RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
General Stanley McChrystal says watching the spread of the coronavirus reminds him of another fight, a fight against an enemy that is also hard to predict and detect. In 2004, the general took over the Joint Special Operations Task Force and oversaw operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in his book "Team Of Teams: New Rules Of Engagement For A Complex World," McChrystal and several members of his team share what they learned.
General McChrystal joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Thanks for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: So you say the current situation reminds you of, in particular, the early months fighting al-Qaida in Iraq. Explain that comparison.
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, that was unexpected because we had been purpose-built as a counterterrorist force to operate as a traditional military unit and do sort of slow, periodic but very precise operations. And we got against al-Qaida in Iraq, which emerged - starting in 2003 - as a completely different kind of organization. It was viral. It was amorphous. It constantly adapted. It was a bit like COVID-19.
And getting your arms around it required us to operate in a fundamentally different way. We had to connect our force and realign ourselves every 24 hours because the fight changed so fast. So the reality was winning that fight was less about barrel-chested commandos going in the door and capturing someone. The reality was, how could you pull information, understand the big picture on a constant basis and then apply your resources most effectively?
MARTIN: How do you lead through unpredictability when there is such a vacuum of information?
MCCHRYSTAL: First is a little bit of management. First, you set up a system that can bring in information, that can cross-level both the information, best practices; what's working and what isn't - and so the entire organization gets smarter. That's critical. The second is the leader has to, first and foremost, be absolutely straightforward with all the people they're leading, has to tell them the truth. Even though the truth can change from day to day, we've got to have a level of candor that convinces people that what they're getting from the leader is the best information available at the time.
The second thing the leader has to do is give confidence. And if you think of Winston Churchill in 1940, Britain was thought to be about to lose the war. And what he didn't say was - he didn't say, we're winning. He didn't say, we're about to win. He said, we'll never surrender. He built their confidence for the long haul. I think that's what leaders have to give at every level.
MARTIN: So how do you come down on sharing public information? I mean, when you're running a counterterrorism operation, there are obviously a lot of things you don't want the public to know because it jeopardizes that mission. A public health emergency is so different. How important is accurate public information even though it might be frightening?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think it's critical because if you think about it, what we don't know leaves a vacuum in our mind, and we fill it with the most terrifying ideas. And so I think it's much better for us to get the best information we can, give transparency as best we can. People can handle bad news or frightening news if it's put into context for them and they believe it's accurate.
MARTIN: Have you given thought to how fear can be used productively, though, in a situation like that? I mean, I imagine, as a leader, you need to use anxiety or fear to motivate. Right? But you can't incite it so much as to cause people to become desperate. But if people aren't afraid, then they don't take the threat seriously.
MCCHRYSTAL: That's exactly right. You have to balance it. You've got to tell them that there's a serious problem, that they need to fear the enemy; they need to respect the enemy. But at the same time, you have to build their confidence that says, if you do this right, we can win this. A lot of people have used the analogy of a war, but we really haven't asked the American people to sacrifice for a war since World War II. I think we could mobilize ourselves for what is a warlike threat from a virus that's producing things. And I think the American people want to contribute. They're already scared. I think what we could do is use that as a unifying idea that says, this problem is big enough it requires everybody to focus - it requires some sacrifice from each of us.
MARTIN: What needs to be happening right now that is not?
MCCHRYSTAL: We should not be fighting COVID-19 as 50 separate fights, 50 separate states and territories and certainly not at individual municipal levels. This needs to be a collaborative, national-level fight. When the president talks to the nation about COVID-19, I wish he'd stand up in front of a map and he'd show what things are and he'd say, America, this is an American problem - it's also a global problem - we're going to fight it as an American fight, not as leaving any city or state off on their own to do as well as they can.
MARTIN: But the president has suggested - more than suggested, he has said outright that this is a problem best managed at the state and local level. You disagree.
MCCHRYSTAL: I disagree fundamentally. I think that there are things that are - execution at the state and local level, certainly people in hospitals are making very local decisions, and they're executing. And you don't want to micromanage that, but you do want to manage the overall effort, particularly when you have a shortage of resources.
MARTIN: We talked earlier about what it takes to lead through unpredictability. But how do you reassure Americans right now who don't know when this is going to be over?
MCCHRYSTAL: The first thing we don't want to do is give people an expectation that we are going to have - on date certain, we'll all go back to the park and restaurants and whatnot because then, if it doesn't happen, that disappointment is crushing. But if we tell the nation this is a long, hard fight, we're not sure when it's going to get better, all we can guarantee you is it's going to get better and we are not going to give up until it does. Then people can calculate differently. It's really important to give people realistic appraisals so that we're not, you know, leading them to big disappointment.
MARTIN: Managing expectations.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and founded the McChrystal Group, thank you so much for your time, General. Take good care.
MCCHRYSTAL: You're kind to have me. Take care, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.