mission to bring his corporate counterparts up to speed. The McChrystal Group, a firm he co-founded in 2011, helps businesses implement a “new operating model” based on the one JSOC adopted on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan under his command. The theories underlying this model (called CrossLead) and the compelling history of its development are detailed at great length in Team of Teams, a book co-authored by Gen. McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell, which hit shelves last month.

Maxim spoke with Gen. McChrystal about how businesses can operate more efficiently and, of course, the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.   

How do you establish a level of trust among civilian coworkers similar to what is achieved in Special Forces units, like the Navy SEALS?

Trust goes hand-in-hand with a sense of common purpose. Those are the most critical things to producing a high performing team, especially when you’re small. So, whether you’re a sports group or whether you’re a division of a company, you’ve got to build some substantive relationships that are meaningful. So, demonstrating vulnerability, trying to connect in meaningful ways and investing the time to build credibility with your counterparts is critical. Now, the SEALS enforce that through its selection and training process, and then we reinforce it during a workout phase before they go on deployment. And then once you’re on deployment, you’re sort of stuck. You’re in the middle of a combat fight, and you either have the trust or you don’t. And in this case, we usually don’t let organizations deploy if they show significant degradation in trust amongst its inner members. We’ll replace leadership so that they restore that. But organizations have to take a really similar approach.

What about achieving that sense of purpose?

We work with companies that say, “this isn’t life or death, we can’t create that same dynamic.” Yet, when we deal with employees, we find that they desperately want to be part of a team. Everybody desperately wants to feel that they are contributing members to this whole, even if the purpose of the whole is as different from the military as a hotel chain. It’s the same sort of need that people have. When we think about why we trust people, it’s typically because you have a fair amount of information about them. You trust people who you interact with a lot. You may not be like them, but they’re a known entity. And what the SEALS do is they create that tremendous familiarity and a common purpose. I think that companies can do the same thing through sharing information more broadly than they traditionally have.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give a young officer just coming out of West Point?

When I entered the military I wanted to perfect my functional and tactical expertise in my craft. I wanted to know how my machine gun worked. I wanted to know how to do all the basic things that were required. That’s still important, but I also wanted to master the ideas of strategy by studying history. I think the thing I would tell them to do is master dealing with uncertainty. Master the idea that we can’t tell you the answers to the question five years from now. We can’t even tell you what the questions are. We can’t tell you what equipment you’re going to be using, what war you’re going to fight, what language you need to speak. All we can tell you is that it wont be what we predict. And I think that’s a mindset.

In what ways is ISIS different than Al Qaeda, if in any way at all? And should the international community be doing more to intervene?

Some people say ISIS is different than Al Qaeda. In name it is, but in reality, in thought process and whom it attracts, I don’t think it is. Al Qaeda was a traditional terrorist organization that leveraged itself into a wider, global – or at least regional – insurgency. ISIS is a little bit more local. They’re a little bit more opportunist. They grew out of the chaos in Iraq and then Syria. I don’t think they have a coherent philosophy. I don’t think they have a coherent doctrine. They are taking advantage of this very, very weak situation. I often use this analogy: it’s kind of like HIV/AIDS, which doesn’t kill anybody. Your immune system is weakened and then you are killed by some disease that your body would normally fight off easily. That’s what I think ISIS is at this point. It’s the relatively weak disease that would’ve gone unnoticed in any other time. They’re taking advantage of this entropy right now. It’s a fire that’s burning too hot, and I think that it will burn itself down. But I think the region will be just as bad. They’re not the basic problem.

At this point can international military intervention do anything to help the situation?

The basic problem is the lack of a political narrative in the Middle East. There’s not even a clear single combination of narratives – there’s not Arab unity, there’s not Pan-Arab nationalism, there’s not anything – there’s just no port in the storm.

Illustration by Cun Shi