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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Stanley McChrystal

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In this episode of Influencers, Andy is joined by Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal as they discuss America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the global fight against COVID-19, and how managing ‘risk’ can help us prepare for new challenges in the future.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: For retired Four Star Army General Stanley McChrystal, managing risk is in his DNA. From the battlefield to business, he's seen firsthand how organizations and individuals fail to defend themselves against risk factors that can often be controlled.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: So while we can't control the threats, we can control to a great degree our vulnerability to them.

ANDY SERWER: In this episode of "Influencers," I speak to General McChrystal about some of the biggest risks we face today and how we can better prepare ourselves to face new risks in the future.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Hello, everyone. And welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our special guest, General Stanley McChrystal, retired four star general, former top commander in Afghanistan, and author of the new book, "Risk, A User's Guide." General McChrystal, thanks so much for joining us.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: It's my honor, Andy. And please call me Stan.

ANDY SERWER: We'll call you Stan. Thank you very much. Great to see you.

So do want to talk about your new book. And congratulations on that. But first, I want to ask you some news of the day questions a little bit. So Afghanistan withdrawal, of course-- it's still fresh on our minds. And you recently acknowledged that the mission there had been a failure. When did you realize it was a failure? And what do you think specifically went wrong?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. I think it was a failure because obviously things didn't end the way we wanted. At the same time, I would say that Afghanistan changed a lot from 2001 to 2021. So I don't think those who served there, either military or civilians or media, should take anything except a sense of pride.

But because it didn't come out the way we want, we ought to spend some time thinking about it. We ought to learn from that. I think that the mission was doable. There is a certain narrative that people say it was impossible. It was the graveyard of empires.

I don't agree with that because I believe that that would give us an excuse for not getting the mission done that I think we could have done and would have been good. I think the hard part, of course, was we were trying to not only create security in a troubled nation, which when we entered in 2001 had been at war essentially for 20 years. It was tattered as a society. And so we try to create security.

But we also tried to bring forward governance. And that really struggled. There's no getting around it. Successive Afghan administrations struggled with legitimacy and corruption and other issues. And the Afghan people struggled to develop the confidence that a sovereign, united nation needs. So while I think it's sad the way it came out, I hope people take pride in what they tried to do.

ANDY SERWER: What could we have done differently, Stan? And because you said we didn't succeed because we didn't do everything that we could have and should have. So what could we and should we have done?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: That's a fair question. There are probably an endless list. I would say first, for the first few years our effort was pretty small. From afar, it probably look bigger than it was. On the ground, we didn't do much to build Afghan capacity and their security forces, police, and military-- didn't push the government very hard. So probably for the first seven or eight years, and partially because we focused in Iraq during that period, it was a pretty limited effort.

Then when we got more serious near about 2008, 2009, we did a lot of things well. But at the same time, we went through a number of former warlords who'd become political brokers. And we lost some credibility by siding with the people who were discredited in the eyes of the Afghan people. We didn't learn the culture like we should have. And I'm speaking in generalities because some people did.

But in reality, Americans were largely foreigners in a foreign land, didn't develop language skills. And we made a lot of missteps with the Afghan people. The special operations forces, which I was a major commander of for a number of years, did operations, night raids and whatnot, that we thought were operationally critical. And there was an argument for them.

But the way we did them, breaking into Afghan compounds at night, created as much resentment as any positive outcome. And so I think it's an age old story of foreigners trying to operate in a different culture. We made many missteps-- not intentional, not evil, but ignorant. And then we as a-- it was an overall effort. The West, the 46 nation coalition struggled to get the kind of unity of command and unity of effort that you need for this kind of complex effort. And I think we-- we struggled with that.

ANDY SERWER: And what about-- you mentioned the 2008-2009 period. That was at the time of the surge. Can you talk about that? Does that in retrospect make sense?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I'm probably pretty biased. I'm probably not the person to give you-- I think it did. In 2009 when I took over, we believed that the problem was the Taliban were resurgent. There was a lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan nation writ large, but particularly the military.

So we believed that if we were going to have an opportunity for success, we had to create a bridge. We needed more foreign forces to give us time to build more credible Afghan forces. And to a degree, we did that. We did create that. They didn't get as good as we, of course, would like them to be. And they didn't last.

We didn't make as much progress with governance as we'd hope to because in the local areas, many provinces and districts, the local government was hounded with corruption, lacked credibility with the Afghan people. And the Taliban, who had cultural and physical proximity, were able to leverage that in many cases. So I think that it was the right thing to do at the time, remembering, however, my view is going to be biased since I recommended it.

And it made some progress. But then over time, as it didn't continue enough progress, I think that undermined the confidence of the Afghan people that this was going to be successful in the long term.

ANDY SERWER: A final question about Afghanistan, Stan-- does the withdraw from Afghanistan make the US more vulnerable or less safe?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I think there are two parts of that. I think the first is in the short-term, probably not. The Al-Qaeda might go back in. ISIS might go back. But they can go other places too.

And if we're talking about making our homeland safe, there's nothing special about there, which is more threatening than somewhere else. So the answer is unless it becomes a serious safe haven of training camps, it's probably not a major change to our security. In a broader picture, geostrategic, I think there's no doubt that we will lose credibility in the eyes of the world somewhat, as we did after Vietnam.

There's a cost to failure. There's a cost to stepping away from a stated commitment. I'm not sure that the cost is completely wrong to bear. But we can't deny it. We've got to work really hard to rebuild our credibility as reliable allies or people will be more hesitant to align with us.

ANDY SERWER: Shifting gears a little bit-- last one before we get to your book. And this is maybe a tricky one, about General Milley and the calls that he made to the Chinese leadership in the final days of the Trump transition assuring them that the US was not about to launch an attack. He's defended that move. Do you think he did the right thing?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Andy, I don't know the details. I haven't talked to Mark about. My sense is he usually does the right thing.

And so I start spring-loaded to believe in Mark Milley. I think it was a unique time in which leaders in America-- not just military leaders, but others really were wondering about the stability of our democracy. And we haven't had to do that very often. But it was a time.

So I think if the intent was right and if, as accounts I've heard, that he went through the chain of command and informed everybody. Then it seems like it was at a minimum well-intentioned and hopefully helpful.

ANDY SERWER: Thank you. "Risk, A User's Guide," your new book, offers a template for how individuals and organizations can better assess risks. You introduce a key concept of the risk immune system. So what is that? And how does it change the way we think about managing risk?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. It's interesting. We started studying for this book and came away with the conclusion the greatest risk to us is us. And that's a disturbing conclusion to begin with. But it was borne out by experiences we had.

If you think of the human immune system, it's a miracle. Every day, we're estimated to get 10,000 microorganisms ingested into us, any one of which could make us sick or kill us. And yet, you and I don't get up in the morning worried about our human immune system. We just assume it's going to work in its function of detecting each of those potential threats, assessing each one for its level of threat to us, responding to it, destroying it if need be, and learning from it so it's better next time. It's a miracle.

Now, organizations have much the same-- and I think of a nation or society as a large organization, but also smaller organizations as well. And what they really have to do is they have to respond to risks. Now, if you look at how most of us do, we look out on the horizon. We look for external risks.

What's going to come? Is a meteor going to come? Are the interest rates are going to rise? Whatever it is. And we're not very good at predicting them either in their timing or exact nature.

And yet, the thing we do have agency over is ourselves. So while we can't control the threats, we can control to a great degree our vulnerability to them. And what we can do is make sure that our risk immune system, which we have described as having 10 risk control factors, starting with communication, including narrative, timing, action, diversity, bias-- a number of things that all give us the ability to detect risks as they arrive, assess them, respond, and learn from that.

So when you have an a healthy system, things go pretty well. Take COVID-- it's almost a classic example of when the risk immune system for our nation and arguably more of the world didn't function well. COVID-19 was a perfect enemy. It was an inanimate thing we could all hate.

Even though we call it a novel coronavirus, it wasn't novel. In reality, that particular version was. But we get viruses and potential pandemics with real regularity. They are inevitable. So they're predictable.

Second is we have a lot of knowledge on public health. We know what to do about these things. And then the third case, which was unique this time, is we got a medical miracle.

Scientists pulled a rabbit out of a hat and produced vaccines in record time. So if you line up those advantages, we should now be getting together and literally celebrating just how well we as a nation came together, arose to first combat and then defeat COVID-19. But instead, we're burying the 700,000th American.

Where did we fail? We didn't communicate clearly. We sent mixed messages. We had a narrative that was undermined at times by counter-narratives, first within official circles and then, of course, in unofficial things as well. We had a lot of inertia. We couldn't move when you need to.

And of course, a pandemic means you have to get ahead of exponential growth. And so we didn't. And I would argue we had a failure of leadership, not in just one case, but many failures. And of course, there were some bright spots as well.

But you can't fight something like that as 50 separate states or hundreds of separate municipalities. It has to be as a united nation. So I would argue that our risk immune system left us vulnerable.

ANDY SERWER: And right now, I mean, just sticking with COVID, I mean, it seems like the biggest impediment is vaccine hesitancy. And it has been maybe for a while. So how would we overcome that given what your research has told you doing the book.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I would say the things on that started with communication. Early we needed to communicate a clear message. There wouldn't be complete, as you're still learning, but a clear message and send it out. This is a nation at war. And these are the things we, this nation at war, against COVID have to do.

We need to get a narrative that says it is our responsibility to be part of that war. Part of that is getting vaccinated not to protect ourselves, but to protect our flanks, to protect our comrades, to protect the other people who rely upon us. We needed the ability to make decisions quickly.

And, of course, we needed leadership. We needed senior people to stand up and say these are tough decisions. Vaccine hesitancy has some deep-seeded, almost emotional reasons because people have opposed to other vaccines. But this is a time when we either come together and make potentially frightening decisions, such as being vaccinated, or we fail. And I would argue that we allowed way too much misinformation and disinformation to pollute the conversation.

ANDY SERWER: Does that lend itself to a national vaccine mandate therefore?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Personally, if you're asking Stan McChrystal, I am for that. I think that we have certain mandates-- we say you must take your-- you must pay your taxes. You must serve in the military if the nation is threatened. There are things we do as part of a Covenant of being a citizen in the United States of America. There are responsibilities that go with rights.

And common defense doesn't mean just common defense against the British at Lexington. It means common defense against those things which harm our nation. And this is not just something that harms individual Americans. It economically weakens us. And so I would argue, yes, it would be entirely appropriate.

ANDY SERWER: Taking a step back, one of the central points of the book is that we often increase the risk posed by a given set of threats when we mismanage our exposure to them. So what are some of those common mistakes, Stan, that individuals and organizations make when assessing their exposure to risk. You talked about communication when it comes to COVID, for instance.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. One is just the risk of inertia. There's the great story about Blockbuster. You and I probably remember when we were a bit younger, were on Friday night you take your kids down, and you rent a movie. And then you have to watch their movie. There were 9,000 Blockbuster stores-- 9,000. And they were dominant.

And young upstart Netflix comes and goes and gives a presentation to the Blockbuster board of directors or management team and says, we'd like you to buy us because we'll fill in a gap in what you do. And Blockbuster says, well, you know, we just don't think that's a good idea. And they pass on it.

And of course, Netflix is dominant now. And there is-- if it's still true, there's one Blockbuster. I think it's in Alaska. So the inability to overcome inertia-- those things which mean an object at rest stays at rest takes a little bit of courage. It takes a little bit of foresight. But mostly, it just takes the need to move.

You, of course, know that the 9/11 Commission came away with conclusion that all the information to stop the 9/11 attack existed inside the United States government before. But in many cases, it was an inability to make a decision to overcome inertia. So that's one of the biggest.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. And that's another interesting point. When you talk about institutional failures over the last two decades in the book, you examine a bunch of them. You talk about 9/11. We talked about COVID.

And by the way, my understanding is you provided consulting services for the city of Boston and the state of Missouri. So you were actually hands on, have been over the past 18 months. But you've got COVID, 9/11, Great Recession. Do you think that these have damaged public trust and are in part to blame for why people seek out information and advice from alternative sources? And how do we restore institutional trust, Stan?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Andy, I'm not 100% sure how we do it. I would say that what we've had is a collision-- a collision between-- there was partisanship already growing in American politics-- tribalism. And then the information technology just made it so much easier to pump information out everywhere, basically lowering the cost of information distribution to nothing.

And so what's happened is we don't know what information we believe anymore. We used to look at big media. And we said, well, at least they had a process. They went to do an editorial process. And they vetted before they put it out.

And they might get it wrong. And it might be a little bit conservative or a little bit liberal. But nowadays I think we doubt even things which were previously viewed as fairly legitimate and rock solid. I think that's gone.

I think we're going to have to rebuild that slowly. But I'm not sure how we do it. I think we have to begin a bit with holding people accountable for misinformation. And you start to run into First Amendment challenges. But the question is, if I propagate information that I know to be wrong and it has a demonstrable, potentially dangerous effect to society, shouldn't there be some way we can hold people accountable for that?

ANDY SERWER: Sounds like you're referring perhaps to the Facebook whistleblower case a little bit, right?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I don't know enough about that one to speak in any level. But it certainly raises the issue of the power or the responsibility each of us has in the process, where whether the person initially communicating, whether we are the platform that's facilitating, creating the opportunity, or whether the person that was retweeting or re-passing information, it all becomes part of a potentially negative cycle.

ANDY SERWER: What risks should corporations be focusing on the most, Stan? How do they prioritize them? I mean, my understanding is when you were on the board of Deutsche Bank, you were the only person from outside the banking industry. And that was-- made the thinking they're very insular.

But you've got climate, China, terrorism-- so many things. How does management prioritize these?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. It's interesting. They did a poll some years ago, CEOs. And they asked them to give their top 10 risks. And they were uniformly external. They were things outside the company.

And then they looked at firms that failed. And most of the time, the failures came from internal issues. We're just hardwired to look external.

So what I would say is we still need to look external. We still need to understand the cyber threat, the terrorist threat, and competition from other organizations and nations. But the first thing we can do is get our house in order.

The greatest threat to American society right now is the inability to get stuff done. If you think about it, we are struggling to get basic legislation through Congress. We are struggling to convince the American people that our political process is entirely legitimate. It was always more or less sacrosanct.

And so if we can't get things done, if we can't make decisions to take on big problems like climate change or to get a unified cybersecurity policy or to look at our education system and say, where are we failing? If we can't solve those problems, the external things which come to us will find a very weakened United States. If we are robust and resilient internally, I would argue we can handle almost any external threat that arises.

ANDY SERWER: And what about corporate efforts to improve gender and racial diversity, especially since the attention drawn by the murder of George Floyd. Has corporate America done an adequate job there?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think corporate America is moving in the right direction, at least with the right intentions. One of the things we cover in the book is the issue of diversity. And we use the Bay of Pigs failure as a lack of diversity. And if you think about John F. Kennedy, early days of his administration, he assembles a bunch of white guys to look-- old white guys to look at this plan because that was the US government then.

But we cite a lack of diversity not because they were all white guys but because they didn't have differing perspectives. So what we argue in the book is real diversity is different experiences, expertise, and perspectives. It's really independent of gender and race and things like that that are overt. Those are a equality of opportunity.

And that should be absolute. We should push hard to make that a reality. But organizations need to be diverse not because it's legally required but because it's smart. If you are not diverse, you have blind spots. And if you have blind spots, you have vulnerabilities of your own making.

If you look at the board of directors of Theranos-- a lot of talk about that now-- really had a group of people who weren't qualified and were not particularly diverse trying to provide oversight for something that was challenging. And so I would argue that diversity needs to be something that is an operational necessity. And I think, again, corporations are moving in that direction.

But in some cases, it's kind of halting. Actually, the number of female senior leaders in companies, CEOs, has not increased like it ought to. And so I would argue that much more needs to be done.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask you about President Biden's leadership, Stan, since he has taken office. And can we even make an assessment now without seeming to be partisan? How would you assess his leadership?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: That's a fair question because we are in an age where if you say anything, then it can be viewed as from one side or another as very negative. You know, I know President Biden. I haven't known a lot of presidents. I've known a few.

And the thing that I judge a leader on is really twofold on decision making. The first-- do they make decisions based on values that I think are legitimate and I admire? Honesty, for the good of the nation, et cetera. And I think that he does.

And then the second-- do I think that he makes credible decisions based on a probability of success? You can't hold a leader responsible for the outcome of everything because part of that is chance and things outside their control. I think President Biden listens to advisors. He applies some admirable qualities, which I have great faith in. And then he makes decisions in a legitimate fashion.

And so in my mind, that's all I can ask for in a senior leader. I mean, I can hope that they were lucky and everything comes out perfect. But that's not necessity. So I feel pretty confident with someone with that kind of value set in office.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask you about AI, artificial intelligence, because you wrote ceding the ability to manage relationships to an algorithm, we rolled a dangerous die. What are the specific uses of AI that concern you? And then we can talk about AI weapons. And that's really scary stuff. But let's talk about a generally and then specifically with regard to the military.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Let's talk about something we all get. We call company X and we get this recording that says, if you're calling about so-and-so, hit one. If you're calling about so-and-so, hit two. And you go for a while. And by the time you get to eight and they didn't cover your problem, you're furious. And you just want to talk to someone. You want somebody to take your problem for you.

And if I'm a company and I put that in, I save money. I don't have to train anybody. I don't have to give them overtime or any of that. But what I sometimes don't know is how many times does Stan McChrystal or Andy Serwer call and then I just say, I'm done with you. And I go to a competitor.

And so we need to understand that when we use technology, there can often be, you know, two edges to the sword. I think that AI ups the game there. We start to think that artificial intelligence can do processes for us. Some of which you can do, and some of which will make decisions different from the way that we want them to be made or either impact us or the organization.

And the problem is knowing it. It's hard to have a complete understanding of-- in a modern organization now-- what decisions are actually being made algorithmically and which are being made by people. And so when you don't have that, I would argue you have the risk of no longer having real understanding or control over your organizations.

You mentioned AI controlled weapons. People say, we'll never give control over lethal strike to artificial intelligence. And I say that's wrong. We absolutely will because at a certain point, you can't respond fast enough unless you do that.

The hypervelocity missile-- hypersonic missile coming at the United States aircraft carrier, you don't have time for individuals to do the tracking. You don't have time for senior leaders to be in the decision loop or you won't be able to engage the missile. So you've create a technology. You put in processes for it to operate.

But then to operate at the speed of war, you are essentially turning it on and trusting it. And that can be pretty frightening, particularly if the potential malfunction or spoofing or any of those other things are in.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. I've read some articles about that that are terrifying. I mean, as if war isn't terrifying enough already, some of this stuff with drones and the battlefield, it's just-- and it's the chance of mistake and error that makes it even more scary as, you say, I think, right.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: As time compresses, the chance of error just skyrockets.

ANDY SERWER: Right. I want to ask you a little bit about your personal background. You grew up in a military family. Your father and siblings served. How does that close relationship to the military shaped the way you pursued your career afterwards?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. It's interesting because I grew up-- I was born in an army hospital. My dad was a soldier. My father's father was a soldier. My four brothers are soldiers. My sister married a soldier.

I married the daughter of a career soldier. Her three brothers are soldiers. Her sisters the widow-- yeah, it's-- yeah, it's-- it's pretty out of control. But it's what I always wanted to be from my earliest age. And so I identified myself as a soldier from age 17 when I entered West Point.

And so I went through a lifetime of thinking of myself as a soldier with values I associated with that-- most good. And then when I retired from the military in 55-- at age 55, just kind of suddenly. Part of your identity gets left on the parade field when you retire. Who are you? You walk away.

You can't get up next morning and say, well, I'm a soldier. You can say I was a former soldier. And you can try to hold on to that forever. But I chose not to do that.

I mean, I can't take away my past. And I'm proud of it. So I wouldn't. But I don't get up every morning thinking I'm a soldier anymore. I'm now something different. And so I want to try to be as good at that something different as I can be.

ANDY SERWER: That's fascinating because I was going to ask you-- we were just been talking about insular thinking and tunnel vision. And then you were talking about military, military, military. And so in a way, were you thinking, I have to sort of consciously counter that a little bit in my life going forward?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Absolutely. I had gotten a taste of that earlier in my career, particularly in the counterterrorist fight when we did this big transformation to the command. And so I've got my blinders ripped off pretty-- pretty suddenly.

But then when I retired, you're right. I wanted to get involved in things. I decided not to go into defense contracting or things that are normally easy for retired military to do because I wanted to learn new things. I wanted to be involved in things I didn't know anything about. I wanted to be on the-- I ended up being on the board of Deutsche Bank USA. You know, and I'm no banker.

But I was able to learn things as I went along that I think have been fascinating. And of course, I had the chance to-- this is the fourth book I've been part of writing. And each book has given me the chance to think more. And this risk book, even though I had opinions on risk, my co-author and I, Anna Butrico, explored things that-- that I'd never considered. And so I think it's-- it's not only been fun, it's been educational.

ANDY SERWER: You have this reputation for being an aesthetic who runs to and from office, doesn't sleep, doesn't eat. Are you still like that, Stan?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I am-- we don't say that. We say I'm self-disciplined. I-- I-- I eat one meal a day. And I've done that for--

ANDY SERWER: Which one? What meal?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Dinner. Dinner. Dinner.

ANDY SERWER: I thought you were going to say breakfast.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: No. And I eat everything I can reach at dinner. So it's-- I'm probably not decreasing calories. But--

ANDY SERWER: Aren't you starving by like 2:00 in the afternoon?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yes. But I get used to it. You know, there's a point at which you get hungry-- start chewing your forearm in meetings and things like that. But it makes me feel better.

I find if I eat in the middle of the day, my body thinks it must be night. So I must-- it's time go to sleep. I work out every day because that's just something that makes me feel better. It makes me feel better about myself. And so those-- those few good habits that I do have I stick to because there's kind of a mooring point.

ANDY SERWER: And final question, Stan-- so what do you see yourself doing going forward? And-- and what do you see as your legacy?

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Of course, you want your legacy to be positive. I've been teaching at Yale now for-- I'm in my 12th year. And so I've now got a whole bunch of alumni in the course. And every year we get together-- an alumni dinner in Alexandria, Virginia. I think-- I hope my legacy is in the young people at the firm we created, McChrystal Group. It's the young people who went to the course.

I hope it's the people I served with who say that the time we served together was a special time for them. You know, you're always going to come up short in things you'd like to be. But if people remember their association with me and say, yeah, that was really good, then I'll feel good about it.

ANDY SERWER: Fair enough. Retired General Stanley McChrystal and author of the new book, "Risk, A User's Guide." Thanks so much for joining us.

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: You're kind to have me. Thanks, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.