The McChrystal Scandal: How Would You Handle It?
President Obama's decision to dismiss Gen. Stanley McChrystal was a military and political one. But it also posed a big management challenge. We asked our Board of Directors -- including two former Marines and a Special Forces lieutenant -- to explain how they would approach the situation as CEOs.
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For the commander-in-chief, the decision was a military and political one. But it also posed a serious management dilemma. The war in Afghanistan has become the longest conflict in American history, and as architect of the current strategy there, Gen. McChrystal was considered the proverbial "best man for the job." But with a chain of command as disciplined and protected as the U.S. military's, many both inside and outside the Pentagon felt President Obama was left with little choice but to dismiss a man he thanked for his "remarkable career in uniform."
"I welcome debate among my team," President Obama said in a Rose Garden speech, "but I won't tolerate division."
While a military force totaling more than a million and a nine-year-old war half a world away presents some unique challenges, the situation facing President Obama probably sounded familiar to a lot of entrepreneurs. What is a CEO supposed to do when a star employee or trusted manager misbehaves? What's more important -- maintaining order among the ranks or a successful end result? And how much should the boss tolerate, and even welcome, criticism? We asked our Board of Directors -- including former Marines Bob Parsons and Clint Greenleaf, and former Special Forces lieutenant, Phil Town -- to weigh in on the scandal.
[Editor's note: Due to overwhelming interest in and response to this topic, several other members of the Board of Directors felt compelled to weigh in after the original publication. This updated version includes three new entries from the Board. We encourage you to continue the debate in our comments section.]
Founder and CEO, The Go Daddy Group
"I absolutely respect President Obama's decision. Our tradition in the USA is that the civilian government controls the military. The military's job is to execute "the mission" given to it by the civilian government and to do so as efficiently and effectively as possible. For the military to do its job, it has to focus on one thing, and one thing only, and that's "the mission."
"When members high up in the chain of command are ridiculed, for whatever reason, it becomes a distraction that seriously detracts from the military's effectiveness. For this reason, McChrystal's comments were extremely counterproductive and undermined both his and the administration's effectiveness. He needed to go.
"It's important to realize that a star employee, who becomes insubordinate for whatever reason, is no longer a star employee. In these cases, it is important to immediately ascertain the reason for the problem and unless there are mitigating circumstances that can be resolved through time and counseling, like a divorce or a death in the family, that employee needs to go."
Founder and CEO, Greenleaf Book Group
"First off, lets be honest. It's not accepting a resignation, it's firing the general for one specific comment made (and several from unnamed sources who work for him). The specific comment wasn't bad. It was what McChrystal thought was accurate -- that the president doesn't know as much as he should about the war. True or not, I don't think he was out of line at all. In fact, he tried to make the same point to Obama during their first meeting. I have the highest respect for our military and think the president made a huge mistake. It makes him look petty and insecure that he can't handle someone who disagrees with him.
"As a CEO, I relish an opportunity to hear what my staff really thinks. Especially when it comes from a respected person who is good at what they do. Anyone who has met me knows I'm not perfect -- and my staff isn't there to hide my flaws from me. They work with me to show me where I can improve, and if that means calling me out when I make a mistake, I want to hear about it. Even if it's in public, and even if it makes me look like I made a mistake.
"The real question is, what is more important? To make the right decisions for the country or to try to protect the image of our leader? The latter will never happen, but if we keep trying for it, we'll never accomplish the former. "In an open offer to Gen. McChrystal: Sir, I'd be happy to hire you to come work for us -- and to call me out when I make mistakes."
Founder, CakeLove and Love Café
"He had to go. Members of any organization have to maintain order and decorum, otherwise all bets are off and things can get sloppy. I can't even imagine the stress the field commanders are under, but personnel who don't maintain respect for the chain of command simply force any self-respecting commander-in-chief to cut them out. Plus, it's a little weird that a senior commander would let trash talk fly in the presence of press -- or any outsider. It's an amateur's mistake."
Founder and CEO, Nfinity
"Obama did what he had to do. It doesn't matter how big the 'star' in star employee is -- the keyword is employee. No one person is worth sacrificing the whole company. It's unfortunate for everyone but it had to be done."
Lecturer, The Wharton School
"I believe the decision was proper for maintaining the president's authority and credibility as commander-in-chief, both domestically and internationally. I also believe that the president and his staff will continue to have access to the general, even if it not publicized."
Founder, The Relentless Foundation and New York Entrepreneur Week
"In this context, with national support for the war waning, the president would be well served to openly address the challenges the general pointed out. This would allow for a clear and transparent dialogue, which frankly, all stakeholders (including the public) deserve at this juncture. "The subsequent change in command the president made can be taken two ways -- an order to be executed upon was derailed by a rogue comment that could harm this nation, or the president censored the general's freedom of speech. "Unfortunately, based on public sentiment polls since the dismissal, it seems as though Americans feel he was closer to the latter. This is certainly not a good thing for our nation."
Investor and Author of Rule #1 and Payback Time
"If your employee is really a superstar, then you don't let them go over some idle chatter, because you'll be playing against them tomorrow. Have a constructive chat and try to build a more respectful relationship... until you just can't take it anymore. Then you fire them. Meanwhile, start finding their replacement. In the president's situation, personal stardom over military stardom with a superstar on call. No-brainer."
Director, Global Moot Corp Program at the University of Texas
"I think the context needs to be set here -- this is a military organization with an established chain of command that follows orders from the top. All the commentary on the situation pointed to those in the military understanding this and expecting severe action, and those more on the commercial side expecting lass harsh action. The real question is, What would McChrystal have done to those reporting to him in the same situation? I suspect similar treatment to what Obama did."