What VW can learn from Gen. Stanley McChrystal about imperfect leaders — Hal Gregersen

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

From Fortune

The title of Chief Executive Officer commonly conjures up images of a sharply dressed, smooth-talking individual who paints an inspiring, mesmerizing picture of their company in images and words. But it is underneath this veiled exterior that an organization’s real story lives.

When the Volkswagen scandal broke, my first thought went to the leaders of the company. Of course, there is the obvious question: Did former CEO Martin Winterkorn and Volkswagen America CEO Michael Horn know about the cheating (both have denied this)? But for me, a leadership scholar, the fiasco raises much more interesting questions about Winterkorn and Horn’s leadership styles: Did the CEO image or illusion they projected blind them from the realities of their own business? Did they perpetuate a culture where employees were fearful of sharing problems with those at the top? Though we may never know how much knowledge these leaders had prior to the public exposé, it is a compelling case of what can happen when leaders become too focused on an image of perfection. Rather than trying to conform to a pre-cast mold, I believe leaders should abandon their bogus two-dimensional views of leadership.

To understand why leaders put on these superficial shields and how to breakthrough them, I recently sat down with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and of the Joint Special Operations Command. Gen. McChrystal comes from an environment that those of us on the outside might think (or Hollywood would like us to think) breeds the very stereotypical image that I propose we toss in the trash. I asked him to reflect on an experience that most influenced his work as a leader. He told me about a commander he met early in his career. On the surface, this commander was hardly someone you’d expect to have such a deep influence on Gen. McChrystal:

“He had a little bit of a paunch, he smoked heavily, he drank now and again … he was sort of the opposite of some of the ramrod-like leadership traits [we expect] — except he was frighteningly competent and he cared deeply,” said Gen. McChrystal, who today advises companies on leadership and management as co-founder of the McChrystal Group. “He was this phenomenal leader without having to paint himself in the stereotypical cloak of leadership; he was so good at making the unit better that he didn’t have to take on the outside trappings.”

Read the full post at Fortune.

Hal Gregersen is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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