I am fascinated by the unravelling of General Stanley McChrystal.  Not having met the man personally, I have only the media reports to go by.  Based on this, three lessons on how to stay on top occurred me, all of which apply to business leaders and managers.

It can turn on a dime

General McChrystal went from being heralded as a star performer one day to being out of a job the next.  On his way up, he was portrayed as the tough but effective leader who was turning around the situation in Afghanistan, a tall order indeed.  Now the negative stories come out, and we hear that this was just the latest in a series of similar “accidents waiting to happen.” The truth is probably somewhere in between.

The lesson for the rest of us is that public opinion is fickle, and it takes years of effort to make it to the top, but only moments for it to unravel.  Enjoy the highs but don’t get too high, and don’t get too down about the lows.  Try to keep it real.

No matter how senior you are you still need to manage upward

Despite his many strengths, it seems the General was pretty bad at managing upward.  He committed a cardinal sin from which it is very hard to recover, and that is bad-mouthing your boss (or in this case, your boss’ boss plus many others) in public.  And, by the way, his boss’ boss just happens to be the President of the United States.  What was the General thinking?  The point is that he probably wasn’t.  If General McChrystal was really the best that we had in Afghanistan, then it is sad (perhaps even maddening) to see him make such a careless error that not only destroyed his career, but also leaves the rest of the world in the lurch.

Displaying respect for your boss or at least not showing disrespect in public is pretty basic stuff.  For most people, it is common sense.  For a man who was called “The Boss”, maybe it all goes to one’s head at a certain point.  Or maybe he didn’t understand that he was in an interview type situation, and maybe he trusted a journalist to hold back on a scoop when that is not part of their job description.

The takeaway here is that you are unlikely to win by bad-mouthing your superiors in public, and it is safest to assume that anytime you are with at least one other human being (other than, say, your mother), what you say can and will be repeated in a way that you do not control.  If you have a disagreement with your boss, by all means find a way to express it privately and constructively.  And whatever you say, keep it professional.

Help your stars stay on track

Finally, the lesson for leaders and managers is that even (or perhaps especially) star performers can push it too far and it is our job to help keep the stars on track.  We all have seen people in our organizations whose foibles and dysfunctional characteristics are tolerated or even overlooked because they bring such value in other areas.  However, this is a risky strategy as General McChrystal’s example shows.

Even the best of producers can cross the line into the realm of no return, and when this happens, both the organization and the individual lose.  While the quid pro quo for brilliance in one dimension may well be dysfunction in another, it is worth trying to help high potential people address these aspects.

Granted, it is not always easy to get a strong-minded senior person with a track record of success to change.  The trick is to knowing how and when to help them exercise their own emotional intelligence to keep their flaws under control, or at least within acceptable limits.  In this situation, General McChrystal’s boss, General Petraeus, has now had to take a demotion and step in to take on the Afghanistan role himself.  Not ideal.  The question is whether he could he have managed General McChrystal better along the way?

Let’s see how the General McChrystal does going forward, but hopefully he will also one day be a shining example of how one can recover from such a fall.