Only 40 hours after an advance copy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's ill-advised interview with Rolling Stone surfaced, he had been relieved as commander of US forces in Afghanistan. This abrupt end to a distinguished military career has lessons for anyone concerned with leadership.
1. Leaders must set the tone
If I heard a client's leadership team talking disparagingly in the CEO's presence about competitors, customers, investors or other stakeholders, I would question their character and sanity. I also would assume the CEO condoned or encouraged such behavior and failed to appreciate the reputational risks such trash-talking entails.
2. The qualities necessary for leadership can bring leaders down
The self-assurance most leaders possess can blind them to risk. Because they're accustomed to being in control, they sometimes assume they'll remain in control in all circumstances, and that others will have as high an opinion of their actions and motives as they do themselves.
Only a blindly confident general would invite a Rolling Stone reporter into the command tent and expect everything to turn out OK. Either that or a general who knew exactly what he was doing and did it for reasons of his own, as yet unexplained.
3. Leaders need a safety net
Leaders get to be leaders by making good decisions, but they're perfectly capable of horrendous lapses in judgment. When that happens, leaders should be surrounded by advisors with the credibility and courage to question bad decisions.
When McChrystal's team learned of plans to embed a Rolling Stone reporter, they should have said, “Boss, that's a terrible idea.” Had they done so, and had he heeded their counsel, his reputation would be intact.
4. Smart leaders don't gamble with their reputations
Credibility is the most valuable leadership currency because it enables leaders to persuade others.
In providing access to Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, McChrystal and his team took an enormous risk. Depending on who you believe, they either granted unrestricted access and made foolish comments in Hastings' presence, or trusted an unknown reporter to abide by ground rules even though he had no incentive for doing so.
When a leader agrees to go off the record, he or she should ask: what if this reporter can't be trusted? Is this interview worth the risk to my reputation, if my private comments are reported?
Credibility is the leader's most valuable asset. Protecting it is always the winning bet.
Paul Raab is the senior vice president and partner of Linhart PR.