The day General McChrystal was canned, I was in Baltimore Washington International airport. Putting on my shoes after security, I found myself sitting next to a USMC major. I commented about McChrystal's calling former USMC Commandant Jim Jones a "clown." (I have very strong USMC ties, including an uncle who retired as a lieutenant general and served as a lieutenant colonel on Guadalcanal.) I expected the major to erupt. Instead he said, "Once they become generals, they all are mainly politicians." He said it in a matter-of-fact fashion, with no discernable rancor.
In fact he's right. McChrystal was a career special ops guy, and, as is characteristic of the genre, was known for being blunt and impolitic—it's a miracle he made it as far as he did. General Petraeus is, to the contrary, know as a superb politician. Many attach automatic opprobrium to the term "politician." They are sorely mistaken. General Powell was a masterful politician, as was General Eisenhower, whose political skills in holding the Allies together for the assault on the European mainland were far more important than his tactical skills. All the above pale by contrast to perhaps America's greatest political general—George Washington. In David McCullough's masterful 1776, we find Washington virtually every night alone in his tent writing numerous letters to members of the Continental Congress. Garnering their support for his faltering efforts was as important as fending off the British.
Implementation—at the level of "chief" of a 4-person project team in IS—is and always has been and always will be primarily about politics.
In fact it is axiomatic: Effective implementers are effective politicians, regardless of any synonym you may choose to substitute for politics.
My dentist in Boston doesn't think much of my former dentist (and college roommate) in San Jose; and she makes no bones and minces no words about it. So, too, most specialists. And that includes generals. World War II was marked by a clear focus, unlike, say, Vietnam or Afghanistan. And yet the generals battled with and disparaged one another constantly. I am highly amused by the following quotes from one of my favorite books, David Irving's The War Between the Generals: Inside the Allied High Command:
"A man of great mediocrity."—General George Patton about General Omar Bradley (Bradley commanded U.S. ground forces on D-Day and beyond)
"A third-rate general. He never did anything or won any battle that any other general could not have won as well or better."—General Omar Bradley about Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery
"If you want to end the war in any reasonable time, you will have to remove Ike's hand from the control of the land battle."—Sir Bernard Montgomery about General Dwight Eisenhower
"One thing that might help win this war is to get someone to shoot King."—General Dwight Eisenhower about Admiral Ernest King, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations
"Eisenhower, though supposed to be running the land war, is on the golf links at Rhiems—entirely detached and taking practically no part in running the war."—Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of Staff, British Army about General Dwight Eisenhower
"If the unhelpful British attitude continues, then I shall go home."—General Dwight Eisenhower
Thus is the nature of human affairs, in peace or war. As I hinted before, if you don't want to participate in the politics, then choose to follow a path that is not associated with leadership, or pretty much anything else—e.g., I've seen politicking for a Nobel prize up close, and it's not pretty.
(You may find exceptions to this rule, but if you do, be sure to specify the planet or galaxy from which they emanate.)
(FYI: You might look at Thomas Ricks' related "Lose a General, Win a War," in yesterday's New York Times.)
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