The definition of extraordinary leadership

General McChrystal and Chris Fussell on why true leadership isn’t what you think

We may be apt to hold on to the traditional notion that leadership is defined by rank and order. But your position or title alone does not mean you have leadership skills. Think about it, how many CEOs are there in the world who hold a position of great power but have a nominal impact on their employees? How many managers aren’t respected by those that they manage? Even brilliant and innovative individuals can stumble when it comes to finding their voice. 

Being a good leader is not defined by a position, nor is it defined by intellectual prowess or natural talent. Leadership is the skill of influence, something that you can use to impact the thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions of others. And it is the most important skill that any one of us can master. 

Tony and Mary Buckheit recently sat down with General Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell to discuss what great leadership looks like today and how to cultivate an infrastructure for success in any organization.

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Who is Stanley McChrystal? 

General Stanley A. McChrystal has been called “one of America’s greatest warriors” by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. A retired four-star general, he is the former commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan and the former commander of the premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He is best known for developing and implementing the current counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and for creating a comprehensive counterterrorism organization that revolutionized the interagency operating culture. 

General McChrystal serves as a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs where he teaches a course on Leadership in Operation. He co-founded the McChrystal Group in January 2011. McChrystal Group’s mission is to deliver innovative leadership solutions to American businesses to help them transform and succeed in challenging and dynamic environments.

Who is Chris Fussell? 

Chris Fussell is a former Navy SEAL; he spent 15 years leading SEAL elements in combat zones around the globe. He served as aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General McChrystal during McChrystal’s final year commanding JSOC, becoming an integral part of the team that made JSOC’s transformation into a successful, agile network possible. 

Fussell is president at the McChrystal Group, bringing his Special Operations experience and his expertise in leadership development to organizations of all sizes. In addition to being a New York Times bestselling author, he regularly does media interviews, gives keynotes speeches and speaks to business leaders at roundtables and panels.

The shifting definition of leadership 

Traditional leadership, especially in the military, uses a command-and-control model. Those at the top make decisions; those below them take direction and execute. But as information moves faster and faster, leaders cannot control everything; agility is more important than ever. One-way information conduits running only to the top no longer work. 

Tony, General McChrystal and Chris delve into all of the reasons that leadership no longer comes from a commandandcontrol model, but from creating relationship-based change throughout the entire organization and by empowering every single person that is part of your business. It’s a major shift that leads to a much better outcome because you’re leveraging your talent instead of delegating. 

The core of extraordinary leadership 

There are many different styles of leadership. But real leadership always starts with resilience. Because along any journey worth taking, you are going to encounter obstacles and, odds are, you will fail. But if you can embrace failure as a learning experience and turn those obstacles into opportunities, you will develop a deep belief in yourself – and your team. 

Modern leadership is also about connection and purpose. If you can find a way to connect to yourself and others, and if you can find a way to break through those challenges, you can become a true leader. And when you strive to serve the greater good – something greater than yourself – that’s when you can become a truly great leader. 

Becoming a connector 

General McChrystal describes the transformation of his own perspective on leadership, saying, “For years I thought that chess master was the best analogy of a good leader, because they control the pieces and the strategy.” But he quickly learned that teams with autonomy are much more agile – and that gardener is a better analogy. 

“The gardener creates the environment,” he says. If they do it right, the garden grows. He realized his job was to be a connector. To orchestrate conversations. To create relationships between teams and departments. To build trust, remain flexible, practice empathy and create a culture of shared consciousness. By breaking out of the traditional sense of leadership, he was able to create a more cohesive and powerful team that is not only more unified, but more efficient and, ultimately, more effective. “It’s the only way to operate in an environment that’s changing fast.” 

Leading by example 

Real leaders always lead by example. General McChrystal sticks to a strict workout regimen, no matter what, because pushing yourself earns you respect from your team, especially in the military. He knows that through your own actions, you signal to others what is important to you, your team and your organization. So be kind. And never take shortcuts.

 When you work on your own ability to lead, you inspire others to do the same. General McChrystal says, “People ask me, When do you lead by example? And I say every minute of every day.”

As important as leadership is, in today’s world, it’s a rarity. That’s not because there is a scarcity of natural-born leaders; leadership can be cultivated. Many of us suppose it’s an innate talent, but anyone can become a leader. You could be the leader in your class or the leader in your own family. You could even decide to become the leader of your own life. As a business owner, you can master team-building, develop leadership programs and make your employees into leaders. And you can leave a legacy that will last for generations.


General Stanley McChrystal


Chris Fussell


[01:28] Tony on the importance of leadership
[02:00] Introduction of General Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell
[02:41] General McChrystal’s background
[03:30] Tony describes how the General transformed special opps
[04:30] Chris’s background
[04:55] Chris served as the General’s aid-de-campe
[05:20] Chris’s collaborative work with McChrystal
[05:40] Their new book “One Mission Many Teams”
[06:20] Technology, globalization and social media has transformed the world
[06:40] McChrystal’s perspective on what leadership means
[07:15] Growing up with a traditional model of leadership
[08:10] Basic leadership skills
[08:15] The traditional hierarchical structure of leadership designed to create efficiency
[09:00] Originally believed leaders were a “command and control” operation
[09:30] 2003 changed everything
[10:00] Bringing the habits and culture of past leadership to an entirely new world
[10:25] Designed to go after the traditional structure of terrorist groups
[11:00] Al Qaeda in Iraq was a new beast
[11:30] Al Qaeda was designed to thrive on information technology
[12:00] The new structure of Al Qaeda enabled a new level of flexibility and adaptability
[12:35] The first few years fighting Al Qaeda were a massive struggle
[13:00] General McChrystal realized they needed a strategic shift if they wanted to win
[13:30] When any organization gets bigger, it’s easy to get stuck in tradition and protocol
[14:00] You have to move from controlling and predicting to finding an ability to adapt
[14:15] The illusion that information technology inherently provides efficiency
[15:00] The sense of guilt that a CEO experiences
[15:25] How to create “shared consciousness” in an organization
[16:00] When everyone has context, this increases efficiency and reach
[16:30] By letting go of control you get a better outcome
[16:50] Delegating is more than assigning a task
[17:10] You must leverage information back and forth
[17:15] How Steve Wynn leverages information to improve his company
[17:45] Digging for success stories to build your culture
[18:15] How a bellman at the hotel was empowered to make his own decisions
[19:00] How UCLA medical center improved ratings within a year
[19:20] Treating every person as if he or she was part of your family
[19:45] How a nurse took control to improve a customer’s experience
[20:10] Pushing information every direction and empowering people at the base helps build the greatest organizations in the world
[20:20] General McChrystal was trying to manage people in over 20 different countries
[20:40] Creating a shared culture and building trust
[21:45] How the General learned how to connect everyone from the newest soldiers to the highest ranks of the FBI
[22:40] The General saw his role differently – he was solely a “connector”
[23:30] Began implementing a daily video teleconference across the entire command
[23:55] Overcoming people’s reluctance to engage in closer connections
[24:20] People need to be reinforced that what they are doing is okay
[26:00] Creating a relationship-based change
[26:20] Breaking the boundaries of past conditioning and breaking through transactional relationships
[27:00] How this shift empowered the teams
[27:40] They weren’t waiting for guidance anymore
[28:00] Rebuilding after failure
[29:40] General McChrystal on bridging the divide between ranks and sharing hardships
[32:20] You may not be able to make it easier, but you can show them that what they do matters
[32:30] “You may have failed, but you’re not a failure”
[32:10] Moving from command and control to finding the power in relationships
[33:30] The code behind bringing tribal groups together
[34:00] Finding a higher level approach that unifies all groups
[35:00] If you don’t form a coherent force, then you won’t be fighting the war, you will be stuck on the little fights
[35:25] Expanding your perspective to the wider sense of a team
[36:00] Establish certain priorities and learn to be very flexible on others
[37:40] Using this logic for working with millennials
[38:50] The bond between army rangers – “The Ranger Creed”
[39:30] Why millennials appreciate honest conversation with senior leadership
[42:00] The agenda shapes itself when you open up communication
[42:30] Listen, learn then lead
[43:00] Creating more empathy in leadership
[44:00] Creating an environment where employees feel empowered and then celebrating that
[44:30] The leader’s role is a facilitator
[45:40] Safety is not just a checklist, it’s a culture
[46:00] Find out the pain points of your employees and take an empathetic approach
[47:15] The gardener vs. the chess master
[49:40] Creating a heightened sense of accountability is true empowerment
[51:20] A true picture of what America looks like today
[53:20] America has innate opportunity and privilege
[54:30] We need to realize that nothing is automatic
[54:20] If this is going to be a good place to live, then we have to make it that way
[56:00] Citizenship is also about responsibility for other citizens
[56:30] Leadership must not call upon our fears, but upon our desire to be better
[57:30] We have to get more comfortable with the unknown
[58:20] General McChrystal’s definition of a great leader today
[59:30] Information comes so much faster that the moments to decide have been compressed
[59:50] Decision makers are not constrained by information, but the ability to digest the information and take action
[1:00:20] Adaptability and the capacity to be resilient
[1:01:40] Accept you will be on a constant learning curve
[1:02:00] There’s no such thing as a 5-year business plan
[1:02:50] How to become better at decision-making
[1:03:50] Understand what decisions you should be making in your role and what can be pushed own
[1:04:35] What is the decision and when does it have to be made?
[1:04:40] What information do I have to have to make that decision?
[1:04:50] Who else needs a say in this decision?
[1:05:10] By socializing the decision it tends to come out better
[1:06:00] Moving from an operator to an owner
[1:07:00] Moving from transactional questions to more thoughtful questions
[1:08:00] A network of connections where everyone shares the outcome and purpose
[1:08:20] The General’s physical routine
[1:10:10] The power of personal discipline
[1:11:45] The discipline to be kind, to not take shortcuts and to lead by example
[1:13:30] The Rolling Stone article and how it changed General McChrystal
[1:15:30] An incendiary article was published
[1:16:30] Accepting his resignation after 34 years as an officer
[1:17:20] Feeling like his career was over, but his wife gave perspective and security
[1:18:15] He had 2 choices: to be bitter and angry at injustice, or to move forward
[1:20:00] The decision to live in beautiful state no matter what
[1:21:10] Chris on the defining qualities of General McChrystal
[1:22:00] The more senior you get, the more humility is required
[1:23:10] The Harvard study on cats – the brain grows by what stimulates it
[1:23:40] You can’t empathize if you think you are omniscient
[1:24:00] Advice to President Trump
[1:24:30] The mistake of “just putting talent together” – even with the best intentions
[1:25:20] Getting the key leaders together and building a relationship
[1:26:20] Why bonds can only be created by undergoing shared experiences and difficult periods together
[1:28:15] What’s next for General McChrystal and Chris Fussell
[1:28:40] What the McChrystal Group does – leadership advisory
[1:30:20] What General McChrystal hopes his legacy is

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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