Stan McChrystal, the retired U.S. Army four-star general who led Joint Special Operations Command and later oversaw U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, offered advice for students and insight into risk as he visited the Florida Tech campus and spoke at the F. Alan Smith Distinguished Lecture Series.
McChrystal is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and co-founder and CEO of McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm where he advises senior executives at multinational corporations on navigating complex change and building stronger teams.
In a question-and-answer session in Skurla Hall with cadets from Florida Tech’s ROTC program before he strode across Crawford Green to Gleason Performing Arts Center, McChrystal said that in his early post-college years, he was too focused on becoming “personally competent” as a young soldier. That meant he was not always listening and learning.
“If I could go back to myself then, I don’t know if myself then would listen, but the reality was, what I should have done is listen more and worry less about becoming personally competent first,” he told the cadets. “Long term, you will become personally competent, you will figure it out. But if you stop and listen, you will get so much more.”
At a crowded Gleason, Marco Carvalho, executive vice president and provost, and acting president, welcomed McChrystal. He spoke of his distinguished, three-decade military career and his success as an author and speaker. Carvalho then said the general’s return to campus was a homecoming of sorts, as McChrystal’s father, Gen. Herb McChrystal, founded Florida Tech’s continuing education program in 1980 and served as director of professional development.
“So General, on behalf of your Florida Tech family, welcome home,” Carvalho said, before addressing the audience: “It is a true honor to have a leader of Gen. McChrystal’s experience join us this evening and share his insights.”
And that he did. His presentation was, “Understanding Risk and Mastering the Unknown” and it tapped into his most recent best-seller, “Risk: A User’s Guide,” published October 2021.
“How do we think about risk? When I was growing up, I always thought of risk as the function of the probability of something happening and the consequences if it does. If I climb up on the roof, what’s the probability I fall off. If I fall off, what’s the likelihood I am going to get badly hurt?” he said, adding that if probability rises and consequences stay low, or if consequences go up and probability was low, he assumed “I wasn’t going to be that unlucky person.”
“But many times when both the consequences and probability of something went up, it got my attention. Suddenly, I bought insurance, I did what I could to mitigate it, I wore body armor – any number of things, depending up on the situation that was involved.”
We are all, McChrystal said, experts on risk because we live it with it from birth to death. That is not the same at being skilled at dealing with it, however. He cited the COVID pandemic, to which we could have applied lessons learned in the 1918 Spanish flu, the polio vaccination push of the 1950s, and maybe most of all the 76-page after-action report from a 2019 federal tabletop exercise exploring how a potential pandemic would play out.
“Yet almost none of the things we learned were executed in our response,” he said.
“So I am going to tell you I think we have a risk problem,” McChrystal continued. “But I don’t think that risk is necessarily the external thing we worry about. I am going to tell you, I think the greatest risk to us is actually us. It’s our inability or unwillingness to prepare for and deal with risk effectively. Now that’s pretty sobering.”
The lecture series’ founder and benefactor is F. Alan Smith, who brought innovation and passion to the business of automobiles. Smith spent more than three decades in leadership positions at General Motors in the U.S. and Canada, including serving as executive vice president of finance of General Motors and president and general manager of General Motors of Canada, Ltd. Smith has served on Florida Tech’s Board of Trustees since 1996.