Stanley McChrystal: Employee Engagement Gone Wrong

Another seemingly disastrous PR exercise comes out of the US. This time in the military, with the top allied general in Afghanistan opening himself and his team up to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine and being fired because of it.

In the resultant article, General Stanley McChrystal and his aides said he was “disappointed” meeting his boss (aka US President Barack Obama), referred to the US Vice President Joe Biden as “who’s that?” and basically gave his job the middle finger.

I was once in the US military, and even as a lowly specialist (the equivalent of a corporal) I received some training in dealing with the media while in uniform. Unless the good general had been in a bunker far too long, he should have known better.

So the question is: What in the world was he thinking?

Upon closer examination of the Rolling Stone article and the career of Stanley A McChrystal, that question is less rhetorical than one would suppose.

First of all, the general knows good PR. Among fellow soldiers (as well as in the press!) he has built up an image of himself as a soldier’s soldier. After receiving criticism from a low-level sergeant that he didn’t care about the troops on the ground, McChrystal actually showed up at the sergeant’s unit for a foot patrol through a danger zone. As his public was the soldiers themselves, there were no live cameras, just live ammunition.

Off the battlefield, McChrystal accompanied Afghan President Hamid Karzai on numerous political meetings in order to lend Karzai’s government much needed legitimacy.

What is more, the general used to be a Pentagon spokesman. During the second Iraqi war, he advised then US president George W Bush on what sensitive matters NOT to discuss.

Last but not least, McChrystal had already been rebuked by Obama in person for openly criticizing vice president Who’s That. As Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings put it, the general was basically told to “shut the f&%K up, and keep a lower profile.”

This leads to me conclude that the Rolling Stone affair was not a PR exercise gone wrong, but the result of failure of employee engagement.

Case in point: that “disappointing” first presidential meeting with McChrystal. According to McChrystal, Obama – having had to install the general on the advice of the Pentagon – had no idea who McChrystal was. It was a meeting before the cameras and the president was just going through the motions.

Granted a US president has a lot on his mind, but the president’s aides should have made certain Obama was conversant on the man who would literally lead the charge on one of his administration’s core issues. Described as a mixture of brilliant, arrogant, ambitious and troublemaking, McChrystal is not some parakeet you whistle at while he sits in his cage; he is a falcon, a bird requiring “special” handling.

However, the more fundamental problem Obama faces is a managerial one. According to a senior foreign relations expert cited by Hastings, there is no coherent diplomatic or political voice on Afghanistan, with politicians and diplomats across the US political spectra as well as various coalition partners pulling in contrary directions, while the US-backed Afghan president proves himself to be less than capable.

This is critical, as the political “hearts and minds” battlefield of Afghanistan is even more imperative than the military one in stabilizing Afghanistan. McChrystal knew this.

To top it off, even the military’s political bureaucracy apparently was interfering with McChrystal’s efforts. The general’s rules of engagement (which soldiers on the ground said made sense of the need to fight the enemy without endangering civilians) were distorted irredeemably as they passed down the chain of command by less knowledgeable personnel who interpreted them with an eye to cover themselves from any potential backlash.

More of a PR ploy than a mistake, the Rolling Stone piece was a message by McChrystal to the Obama administration and the rest of the world: “A bureaucratic mess is hindering the military and political engagement in Afghanistan. Obama can either put this right and let me do my job, or get me out of this nightmare.”

Unlike a corporate manager, Obama cannot simply fire, demote or promote at will other politicians even in order to assure the winning of a war. Especially when some of the politicians are in foreign governments. Left with no other alternative, Obama relieved the one person he as commander in chief could safely fire: McChrystal.

Marc Galmoud