'The greatest risk to us is us': Retired US Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal speaks about leadership
Daily Times-Call March 2, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — More than a decade ago, retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was assigned to a mission in Afghanistan focused on regaining control of land that was ruled by the Taliban.
While working as a commander, McChrystal examined the countless risks that were associated with each plan to seize the territories. Yes, it would be easy to bomb an entire area and then go in and take over, McChrystal said. But that would lose the trust of Afghan civilians.
"You try to balance those two," he said.
The risks of each plan are also different for command staff versus the U.S. or Afghan government or any others who might be impacted by the plan.
"They've all got to be considered because everybody's risk is from their perspective," McChrystal said.
McChrystal, who retired in 2010, spoke Monday night at the University of Colorado Boulder as part of the Leo Hill Leadership Speaker Series.
This was the sixth series brought to CU Boulder by the Quigg and Virginia S. Newton Endowed Chair in Leadership, a position now held by Chancellor Philip DiStefano. The premise of the series is to expose students to leaders in multiple fields.
During the event, McChrystal gave tips on mitigating risks based on information from his latest book, "Risk: A User's Guide."
People cannot spend their time preparing for specific crises, he said. Everyone must prepare for anything and must be resilient in order to face whatever is thrown their way.
"I actually think, if we think about the risk, we have a risk problem, and I would argue that in many cases the greatest risk to us is us," McChrystal said.
In the military, McChrystal trained himself and later taught others about ways to mitigate risk by being prepared and rehearsing plans.
"When we went on operations, there was a risk that came from a certain randomness — the effectiveness of the enemy — but everything we did, was focused on making ourselves stronger," he said.
He now thinks about risk as a mathematical equation: threat multiplied by vulnerability equals risk. It's easy if someone can remove all threats or make themselves invulnerable. Then there is zero risk, McChrystal said. But in life, having zero threats or being invulnerable isn't always easy.
"What we do have is agency over our vulnerability, over ourselves (and) over our organizations," he said.
Risk control factors people can use to deal with threats include narrative, structure, diversity, timing, adaptability, action, technology, bias and leadership, McChrystal said. Each narrative is connected to communication.
"They are a system that operates to give us the ability to be resilient against threats that come at us," he said.
Following McChrystal's speech, DiStefano asked whether he could provide insight into the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
McChrystal said he believes Russia's invasion may be a test.
"I think the situation in Ukraine is almost a test for the world on whether we are going to stand up to a leader like President (Vladimir) Putin, and whether we are going to help a nation like Ukraine," he said.
It is very unlikely the Russian military will occupy Ukraine quickly or perfectly, McChrystal said. In addition, the new sanctions from the U.S. and other nations will help prevent other Baltic states from being threatened by Russia.
"I think President Putin is in an extraordinarily dangerous personal position of power," he said.
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