McChrystal and a Grain of Salt

by Thomas Meyer (Hay in the Barn Leader)

Stanley McChrystal (retired General and Managing Partner at McChrystal Group) recently posted a LinkedIn article, How I Keep Up with an Unrelenting Work Pace. The article was published February 1, 2016 and is receiving excessive praise from many. It is also receiving criticism from those who note the inherent risks of applying strategic level leadership experiences without thought or reflection. Here are some things you should pay attention to when reading McChrystal’s article.

McChrystal

Photo from FastCompany.
This is a guest post by US Army Captain Thomas Meyer. He is the creator of Hay in the Barn Leader, a platform dedicated to improving leaders and their organizations. Follow Hay in the Barn Leader on Facebook and Twitter.

It’s Not for Everybody

First, note this article is not titled, “How YOU Should Keep Up with an Unrelenting Work Pace.” We tend to give excess credence to the words and experiences of those who are successful. Simultaneously, we fail to understand that each individual is different, and these amazingly successful people often have super-human traits, added to their work-ethic, that make them as successful as they are.

No matter how hard he/she trains, the average American will never be Lance Armstrong. No matter how much batting practice you take, you will likely never be Hank Aaron. And, no matter how many times I sing “Friends in Low Places” in the shower, I will never be Garth Brooks. Take this article, and all those like it, with a grain of salt – understanding it is ‘A Way’ that worked for one person; not the way.

Second, this is not a new story. It is not a new story from McChrystal, as he spoke on this at his TED Talk, and it is not a new story for the history of mankind. Every profession has its natural workaholics. Some are blessed to have found spouses who complement their pace, while others have lost marriages as a result of work demands. When in charge, these hard-charging leaders have a choice. They can impose their unrelenting work ethic on their teams, increasing the strain on morale and trust. Or they can remove the expectation to be a workaholic, and establish a culture that emphasizes excellence but not necessarily an 18 hour workday.

Having said this, there is a lot to learn from McChrystal’s article. It is important to expand your understanding, reading, and critical thinking beyond that which you are naturally inclined. As the cliché goes, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” So here is my bath water from this article.

“It’s 3 o’clock somewhere”

“The alarm clock rarely sounds. Typically, I reach over minutes before 3 a.m., turning it off,
my body unintentionally programmed from years of rising early. I move quietly to the bathroom,
careful not to wake my wife, Annie. After shaving, I quickly don the running clothes I laid out the night before.”

The power of building habits is a very real science. Neuroscientists have found that we store habits in the more primitive layer of our brain (the basal ganglia) and their control over us is very real. (Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit offers detailed explanation). If even “unintentional programming” can have this effect on us, what if we intentionally programmed ourselves to perform daily tasks without expending brain power or will power thinking about them? You also note the intentionality of the clothes he “laid out the night before.” That is discipline and habit.

The second thing that stood out to me is his mention of carefully not waking his wife in the morning. I do the same. When I wake up, I carefully move to the bathroom so as to not wake my wife. I close the door before turning on the light, and I turn off the light before opening the door when I am done. I then walk to her bedside and kiss her goodbye. Why bother? She doesn’t wake up; she doesn’t remember it. I do it because she knows I do it – and that habit and discipline is another way to make the marriage a deliberate part of my day.

Discipline Throughout the Day

“…I’m consistent — and there’s a special quality in self-discipline.”

We love “overnight success stories.” But rarely is there any such thing. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the power of getting 10,000 hours of work, intentionally dedicated to your craft, before you become a professional at it (see Outliers). Dave Ramsey, in his book EntreLeadership, asserts that when you dedicate 10, 15, 20 years to something and add God’s perfect timing, you become an overnight success.

“After showering, I would dress in blue jeans and a sweatshirt for the short walk to my office
where I would change into one of the uniforms I kept in a locker…”

I come into work in civilian clothes and leave in civilian clothes, changing at work. This is a habit I picked up as a Company Executive Officer and one I have continued. I do this not for convenience, but as an intentional way of compartmentalizing the stressors of work. It is an attempt to leave those worries and stresses at work so they don’t bleed over to the limited time I have with my family. I may not always get quantity time with my girls, but I want to make sure every minute is quality time.

“At about 8 p.m. I’d call Annie, change back into my jeans, and walk toward our apartment.
She would meet me halfway, and then we’d stop at a Harris Teeter that was between
our apartment and the Pentagon to pick up a pre-made salad for dinner. At home,
we’d talk and eat, enjoying each other’s company before heading to bed early.”

Quality Time > Quantity Time. Dedicate the same intentional thought and habits to personal relationships that you do to work. Does this mean you, like Stan McChrystal, should be working until 8 p.m. if you want to be successful? NO! You do you. There are opportunities in every household to make compromises and maximize family time. It’s worth the effort to analyze what right looks like for you.

Leaders are Learners

“After dinner I’d read — normally something entirely unrelated to the military or politics —
allowing me to point my mind in different directions.”

Read, read, READ! Professionals dedicate themselves to the study of their craft. However – and this is the humanities guy coming out in me – expanding your reading beyond your profession to fiction, history, general leadership books, etc. is a great way of growing your creative database. The continual growth process is vital to staying relevant in the profession, and no one is going to force you to do it.

Work-Life Contamination

“[…] creating a balanced structure enabled me to push myself hard and maintain the pace. To me,
life outside work is about maintaining perspective. And while many things I did outside
work contributed to making me more effective at my job, many did it by making me more balanced.
[…]Your professional life will bleed over into your personal one, throwing off any semblance
of the “work-life balance” that most agree is crucial to our health, happiness, and success.”

Note that McChrystal never says this is THE way to find work-life balance. If anything, what we should take from this passage is that he is describing his personal way of coping with an unrelenting pace. The most important part of reading this article is not the time spent from the first sentence to the last, but rather the time that should follow – reflecting on what YOUR work-life balance is.

The goal of self-awareness is to identify the gap between who you are and who you want to be…between the life you have and the life you want. And closing that gap is a journey of discipline, habits, and open communication with your team and your family. Stan McChrystal has his ways…what are yours?

So be sure when you step,
Step with great care and great tact
And remember that Life’s
A Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left. -Dr. Seuss

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Watch Stan McChrystal’s TED Talk here:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bob Smalser

    Right. The only explanation for the poor judgment of a 3-Star allowing a reporter from a hostile publication into his inner circle is stress injury. Hence McChrystal is the last guy I’d take pacing advice from.

  • Scipio

    If there’s one thing anyone should get out of Gen McChrystal’s article – it’s the title of the book “Good to Great.” It’s a good read that isn’t just for the business crowd.

  • Jennifer Eubanks-Hurt

    Excellent read.

  • Chris Russell

    Excellent, but very brief, article. Concur with all the suggestions and will put most of them to practice in my new career.

  • Fred Apple

    Very interesting.