Summary of Leaders: Myth and Reality by McChrystal et al.

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Reading the Lives of Plutarch, the namesake of this blog, 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.

Book 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.

3 Myths of Leadership

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.

Leaders  is inspired by  Lives  yet different from Plutarch’s book.

Leaders is inspired by Lives yet different from Plutarch’s book.

Innovations built on Lives

While Plutarch’s Lives serves as an inspiration to Leaders, McChrystal et al.’s book differentiates itself in several ways.

  1. McChrystal et al. did not choose their pairings for the book with any formal structure, such as one Greek paired with one Roman in Lives. Their selection is incremental and organic, focusing on interesting stories from which people might learn about the realities of leadership.

  2. Unlike Plutarch’s rather homogeneous politicians, orators and military generals, McChrystal et al. selected, not by design, six genres of leaders—zealots, founders, power brokers, geniuses, reformers, and heroes—to encompass different leadership types.

  3. In contrast to the 48 lives Plutarch wrote, McChrystal et al. finalized their 13 profiles by choosing those who would offer the most diversity in terms of their leadership styles, including more women and minorities.

  4. Unlike Plutarch, who believed that the chosen leaders must offer an example to emulate, McChrystal et al. believe that there is much to learn from immoral leaders, such as the terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.

  5. While Plutarch judged leaders across history by a single moral standard, McChrystal et al. focused more on the context of each leader’s own times, given that effective leadership is highly behavioral and not always virtuous in nature.

Most importantly, Plutarch’s Lives revolves around a single question, “What sort of man was he?” McChrystal et al. started by asking the simple question “How did they lead?” but gradually modified to more nuanced questions like “Why did they emerge as a leader?” and “What was it about the situation that made this style of leadership effective?

Some of these profiles, i.e. FDR and LBJ, are from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book  Leadership in Turbulent Times . (Image Credit:  WSJ )

Some of these profiles, i.e. FDR and LBJ, are from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Leadership in Turbulent Times. (Image Credit: WSJ)

6 Genres, 13 Profiles

Leaders kicks off with a standalone profile on Robert E. Lee, the confederate general who McChrystal idolized as a young cadet at West Point. During his four-year program as a cadet at West Point, Lee achieved a rare record of zero demerits. He exerted self-control and professionalism as an army officer and would become a Mexican War hero. However, Lee was also a slave owner. At the brink of the Civil War, Lee made his greatest mistake, choosing the Confederacy instead of the Union. To many of Lee’s contemporaries, such as Ulysses Grant, Lee possessed mythical persona full of discipline, duty, loyalty to God, and a sense of honor, yet in reality he was a man full of shortcomings and failures.

Following the contrast of myth and reality in Robert Lee, McChrystal et al. presented six groups of leaders: 

  • The founders: Walt Disney, the pioneer of the American animation industry, and Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer and businesswoman

  • The geniuses: Albert Einstein, the most renowned physicist of the 20th Century, and Leonard Bernstein, the iconic American composer and conductor 

  • The zealots: Maximilien Robespierre, the French lawyer and politician who was one of the most influential figures during the French Revolution and orchestrated the Terror, and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the psychopathic Jordanian jihadist who ran the Al Qaeda in Iraq

  • The heroes: Zheng He, the Chinese mariner, diplomat, and explorer who commanded voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433, and Harriet Tubman, the African-American abolitionist who, born into slavery, made around thirteen missions to rescue over seventy enslaved people

  • The power brokers: William Tweed, the “boss” of Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic Party political machine in the late 19th Century, and Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady who served as the first female prime minister in Britain

  • The reformers: Martin Luther, the priest who started the Protestant Reformation, and Martin Luther King Jr., an activist and leader of the civil rights movement

These profiles remind us that leaders are real, often flawed human beings, not some statues on pedestals. For instance, Disney and Chanel were business leaders whom others followed for their vision, not their demanding and eccentric leadership styles. Robespierre and Zarqawi were ruthless extremists yet effective leaders who practiced leadership-by-ideology. Einstein and Berstein were geniuses who excelled in their individual skills but also collaborated extensively in their work. And Martin Luther and Martin Luther King were not the visionary leaders who saw through every step of their movements: they did not know what they were getting into when taking the leadership mantle and simply carried on.

Churchill, also a favorite leader of mine, is often the subject to the Great Man Theory

Churchill, also a favorite leader of mine, is often the subject to the Great Man Theory

Why Great Man Theory Sticks

So why does the great man theory 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.

The Evolution of Leadership Studies

McChrystal et al. also offered a brief overview of the evolution of our efforts in understanding leadership.

Trait-based leadership: Since Plutarch, much effort of leadership studies were focused on filtering out the essential traits of leaders that made them successful. Understanding these traits would lead to knowing who would be effective leaders. 

Leadership as an education: in the mid-twentieth century, behavioral theorists proposed that leaders are made, not born; that leadership involves training and education; that leadership is less about intrinsic traits than about learned behavior.

Followership: In the 1970s, servant leadership arose to propose that, instead of commanding strong men, servant leaders find the bottom of their organizational pyramid the most important force for change.

Post-leadership age: Today, some argue that systems rather than individuals that enable people to organize efficiently.

A New Definition of Leadership

Taken from  Leaders: Myth and Reality

Taken from Leaders: Myth and Reality

Finally, 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. Leadership is contextual and dynamic, and therefore cannot be boiled down to a formula but must be constantly modified.

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

  3. The leader is vital for leadership, but more in the sense of symbolism and meaning 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.

Make no mistake, Boris Johnson will not be a Winston Churchill. Johnson simply fell into the trap of the Great Man Theory, and his mistake will cost dearly for Britain. (Image Credit:  Evening Standard )

Make no mistake, Boris Johnson will not be a Winston Churchill. Johnson simply fell into the trap of the Great Man Theory, and his mistake will cost dearly for Britain. (Image Credit: Evening Standard)


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. Moreover, many paragraphs of the opening thesis and the ending proposal are repeating the same content and phrases, as if the book should be much thinner than the 458 pages in print. 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.

That being said, McChrystal et al.’s mentioning of Boris Johnson, noting Johnson’s tendency to obsess with the Great Man Theory, is quite a foresighted highlight of the book, especially since the great-man-lover is but a few blocks away from 10 Downing Street. Johnson, for all his writing and research skills honed at Oxford, failed to learn anything valuable from his hero of all times. Winston Churchill grew to become a champion and founding father of an European Union, one that Johnson is trying to tear apart. But moreover, the real Churchill is not as shiny as he seemed. Hugo Young wrote in his book, This Blessed Spot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair:

“But he was also the father of misunderstandings about Britain’s part in this Europe. He encouraged Europe to misunderstand Britain, and Britain to misunderstand herself.”

That, I venture to say, is an epitome of the myth and reality in leadership.

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