Obama Relieves McChrystal of His Duty: Leadership Lessons

Leadership Lessons from Obama’s McChrystal decision.

What can we learn from the ways in which President Barack Obama chose to address the comments that Army General Stanley McChrystal made to Rolling Stone magazine, which have widely been considered “insubordinate”? Many people speculated that Obama would not dismiss McChrystal because the general was too integral to the U.S. Afghan war effort, and because American troops might become demoralized by a decision to relieve McChrystal of his duty.


But President Obama has demonstrated with a high degree of consistency that he is a very able leader, and his successes flow from his adherence to key leadership principles and best practices.  Let’s consider some of those best practices and principles, which guided Obama’s historic decision today:

1. Exude strength – It would have been difficult to see how Obama could have “saved face” if he allowed McChrystal to stay in his position. Such a choice would have been perceived as pure weakness on Obama’s part. This is especially true abroad. Observers would have perceived Obama as a civilian leader who could not control his military leaders. His stature, authority and influence would have been diminished substantially, with irreparable damage done to his ability to pursue his agenda both at home and abroad.

2. Adhere to the highest standard of ethics – In this case, this principle translated in this way: affirm that the chain of command must be respected and, equally important, affirm that U.S. civilian rule over its military leadership shall not be compromised.

3. Offer an open ear, make clear decisions – Obama did not make a rash or impetuous decision: he considered the various sides of the issue, and he allowed McChrystal to state his case in a private meeting. He offered an open ear, but he also wielded a fair hand. In this case, a fair hand translated into firing a four star general who had demonstrated insubordination, making it clear that McChrystal had to adhere to the same high standard of behavior as a new military recruit.

4. Usher abrasives out, rally the troops – Obama places great weight on the cohesion of his team members. Hence his reputation of “No Drama, Obama.” His focus on team morale and his attention to cohesion were dominant reasons why Obama was able to build an unprecedented political movement and run successfully a history-making presidential campaign that was characterized by high morale and an “all hands” culture. As Obama stated clearly in his comments following his McChrystal decision today, he welcomes diverse views but he does not tolerate division.

5. When all else is equal, send a message – Obama knows that the choice of leaders who he empowers to guide his initiatives and policies can send a strong message—a message that either facilitates the achievement of his goals, or undercuts the achievement of those goals. Obama did not buy into the idea that McChrystal was irreplaceable. True, McChrystal was a key architect of the current surge in Afghanistan, but there are other capable leaders who can step in (as there always should be). Obama, in his choice to dismiss McChrystal, chose to send an important message: his leadership and authority are to be respected; the U.S. chain of command is to be respected; the U.S. tradition of civilian rule over the military will not be compromised; and the strength of all of the above is a sign of American strength, and those abroad should interpret the McChrystal events as a sign of this.


6. Nip controversy in the bud – Obama believes that when controversy arises, you must nip it in the bud with clear, decisive actions. He did this today and, in doing so, demonstrated he is a leader of strength who is not afraid to make tough choices. Today, Obama underscored his authority and will emerge from this McChrystal episode with his reputation strengthened, not weakened.

7. Use crises to project a strong image and underscore your ethics – Obama did this well as he came forth today to issue his comments in the aftermath of his McChrystal decision. His demeanor and body language were that of a leader in command. He spoke in the langauge of patriotism and respect for America’s long-standing values and traditions. The net effect: he bolstered his leadership and authority.

Dr. Shel Leanne is a leadership expert, and an international best-selling author.  She has written the books Leadership the Barack Obama Way (McGraw Hill, January 2010), and Say It Like Obama (McGraw Hill), which has been translated into 13 different languages.


About the author

Executive coach. Taught for four years as a Full Faculty Member at Harvard University.