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The general: a cautionary tale

The World Cup has just completed the quarterfinals, so now I can come up for air. Don’t worry, this won’t be a soccer analogy post-it’s been done, blandly.  Wow guys, teamwork is great.

Anyway, in addition to being a soccer fanatic, I’m also a little bit of a politics junkie.  So when I haven’t been watching 6 hours of soccer a day (not a joke-the group stages are a big commitment), I’ve been reading about and thinking about the General Stanley McChrystal mess.

For those of you that don’t obsessively follow this kind of thing like I do, a brief summary: McChrystal “resigned” on June 23, after a Rolling Stone article detailed unflattering remarks from the general and his staff about the White House and State Department.

If you go beyond the vacuous mainstream press coverage and read the original article, a nuanced picture emerges. McChrystal is insubordinate and crass, but it’s because of his single-minded devotion to a new strategy. He’s a serial rebel, a guy that has reshaped every unit he’s been responsible for; he’s pushed the establishment farther than it’s comfortable, but not quite far enough to lose his job–until now.

And that’s what connected this back to hiring for me (this blog being about hiring, after all). So many times in my recruiting career I’ve been asked to find someone that can challenge the conventional wisdom, that can push an organization to change. Too often they leave, voluntarily or otherwise, after hitting wall after wall.  In the always special case of one of my former employers, the iconoclast encounters the icon directly, because they’re the same person.

When I am asked to find these magical employees that make everything better (MEMEB for short, TM pending), I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how much the organization can actually handle. This is what makes the job of a recruiter fascinating, frustrating, and complicated. To do the job well requires one not just to manage tactics, but also to be able to think philosophically about the change-readiness of the organization.

One last thought. Gen. McChrystal fits many of the stereotypes of a corporate savior: irreverent, innovative, driven. But it’s worth remembering that General David Petraeus, the man left standing in all of this is, in Rolling Stone’s words “kind of a dweeb, a teacher’s pet with a Ranger’s tab.”  The dweebs often seem to be around when the rebels have long since gone.

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