One of my all-time favourite authors, Joseph Campbell, when asked for a definition of mythology, gave the devastatingly simple response: ‘Other people’s religion’. He did go on to talk to the three basic functions of myth: to achieve psychological reconciliation with consciousness, life and death; to bind an individual into society’s norms; and to learn how to lead a good life.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
For each of us, our myths go way back, well beyond the identifiable generations. Despite this fact, we become habituated into thinking we live in an age where we are completely different from all of history. Our technology makes us unique in how we can move people, materials, data and money to any corner of the earth in ever more record times with ever-increasing frequency.
We can see ourselves from beyond the furthest horizon any man ever dreamt of and we know of matter smaller than the elemental components of our periodic table. We have leapt off this good earth to stand on another heavenly body and watch the sun rise behind it. As we ever so slowly form our new myths, I often wonder what the ancients would have made of what we have made. Are we really that different, especially as leaders?
General Stanley McChrystal, the four-star US General who led the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan and Iraq, wrote the bestseller Team of Teams with Chris Fussell, who later went on to operationalise the ideas in a book called One Mission. In this latest offering, co-authored with Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone, McChrystal seeks to better understand what leadership is by using a method first made popular by the ancient Greek, Plutarch (AD46-120), in his book Parallel Lives. Plutarch used the device of comparing the lives of heroic Greeks and Romans to explore the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of famous men.
McChrystal kicks off his prologue with a recollection of how his mother used her very worn copy of Greek Tales for Tiny Tots to read him the stories of Theseus, Hercules, Ulysses, Ariadne and others ‘who struggled against nature, fate, and sometimes each other’. When reading McChrystal, you definitely get the feeling that his reaching deep into history to get to the truth of what it is to be human has been a lifelong passion. And that what it means to be a leader has been a topic he has been working on for a very long time.
McChrystal’s aim is first to illuminate what he classifies as leadership archetypes: Founders (Walt Disney and Coco Chanel), Geniuses (Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein); Zealots (Maximilien Robespierre and Abu Musab al Zarqawi), Heroes (Zheng He and Harriet Tubman); Power Brokers (William Magear ‘Boss’ Tweed and Margaret Thatcher) and Reformers (Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr).
But, before he launches into the biographies of these leaders, he writes a chapter on the Marble Man: Robert E Lee. I couldn’t help but think that this chapter on one leader alone was in fact the parallel life of McChrystal. It was only in 2017 that he threw away a picture of Lee which had accompanied him on all his missions to that date. As a Virginian who grew up not far from where Lee lived, and being a graduate of the West Point Academy at which Lee’s generalship is venerated, McChrystal clearly struggled long and hard to separate the myth from the man.
Three leadership myths
It was fascinating to read McChrystal’s clear-eyed accounting of the competing loyalties that drove Lee into the leadership role he took in the Confederacy. He had sworn an oath of allegiance to the West Point Academy that had made him an officer and even more solemnly sworn one to the Union, which he was thereby honour-bound to defend. In the end, though, he found it too severe a task to ‘simultaneously meet all the demands he’d made. In simply tying his decision to the course taken by his native Virginia, he essentially passed the most important moral decision of his life to the popular vote of others.
In this illuminating first chapter, McChrystal lays out the recurring theme of the book—that we like to think of people we regard as leaders through the mythological lens. He divides the myths into three basic types:
So what is leadership for McChrystal? If it is not a formula to be followed, a happy accident of genetics or a process of attributable direction, what is it? When reading the book, I had in mind the definition given to me by my friend and teacher Andre van Heerden in his book Leaders and Misleaders: ‘Leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in mutual pursuit of a better life for all’.
With that inspiring definition in mind, I struggled to see how al Zarqawi, a ruthless terrorist, Robert E Lee, a defender of slavery, or Boss Tweed, the totally corrupt Mayor from Tammany Hall, could be called leaders. And yet, they each had followers, and so it was worth keeping going with the author to see where it was all headed.
I found the book really captured me in his final chapter, ‘Redefining Leadership’, where he laid out his theory of leadership—both what it has previously been thought of and how he would now like to characterise it. To quote:
1. Leadership is contextual and dynamic, and therefore needs to be constantly modulated, not boiled down to a formula
2. Leadership is more an emergent property of a complex system with rich feedback, and less a one-directional process enacted by a leader
3. The leader is vitally important to leadership, but not for the reasons we usually ascribe. It is often more about the symbolism, meaning, and future potential leaders hold for their system, and less about the results they produce.
His illustrations make these ideas clear. First, the myth:
Then, the reality in his eyes:
Thus, McChrystal’s definition of leadership becomes:
‘Leadership is a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.’
McChrystal sees leaders as a node in a network rather than the apex of a triangle. They must fulfil the role of both bottom-up servant to enable action and a topdown symbol to motivate and provide for meaning.
In closing, he makes the point—the one I was waiting for—about the moral and ethical dimension of leaders and leadership. In other words, to what use we can put the insight gained from our latter-day Plutarch:
‘…it becomes possible to resurrect the expectation that it is the function of leadership to improve the overall progress of humanity. Too often, results-based leadership has been focused on the bottom line, trying to manage a perceived trade-off between achieving the mission and taking care of people. Through this new conceptual lens, we dispense with such either-or thinking. Rather, the two become positively correlated, and we can more easily see how societal prosperity is linked to workforce fulfilment, and how unit effectiveness is linked to morale. Redefining leadership as the enablement of a human system allows for the relinkage of prosperity and productivity in a more positive way.’
This idea that a fundamentally just approach to managerial leadership leads to better results resonated deeply with my own ideas of Just Work. But, it was also fascinating to see how he could apply his frame to Robespierre and the terror as well as to Einstein and his gift to humanity.
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“All things are ready if our minds be so”
——’Band of brothers’ speech, Henry V
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