The 2018 Annual Lecture by General Stanley McChrystal

Lecture: Leading on the International Stage

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3 May 2018

The King’s Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC) and NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence were honoured to hold their second annual lecture. It was delivered by retired four-star U.S. General, Stanley McChrystal. Former commander of the U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan, and the former commander of the United States’ premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), General McChrystal spoke of the importance of strategic communications for effective leadership.

Addressing a community of scholars, experts and policy-makers in the Cholmondeley Room at the House of Lords, General McChrystal noted how for leaders, “strategic communications are everything.” One can win, only if one “communicates effectively internally and externally.”

In a fascinating lecture, General McChrystal focused on the nexus between leadership and mythology. Noting his childhood fascination with the labours of Hercules, General McChrystal suggested how we embrace mythology to explain and make sense of the world around us.

The General outlined how leaders from the past and present become mythologised through their zealotry – their absolute commitment to their cause. Robert E. Lee, Robespierre, al-Zarqawi, and Dr. Martin Luther King; leaders who – for better or worse – were able to command the absolute loyalty and devotion of their followers through brilliant communications.

Tracing the story of his old nemesis al-Zarqawi, he outlined how everything al-Zarqawi did communicated his absolute commitment to his cause. His removal of tattoos in prison with a smuggled razorblade, his black dress, his terrible acts of violence. Al-Zarqawi’s zealotry turned him into a symbol for his followers, and in doing so he became more myth than man.

But General McChrystal argued that mythologizing leaders doesn’t just conceal their flaws. By mythologizing Martin Luther King and his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, we risk missing the ‘spade work’ that underpinned Dr King’s greatness. 325,000 miles and 450 speeches delivered each year that helped fund the movement. Yet, he faced the challenges of binding a disparate civil rights leadership together. Difficult decisions had to be made daily. Myths can do both polish over the bad and conceal the unglamorous good.

General McChrystal concluded “we’re hardwired to believe the mythology of leadership.” If they look like a leader, and talk like a leader, then they must be a good leader.

But it is time to rethink our conception of leadership. We must move past mythology to conceive of leadership as a collective process – one than encompasses leaders and followers. The ‘right’ answers do not always come from the top, but rather from the interaction within the ‘team’ – between the leader, followers, purpose and context. At the heart of this interaction are trusted relationships supported by good communications both within the team and externally. This change in our understanding of leadership coincide with the ongoing evolution in strategic communications.