Leadership: 3 Myths and 1 New Definition

Book review and summary of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's Leaders: Myth and Reality

Reading the Lives of Plutarch, the namesake of this newsletter, was a common practice among aspiring leaders throughout history. Catherine the Great, Alexander Hamilton, and Theodore Roosevelt were just a handful of profiles I covered who savoured Plutarch’s Lives. While Lives has, at present, become more and more a subject of history and Latin students, we carry on the practice by studying biographies written by contemporary scholars of great men and women in search for advice, wisdom, and inspiration on leadership. And some have gone too far in this search.

For example, Boris Johnson, the most likely resident of 10 Downing Street, has often gone wild with his obsession for Winston Churchill. While his book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, is entertaining to some, it lacks the rigor of a historian and can at times feel as if it were more about Boris than Winston. For Johnson, Churchill single-handedly stood in the way of dictatorship and safeguarded Western democracy. Nevermind the equally brilliant Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nevermind all the soldiers from all across the world who sacrificed their lives. For Boris Johnson, one great man can make history.

Summary of Leaders: Myth and Reality

Stanley McChrystal, a decorated four-star general and co-author of the best-selling Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, begs to differ with Johnson’s tunnel vision and great man theory. In his most recent book with two other associates, Leaders: Myth and Reality, McChrystal et al. laid out 3 myths about leadership, summarized 13 profiles, and offered a more complex and nuanced definition of leadership.

*Note: This is only an excerpt of my book summary. Read the full summary here.

3 Myths

McChrystal writes that most people think of leadership as the process of influencing a group toward some defined outcome, of one person herding the group toward goals, and of leaders at the top craft directing those endpoints. This kind of definition leads to three myths that hinder our understanding of effective leadership:

  • The Formulaic Myth: our desire to tame leadership into a static checklist, ignoring the reality that leadership is intensely contextual, dependent upon the particular circumstances, times, and places

  • The Attribution Myth: our tendency of having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves and of attributing too much of an outcome to leaders, neglecting the agency of the group surrounding the leaders. We are led to believe that leadership is what the leader does whereas, in reality, real agency of leadership is bound up by a system of followers.

  • The Results Myth: our false assumption that leadership is seen as the process of driving groups of people toward outcomes, and their objective results are more important than their style or words or appearance. In reality, leadership describes what leaders symbolize more than what they achieve.

For McChrystal et al., buying into the 3 myths means that our leadership models become far less effective, and we would construct elaborate processes to select, assess, and train leaders who perpetuate existing weaknesses which we otherwise could mitigate or eliminate.

Read more about the characters in the book, Leaders, here.

Why Great Man Theory Sticks

So why does the great man theory that Boris Johnson enjoys stick so well with us that we create these myths around leaders? McChrystal et al. offers three explanations:

  1. Humans are suckers for narrative drama. We’d rather learn about leadership from a colorful biography than from dry leadership analysis.

  2. The Great Man reflects our faith in individual free will. We hope that great men have intrinsic worth and are rational and free beings who can shape their own lives. But it also quickly translates into an exaggeration that individual leaders make things happen.

  3. We have a preference for simplicity. Boiling down complex situations into a small crew of prime actors is more relatable. Reductionist explanations are often more satisfying than nuanced but more accurate accounts.

A New Definition of Leadership

McChrystal et al. arrived at the new definition of leadership:

Leadership is a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.

This definition addresses the three myths:

  1. The Formulaic Myth: Leadership is contextual and dynamic, and therefore cannot be boiled down to a formula but must be constantly modified.

  2. The Attribution Myth: Leadership is an emergent property of a complex system with feedback loops instead of a one-directional process driven by a leader.

  3. The Results Myth: The leader is vital for leadership, but more in the sense of symbolism, meaning, and purpose rather than the results they produce.

This new definition also addresses the followers on how to influence their leaders:

  1. Accept the leader’s fallibility and be aware of their limitations and our inflated expectations of their leadership, even if the leaders hold immense values as symbols of meaning.

  2. Practice reverse accountability, define the leader’s operating parameters and confine the leader’s style.

Verdict

McChrystal et al.’s thesis in Leaders is both insightful and thought-provoking to my understanding of leadership, well worth every aspiring leader’s time to study and digest. However, in bringing in more of a scientific style of leadership analysis into the book, McChrystal et al.’s writing can appear dry at times, especially in their crafting of each individual biography for the 13 profiles. Alas, McChrystal et al. are aware that narrative drama tends to inflate individual importance over complex situations, but a book only sells well with plenty of entertainment. Balancing leadership studies and entertaining stories is a writer’s dilemma.

Read my verdict here.