I begin a book tour today to promote my new book, an adaptation of Machiavelli’s The Prince for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: The Queen: The Epic Ambition of Hillary and the Coming of a Second “Clinton Era.” It is candid advice on how she might make her very strong position in fact an unbeatable one, given in the hope that by its origins with me, it it will become unusable. Contained within as well, my assessments on how she ought to be viewing the broad field of GOP would-be nominees arrayed against her.
I began on Fox & Friends and continue through the many and varied outlets saying the same thing: Hillary is a prohibitive favorite to be the next president, and here is what I think she is thinking as she surveys the months between now and November, 2016.
Before departing though, I was honored to have General Stanley McChrystal join me in my studio Friday for most of the first two hours on Friday to discuss his new book: Team of Teams: New Rules Of Engagement For A Complex World.
I couldn’t put the book down –but did, after a few chapters, to first read portions of General McChrytal’s memoir, My Share of the Task, so that I would better understand what I had figured out would be a very important book in Team of Teams. You don’t have to do that, of course, but getting both books at the same time and reading them in tandem makes a lot of sense.
McChrystal’s experience, research and conclusions are so timely across all silos of business, education and especially war and diplomacy that I am making the audio of our full conversation available below and the full transcript. Don’t be fooled by what is a fascinating but nevertheless only partial explication of Team of Teams in our conversation. Get the whole book and listen or read every page.
HH: Special edition of the Hugh Hewitt Show this Friday. Coming up next hour, Chuck Todd leads off. Larry Arnn will be along in hour number three. But General Stanley McChrystal does me a great honor coming to the studio. He was at the Nixon Library in Orange County last night talking about his brand new book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For a Complex World. General McChrystal, great to have you, thank you for coming in.
SM: Thanks for having me, Hugh.
HH: This is a pretty remarkable book, and I will, I’ll first ask how was the reception last night at the Nixon Library? And did you do that solo or in tandem with other CrossLead people?
SM: It was extraordinary. I had one of the co-writers, Chris Fussell, on the stage with me, and Roy March, a local businessman, moderated the conversation. It was extraordinary.
HH: Well, the reason I had to get partway in and then stop, and then I went back and picked up your memoir, My Share of the Task, because this drops you into the middle of your task force. So I read the part of your memoir that got me to the task force, and then I read the part of your memoir after you departed the task force so that Team of Teams was in context for me. But let’s begin, if we could, by telling people what the task force is from which many of your lessons are modeled.
SM: Absolutely. The task force is really Joint Special Operations Command, which was formed after the failure of the Iranian rescue mission in 1980. The Holloway Commission did a study of that mission and concluded that we needed a standing organization to bring together elite units so that they would be available for the most difficult missions – hijackings, hostage rescues and other very specific operations. And of course, as most people know, over the last 40 years, but particularly over the last 15, most of the high profile operations that you have heard about, the killing of Osama bin Laden, recently Abu Sayyaf and the rescue of Captain Phillips, for example, were all forces under that organization.
HH: So you took command of it in October of 2003, I believe, and kept it until 2008?
SM: That’s correct, just under five years.
HH: So that’s an extraordinary amount of time to be operating at that level of what you call battle rhythm, what the military calls battle rhythm. I’m a total civilian. We assume most of our audience are civilians. So talk a little bit about what the battle rhythm pace was like inside of the task force for those five years.
SM: Certainly. I took over, of course, six months after the war in Iraq had begun, and we had forces not only in Iraq but spread across the region, actually in 27 countries, and some in very small numbers. And our mission was against al Qaeda. And the biggest chunk of that mission starting in 2003 was al Qaeda in Iraq, which really rose to prominence at the end of 2003 and early 2004. Our initial mission was to go after what we called HVT’s, or high value targets, that’s personalities. Originally in Iraq, that was Saddam Hussein and the deck of cards that we’ll remember, and we quickly concluded, and we captured Saddam Hussein in December of 2003. But we quickly concluded they weren’t the core of the problem. The core of the problem was this network under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist leader that had metastasized into a much larger network. So what our force would do was try to dismantle that network. We started by going after HVT’s, but we quickly realized we had to dismantle the wider network, because they weren’t dependent. So essentially, we fought every night. When I first took command, we were doing about four raids a month, or one a week, and we would take time to develop intelligence, rehearse the force, execute, and then try to digest it. By about two and a half years later, we were up to 300 raids a month or ten a night. And so for the force, it meant that most of the force fought every night. And so we would do the majority of operations at night, and then most of the force would go to bed about dawn. I would go to bed about dawn, wake up mid-morning, and then we’d spend that afternoon maturing intelligence, collecting, cross-leveling, making decisions on priorities, and then start to execute for that night. And then of course, there was a percentage of operations, because of emerging opportunities, that came during the day.
HH: You know, what I take away, and I’m trying to not resort to my outline at the beginning just so I go with what most resonated with me is that you increased the operational effectiveness 17 times with very minimal increases of personnel and forces simply by changing procedures. You increased 17 times the operational effectiveness of the task force. Is that right?
SM: I wouldn’t give myself credit. I’d say we as an organization did that. What we eseentially did Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist leader that had metastasized into a much larger network. So what our force would do was try to dismantle that network. We started by going after HVT’s, but we quickly realized we had to dismantle the wider network, because they weren’t dependent. So essentially, we fought every night. When I first took command, we were doing about four raids a month, or one a week, and we would take time to develop intelligence, rehearse the force, execute, and then try to digest it. By about two and a half years later, we were up to 300 raids a month or ten a night. And so for the force, it meant that most of the force fought every night. And so we would do the majority of operations at night, and then most of the force would go to bed about dawn. I would go to bed about dawn, wake up mid-morning, and then we’d spend that afternoon maturing intelligence, collecting, cross-leveling, making decisions on priorities, and then start to execute for that night. And then of course, there was a percentage of operations, because of emerging opportunities, that came during the day.
HH: You know, what I take away, and I’m trying to not resort to my outline at the beginning just so I go with what most resonated with me is that you increased the operational effectiveness 17 times with very minimal increases of personnel and forces simply by changing procedures. You increased 17 times the operational effectiveness of the task force. Is that right?
SM: I wouldn’t give myself credit. I’d say we as an organization did that. What we essentially did was we took a really good set of teams already very elite, very well-trained, but they were part of a traditional hierarchy where information starts at the bottom, goes to the top, decisions are made, and then they mechanically come down. We’re all part of one of those, typically, and we changed it so that it was a more flat network where we share information across. And then instead of decisions being made up at a typically higher level, they were made near the point of action. And so by giving information across the organization, which we called shared consciousness, we then empowered them to execute. And we didn’t just empower, we expected them to execute.
HH: Eyes on, hands off.
HH: Can you explain eyes on, hands off?
SM: Yeah, it means that when you give power or authority, freedom of action down to elements lower, it doesn’t mean your job’s over. You don’t go to the golf club or, you know, don’t go home. What you do is you watch everything. And your mission as the leader is to create an ecosystem where information flows, resources are provided, leaders are nurtured and developed. But within that, you don’t mess with it unless there’s something wrong that needs tweaking. Instead, your eyes are on constantly, you are surrounded by the information as I described. You marinate in it, but you don’t mess with it, because in most cases, you’re not value added.
HH: You made that very clear that when they were waking you up to call in drone strikes, you were actually slowing the process down, and that it was very difficult for you as an individual who likes control, I think you wrote in your memoir I loved command, to let go and let your subordinates do their jobs.
SM: Well, that’s exactly right, and most of us want to feel relevant. And if people come to you and ask the great person for a decision, you feel like you’re doing your job. And what I found was it may make me feel good, but I wasn’t adding to the value of that decision, and in many cases, I was slowing them from execution without any real advantage to it. So you have to let go.
HH: Now Team of Teams is not unlike a Harvard Business School collection of case studies. You’ve got United Flight 173 bad, the Ford makeover good, the GM recall bad, Ritz Carlton good, Nordstrom good. There’s lots through here. But will business leaders even open themselves to listen to you? I know Crosslead’s been at a lot of places, but do they reject, no, Stan McChrystal is one of a kind, that’s Special Forces, that’s not going to work at Arby’s, or I’m just calling that out. I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything with Arby’s. But what do you get from them?
SM: Hugh, it’s a great point, and it’s a question we asked ourselves. One, they’re very open to hearing our story. And the interesting thing about our story is we don’t come at this from people who studied the problem and then have a theory. We executed this, and we did it by intuition. We did it by rapid iterative correction, and then we studied it after the fact. And the question was, was what we went through this unique one-off event, or was it a universal reflection of changed environment in the world that’s affecting all organizations? And that’s the conclusion we came to. So what we do is we weave the story we experienced, and the conclusions we drive from those, with all these case studies to show that in fact the crossover is incredibly high.
HH: Now we’ll come back to the business world, but in this first segment, I want to ask the question I’m sure most of the audience has. Stanley McChrystal looking at what is going on, it appears that al Qaeda in Iraq now organized as the Islamic State or al Nusra in other places has increased their battle rhythm exponentially even as we’ve withdrawn from the field. Have you seen that from afar? Do you think they’re getting faster than they even were then? And by the way, kudos on the opening head fake second chapter in Team of Teams.
SM: Well Hugh, that’s exactly the conclusion I derive. What happened with al Qaeda in Iraq is they became a 21st Century organization not by intent, they just happened to grow during that period, and so they leveraged these. ISIS, I think, is a 21st Century manifestation of information technology. Think about their agility on the battlefield, and we see what they do, but think about how many people they influence every day with their information operations. They reach about 100 million people a day through various things. They only have recruit a tiny percentage of those to have a real impact.
HH: Do you think al-Baghdadi is as malevolent and as capable a character as al-Zarqawi, whom you hunted down and killed?
SM: Zarqawi was very good, and I’m not convinced that al-Baghdadi is. It seems to me he is more of an iconic figure. But he doesn’t have to run this thing. He doesn’t have to micromanage it. What he does is create the idea, create the environment, and then they operate in a very decentralized, rapid way that makes him very resilient.
HH: So how concerned are you, General McChrystal? Your former Defense Secretary, Rumsfeld, has been in this chair a few times, said it’s the unknown unknowns that scare him. one of the unknown unknowns that we’re dealing right now with the Islamic State and the threat they pose?
SM: Yeah, I think the Islamic State is a threat that has to be taken seriously. But I think more broadly and more disturbingly, they’re a symptom. This is an organization with an unacceptable ideology, abhorrent behavior. They’re really not resonating with the vast majority of people in the region, but they’re holding terrain, they’re making progress, they’re frightening people, and that shouldn’t happen. It really, to me, symbolizes the incredible weakness of the Mid-East right now, and the weakness of developing a coalition. In better days, an organization like this ought to have a very short life, and it ought to be crushed quickly.
HH: But do you think that the longer they go, is there an exponential diggedness, that they get deeper by the amount of time and space they are allowed to contain?
SM: Yeah, I think I grew up playing basketball, and my father used to teach me if you let a team not as good as you stay with you in the game until the 3rd or 4th quarter, they’ll jump up and beat you. And what’s happening in places in the region, and what worries me is the longer they’re in Mosul, the more they get the population to have to accept it.
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HH: I’m playing the theme from The Great Escape, General McChrystal, because in your memoir, My Share of the Task, which is also linked at Hughhewitt.com, you said your colleagues at West Point would compare you to Virgil Hilts occasionally. That’s the character played by Steve McQueen in the 1963 movie. You walked a lot of hours of punishment.
SM: I did. I had some discipline issues my first two years at West Point, and unlike some people who can do that and not get caught, I did that, and the percentage, too big a percentage of the time, I got caught.
HH: 127 hours of slugs?
SM: That is walking tours of the area back and forth with a rifle in your theoretically would-be free time, and then also confinement. I had actually months of what they called special confinement, which was later declared unconstitutional.
HH: Oh, well, there you go. I’ve got to ask you, I made a note at the top of this, because I didn’t want to forget. There’s so many lessons in Team of Teams and in My Share of the Task. The one that I wanted to make sure people heard was about General Luck in the rain. And I would like you to tell that story so that you can communicate how leaders lead.
SM: Yeah, it’s amazing. Leaders don’t have to give big speeches, and they don’t have to throw themselves on hand grenades. We were, I was in 3rd Ranger Battalion, and I was a major. And we were going to change command. And that usually is a ceremony outside. Sometimes, it’s moved inside if the weather is very bad. But it was a cold, rainy day at Fort Benning, Georgia, March, I think, and they formed the battalion out on the parade field, which is in front of what they called Building 4, the Infantry School. And we’re standing outside in this drizzling rain, and of course, it being the Army, you go out there about 45 minutes early and you stand and wait. And because it’s raining, people who came to watch the ceremony are all waiting in the building until the last minute except one man. As we stood in the rain, one individual walked out and sat in the front of the bleachers and no raincoat, no anything. He just sat and looked at us. And it was General Gary Luck, who was the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, our higher headquarters. And I remember that somebody sent a young private out of the private with an umbrella, and ran out and then stood behind General Luck and held this umbrella over him. And General Luck, of course, in a moment just looked at him and said, “Son, no,” and sent the young man away. And it was extraordinary, because for about 30 minutes, a two-star general connected with 500 Rangers without saying a word, without doing a thing, just sent an unspoken message to us that was incredibly powerful about what leaders do.
HH: You know, my later mother-in-law’s first husband was the skipper of a destroyer in World World II which was kamikazied and went down. So when a ship was commissioned for him, the crew members came who had survived, and it was decommissioned 20 years later. They’re old men. They came and they sat in the rain in San Diego through the whole thing. They were old men, same thing, and when I read that Luck story, I said that’s incredible. The second leader lesson you had here, General Vines, encouraging you off to the side to disagree with him in front of the rest of the command. Can you explain his thinking and why it worked?
SM: Well, it was a great story, because John Vines, he had first hired me for the Rangers when he was a major, and so we’d known each other. And when he became the commander of the 82nd Airborne division, he asked me to be one of his two deputy commanders, and I was happy to do that. But he wanted to ensure he created an environment in the staff and senior leaders where people would disagree with him publicly. And so he came to me one afternoon, and he said, “Stan, I want you to publicly disagree with me.” And I said well, sir, I don’t disagree with you. He says, “No, I want you to find something so that they know our relationship, people will know that it’s not only accepted, it’s what I want.” So we did that, and it was about a week later, and we went into the meeting, and he said we’re going to do this kind of machine gun training, and I remembered what he’d said, and I said, and probably didn’t say it well, I said no, I think that’s stupid. There’s no way we should do that. And he looked at me, and I could tell for a second, he’d forgotten.
HH: He forgot (laughing)
SM: (laughing) And then quickly it came into his eyes, and it was great. But it’s a great story, and we laugh about it now.
HH: And you had so many great colleagues, including Staff Sergeant Swackhammer, your Ranger instructor. That is a Dickensian name. They stick with you. So the leadership lessons come from all ranks, and at all times in your career. Could you summarize your career for the audience so that they can, when we go back now to the lessons of Team of Teams, understand how long you were in the military, and what variety of positions you served?
SM: Sure, I was very lucky. My father was a soldier and an infantryman, and my father’s father was a soldier and infantryman. And so when I grew up, that was the model. I used to joke with my dad, he took me to see the movie, The Longest Day, so I wanted to be a paratrooper. But why didn’t he take me to the movie, Wall Street? It could have been very different. But what, I began out of West Point and went to the 82nd Airborne Division and became a platoon leader, and that’s the first job where you get 20-40 young paratroopers, this is the 1970s Army, and it really is a wakeup call at what a leader does. And I remember a great night when I had taken the platoon to do a live fire, and we went to this location, and I was a hard-ass, because I knew what you should do, and I made them dig big mortar pits where you put the mortars down like foxholes for a mortar. And it takes several hours to do that, and it was cold and it started to rain. And then when we were going to finally be done and we were going to start live firing, I found out that I had taken them to the wrong point on the ground. And so range control, which controlled that, said no, you can’t fire. So I went to range control to try to plead with them so this young lieutenant wouldn’t be humiliated by having to move after we’d dug in, and of course, they weren’t doing it. So we went to another location, had to move. First, we had to fill in the holes, and now we’re completely covered with mud, go to this new location, and then you have this difficult time. You said the standard was digging in. Are you going to do it again, even though it was completely my fault? And we did. I had them dig in again, and of course, I dug with him. But it was one of the great lessons. And they were wonderful. They would, young soldiers, and even old soldiers, they will tolerate you not being as good a leader as you should be. They’ll tolerate you not knowing things. What they won’t tolerate you is not being the leader you claim to be.
HH: Very interesting. I don’t remember if this is from Team of Teams or from My Share of the Task, but you had an old staff sergeant who was out of shape, had been injured, who held back. You screwed up a requisition, but he waited to see what kind of a leader you were before he either helped you out or sent you down the river, right?
SM: He’s an amazing guy. He was our supply sergeant. He had been an infantryman of really incredible capability, but he’d shattered his leg on a parachute jump, and so now he could only wear low quarter, like dress shoes with his fatigues, and he’d gotten heavy, and he occasionally drank. But he was a wonderful supply sergeant taking care of guys. So what he did was I’d been in the company about three or four months, and he brought me down, and he showed me where I had signed for some equipment, and I’d signed in the wrong place. And what that had done is it had left it open so he could have put anything in the quantities. And he brought me down, and he put his arm around me, and he says no, Lt. Mac, I want to show you something. I’m going to teach you something. And he says you did this, and I could have done whatever. Now I was waiting to see whether you were a good officer. And I’ve decided that you are, and so I’m going to take care of you and teach that. But you’ve got to learn from this, and it was one of those times where somebody almost a father-like mentorship from someone two or three ranks below me. And I learned an awful lot about the values of the force that way.
HH: You know, there’s a lot about leadership at the end of your memoir, My Share of the Task, but leadership is all about Team of Teams. Did you think you were reduplicating? Or had you learned more from the time you wrote the memoir to the time you wrote Team of Teams, and you wanted to reorganize your thinking?
HH: Hold on. I timed that badly. That was my fault. That’s like your first mortar pit. I’ll be right back with General Stanley McChrystal.
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HH: General McChrystal, when we went to the break, I was asking you that you wrote the memoir, My Share of the Task, and then a couple of years later, Team of Teams, leadership at the end of the former, leadership throughout all of the latter. Did anything change in between those four years that you learned and picked up?
SM: Well, I learned a lot, but when I wrote my memoir, I was trying to write a history book, and I was trying to capture something. And our goal, we used Field Marshal Slim’s memoirs, and Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs as the model. And I wanted to write something that would be read 20 years from now at West Point not something that would be in the political argument about who’s good. And so that was the goal. Whether we reached it or not is the question. But as we wrote it, that the most interesting part of the story became this changed environment that caused us to transform Joint Special Operations Command, which also transformed my thinking about leadership, particularly in today’s environment. So when we finished that, I realized I really wanted to study further on that, and we created this organization that I’m proud to be a part of now that does that with civilian firms. And we studied the question of the new environment, its impact on how organizations must operate, and how leaders must interact there. And so Team of Teams is a manifestation of that.
HH: Oh, you hit your mark. Let me ask you, though, would you ever come out of retirement if asked, like General Schoomaker did?
SM: I have no anticipation of ever being asked something like that, so I never think about it.
HH: But if it happened?
SM: It’s hard to say no to the nation if the nation needs you, but I don’t sit by a phone.
HH: Now this obviously has engaged your energy a great deal, and I think you’re going to find yourself in extraordinary demand. My friend, Rorke Denver, who is a Navy SEAL, wrote a book about this. He’s in demand everywhere. There’s a lot about the SEALs in Team of Teams. There’s a lot about the Rangers. This culture of excellence, of constant improvement, and of changing the silos in great demand, but it seems like when I was coming out of college, the military was way behind everyone. You were a young officer. I’m class of ’78, and you’re a few years older than me. But now, the military is way ahead. Am I right about that?
SM: It’s way ahead in parts. In parts of the military, it’s still a big bureaucracy, and it’s still got all the challenges of being a government because of laws and limitations. So I wouldn’t claim that all the military has changed, but there’s a lot of great thinking in the military. And if you think about it, we’ve been at war for almost 15 years. And the thing about war traditionally was the United States, you go to war about once a generation. And so you learn some lessons, and you spend the inter-war period trying to learn from the past lessons and interpolate that for the future. And we almost never get it right. We fought for 15 years straight, and we still are, almost every night.
HH: Is there any place in the Pentagon that is thinking about the impact of a 15 year war? The legions would deploy for decades, sometimes. They never came home, sometimes, as you know, because I can tell that you read Roman history from what you write. Have we even begun to think about the impact on our military of this long kind of war?
SM: I know that there are people thinking about it. I don’t think systemically we quite appreciate that, yet, because we are creating a different mindset in the force. We haven’t had a draft for two generations now. And so as a consequence, it’s a very professional force, which is good. It has the danger of being an insulated force, which is more problematic.
HH: Now last week, I had Mike Morell in talking about his book, and I asked him why we didn’t have a Manhattan-like project, Manhattan Project-like effort on anti-jihadism. And we haven’t done that, and I talked to Secretary Rumsfeld about this as well when he was Secretary of Defense. What’s wrong with us? We’re not thinking about this strategically, are we?
SM: I think that would be a great idea. You know, we used to talk about the counter-IED program, and we actually created JIADO, which was Manhattan Project-lite to go after that project. But I think jihadism and the idea that is radicalizing so many young Muslims is the much greater threat. Improvised explosive devices are just a tactic. I think we have got to send more people ot language school. We’ve got to get people with the cultural acuity that can really begin to come to grips with this. When we oversimplify, there’s a problem. When we say why would anybody join ISIS, look at the terrible things they do, we are losing the ability to empathize with the perspective that many people actually have.
HH: There are also tactics in Team of Teams. The lynchpin liaison officer, which I carry with me as useful in a media environment, one of them, have those continued post-Stanley McChrystal’s tenure at the task force?
SM: They have, and they’re an incredible organization now. In fact, most of the lessons learned, and of course, the people running that, many of them were present during this whole period, because they tend to stay there a long time. So it’s in pretty good shape.
HH: Are you comfortable with the attrition rate from the military’s senior ranks right now? It seems to me that they’re downsizing and losing a lot of talent.
SM: I think that’s probably always true. And if you look at any period of time, people will wring their hands and say that all the good people are leaving. And I know a lot of good people there, so I think it’s probably okay.
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HH: General McChrystal, as I read this, I thought to myself about some of the people who are going to be reading it in Iran, your opponents in the Quds Forces. Are they as capable as our task force people are? Do you think the Iranians have this kind of adaptability that you’re talking about?
SM: I think that they do. They’re not as capable as we are in some of the technical systems. They’re not probably as well-trained in some of the small teams. But they have this extraordinary advantage of proximity. And I don’t mean physical proximity, I mean cultural proximity. They put people inside Iraq. They put people inside Syria. They allow their force to get close enough to have a really good feel for it. Of course, the leader, Soleimani, he’s around the battlefield, and he’s become an iconic, heroic figure, because he’s there and engaged.
HH: He’s near Mosul, right? I mean, he’s been up on the front lines of Mosul.
SM: He absolutely has, and that kind of very focused leadership resonates in the region, and it really resonates everywhere. So in reality, they are a very worthy foe.
HH: In terms of the people on the other side of the Islamic State and the people on the third side, Bashar Assad, do they play in the same league when it comes to competence and tactics? Are they evolving as fast as the Quds Force?
SM: Well, I think Bashar al-Assad’s army is clearly not, and of course, they’re trying to protect a status quo. I think they’ve certainly survived a lot longer than we predicted three years ago. ISIS is different. I think ISIS is probably nothing compared to an organized military on paper. But if you look at it, they made retaking Tikrit a challenge. They have made retaking Mosul a challenge, and Ramadi the same. So they have this ability to be fluid and flow like water to create this panic among their enemies through the use of big, vehicle-born suicide bombs, the use of information. So they have different strengths. And from what it looks like, they don’t play to their weaknesses. They play to their strengths, and they try to ignore their weaknesses. And that’s an interesting and effective technique.
HH: I’m wondering as well about our other opponents in the world. I have on my map the leadership structure of the People’s Republic of China, because I don’t know it very well, and I’m trying to learn it. And Xi Jinping, he’s their new Deng Xiaoping. We have Putin that former Governor Bush is talking about in the last few days. I’m pretty sure Team of Teams is being translated into Chinese and Russian. What are their capabilities of adaptability and evolution?
SM: Well, I think the Chinese first are, they start with this growing economic power, which gives them a launch point to do things, to build aircraft carriers, to build cyber capacity. They’ve been spending an awful lot of money on their military now. They are not very overtly poking us in the eye around the world, in my view. What they are doing is raising the bar to the point where for the United States or even a coalition to shape China’s behavior either through containment or through threat, they’re raising the bar high enough where it’s going to be very difficult to do that, anti-ship missiles and other capabilities. So suddenly, they’re not in a position of being pushed around. I don’t think that they are posturing themselves, yet, for a confrontation, and they may never. I certainly wouldn’t claim to say that that’s their angle, but they want to be the middle kingdom. I mean, they had 200 bad years, but if you look at the sweep of history, that’s a pretty short period.
SM: And so I think that they are developing capabilities that are going to make them international when they want to be, and regional already.
HH: Now they’re building things like artificial atolls, and they’re developing an attack submarine force, and they’re doing all these different things. Have the pivot, can we afford a pivot at the time when we have ISIS, and at the same time, the Baltics under stress?
SM: That is the challenge of being the United States of America. The answer, we cannot pivot, because we can’t turn our back on anything. We certainly can’t turn our back on the Middle East now. It’s just too important for the world, and it certainly is such a tumultuous period. I do think we are going to have to build better capabilities in Asia. Now the Asian countries are spending a lot of money on their defense. Our allies and others are spending money, they’re building capability. That’s a good thing. And if we can build good partnerships there, that can be a good balance.
HH: Do you see a Team of Teams-like adaptability in speed? And I keep coming back to this. This is what I took away from Team of Teams. And in hour two, we’ll talk about some of the specifics of the task force. In our allies, whether it’s Japan or Australia, or NATO allies, do you see the same kind of adaptabilities? Or are they just letting us do all the work in leading and innovation?
SM: Well, there’s always a danger, because if you look at many of our allies, they underspend on defense generally, and so they don’t have the capacity. And then they underspend on things like innovation, high technology. If you try to form a coalition between forces of very different levels of technology, suddenly your airplanes can’t fly together. Your intelligence systems can’t connect. Precision weapons can’t be used across the board. And that gives you the haves are very capable, and the have nots are not nearly as effective, because we just don’t need a lot of spear carriers anymore. What we need are very highly-trained, technologically-equipped forces.
HH: That brings me to the other question. You spend a lot of time talking about the SEALs, and boy, there are going to be a lot of people in the Ranger world that’s going to say General McChrystal really talked a lot about the SEALs in this book. Have you heard that already?
SM: I have.
HH: And you said with a lot of compliments of the Rangers and the other Special Operators that the SEALs really have this down. How many, why not just produce a military of SEALs and Rangers, because that’s what you really come down to at the end of this thing.
SM: Well, it’s very interesting. First off, when we talk about solve the problems of the world with Special Operating Forces, I remind people it’s special. They were designed for unique missions, not for every mission. It doesn’t say better forces. It says special forces, and so they’ve not niche things that we have to create these wonderful capabilities. What they have done very well is they’ve gone to school through experience and study on what it takes to select really good people, and what it takes to forge them into small teams. They understand that there is a commitment that is awakened in people when you push them hard physically, when you push them hard [mentally], and that there is a bonding experience, a trust in common purpose, that builds sinews across small teams, usually through shared experience. Now they don’t have to go through the experience together. But if one SEAL meets another SEAL, as soon as they see him, or one guy sees a Ranger tab on another guy’s arm, you know what they went through, and you have a common basis for trust coming out the gate. The challenge is, although you can create these wonderful small teams, and we almost have it to a science, scaling that becomes hard, because the small teams by definition become a bit tribal and insular.
HH: We’ll talk about that when we come back with General Stanley McChrystal.
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HH: When we left the break, General McChrystal, we were talking about the BUDS. And there’s a lot about the SEAL training in your book, and Ranger training. Few tasks are tackled alone. Physical hardship of BUDS is tests not of strength but of commitment. I love the fact that Coleman Ruiz says the people who quit, it isn’t because they can’t keep up, because they’re letting people down, and I especially like the talk about flipping the boat. And your task force was flipping the boat too much. Would you explain that concept?
SM: Well, exactly. If a team doesn’t work together, what happens is the boat capsizes. And you’re obviously not going to get the mission accomplished while you’re trying to pull the boat back in order again. So teamwork becomes everything, your contribution to the overall task. Your batting average is irrelevant. Whether the team scores runs and wins games is what matters. And as Coleman pointed out, as you look at building that kind of a team, individual capability is important to a point. There’s an entry level intelligence you need, an entry level physical capacity. But there’s no requirement that’s beyond that which really an average person can do. The difference, it becomes commitment, whether you are willing to do it, whether you’re willing to put up with the privation, whether you’re willing to put up with all of the things that test you and stay with it. And the vast majority of people self-select out of Special Operating Forces. And those who stay have this common bond of commitment. It bonds them to each other, and it also bonds them to the mission.
HH: When you were building a task force, it’s fascinating to me, you didn’t use your office much. You had a big table, you had empty chairs there, you were hoping to fill them. When someone would sit down in those chairs, how long would it take Stan McChrystal to figure out whether that person had the commitment to the team that you wanted for the task force to succeed?
SM: Yeah, it’s a great question, because you’re looking for overt behavior, and you’re looking for less obvious behavior. People can sit in meetings, they can nod, they can agree to things and what not, and then of course, you see them go back to their organization, and their organization doesn’t respond the way you expect, or they’re not completely in. So it takes a little while, and I’m not one of those people with that God-given ability to look in somebody’s eyes and immediately know, but you figure it pretty quickly. We had radical transparency in the organization, so every day we did a big video teleconference.
HH: Yeah, 7,000 people. I’ve got to talk to you about that, because that boggles my mind.
SM: Yeah, What that does is not only does it pass amazing information, it passes, shares culture, and it also identifies behavior pretty quickly, because you’re seeing everybody much more than you would, you’re passing performance, you’re seeing overt behavior. Suddenly, those people who are committed are obvious, and those people who are not committed become even more obvious.
HH: But the risk, I mean, I know you deal, in Team of Teams, you deal with it overtly, specifically, directly. There is a risk associated with 7,000 people on a two-hour conference call dealing with top secret information and operational readiness. I just, I found it astonishing that you had the capacity for risk. We’ll talk about it next hour.
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HH: One of them, General McChrystal, going back to last hour, is that to identify a leader, they come in all shapes and different sizes, but sometimes you’ve got to be careful. You write in your memoir figures who had learned to leverage superficial gifts so effectively that they appeared to be better leaders than they were. I wonder if that isn’t the problem of our time.
SM: Well, I think our time allows that, because if you think about it, if you dress well, you’ve got straight teeth, you stand up straight and you’re pretty glib, you can get on TV. And you can reach people. And if you can sound somewhat compelling, you can say things that are really not all that smart, or you can just repeat what others are saying. And the danger is we confuse that with leadership. And so I think that if we could peel away and see what’s readily inside people, and what tough decisions they make, what commitments they stand to, how they can actually inspire or lead others, that’s a little harder to see. It’s not as evident.
HH: Same problem exists in the corporate sector. I’m sure when boards of directors are trying to hire the best CEO possible, they get all sorts of resumes, and they get the good smile or the fine set of achievements, and then it just doesn’t work in practice.
SM: Well, that’s exactly right. I talked to an investor one time who I’ve become friends with, and I said when you are looking to invest in a company, do you go sit down with a CEO, and he says oh, Lord, no, because CEOs have developed this ability to sit down and articulate sort of glibly and what not, and they’re very impressive. He says that can become like a narcotic and you start to take it and believe it. He’d much rather look at certain other indicators from the organization, and after he gets a sense of what’s really happening, then he can go back and ask very specific questions. So I think that’s very true.
HH: Now Team of Teams, taking the lessons of this, I want to go back to the room in which you operated, which I mentioned last hour. You erected a huge conference room, you had a huge teleconference, 7,000 people finally, I believe, is the number, could participate. And you talk about the danger of Wikileaks, which happened, but you say in the end, the advantages of transparency outweigh the almost certain compromise of that security at some point. Why?
SM: Yeah, that’s exactly right. What we did was across a number of locations, probably 76-80 different locations, we had all of these little centers set up, and some would be one person, some would be 200. And there’s video teleconference. And you’re passing top secret information. And you’re passing it around. The first thing to understand is to get the job done, people have to know what’s happening. They don’t have to know just what’s in their narrow lane, but because we’re fighting an enemy network which stretches wide and has connections, you have to see it holistically to have contextual understanding. So what we did was we said we’re going to pass that information. Now in the first case, a lot of intelligence is temporal…
HH: You say like vegetables, they age after a couple of days, or fruit, yeah.
SM: Exactly. So somebody could hear us talking about something, but if they didn’t, couldn’t act on it that day, it doesn’t matter. We’re coming, and they can’t do it. Other information is not. And so you do accept a risk. So part of it is there’s adult rules come in. You’ve got to live, but you can never be sure of 7,000 or 8,000 people everybody having the kind of maturity not to spread information. So you accept some risk. We didn’t talk about everything. There were certain intelligence sources, and we wouldn’t talk about internal personnel issues. But the rest of it, we decided to accept risk, because we thought the risk of not sharing information was greater. In fact, if you go back and read the 9/11 Commission report, all the pieces of intelligence necessary to stop the attack were present in the U.S. government. We just couldn’t connect the dots.
HH: But you know, General McChrystal, when I read this, the Rolling Stone article which cost you your command, I thought, was a consequence of the transparency that you developed. And the entry into the ecosystem of someone who had an agenda, who’s now deceased, but had an agenda that was not actually reporting like John Fisher Burns or Dexter Filkins or Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the good war reporters. Am I right about that?
SM: Well, I think that is correct, and certainly, you know, I can come back and criticize myself and say we didn’t vet that individual well enough. But the reality is I believe in transparency, and in the period in which I served, I accomplished more by being transparent than I would have by creating a defensive wall around myself and my organization and not being. There’s a certain cost of doing business, and occasionally, risks will rise and that’ll happen.
HH: You know, General Mattis had a chief of staff, Clark Lethin, who’s a friend of mine, told me you civilians never think about second order consequences, and the second order consequence of that article was that the military would naturally try and shut out the media again. I mean, it really damaged people in my business badly, because it burned you so badly. Am I correct in that?
SM: There’s certainly a temptation for military to protect themselves more. Like after Vietnam, there was this mindset in the military, keep the media at arm’s length. We had made a lot of progress in that, and anytime something happens like this, it can create that dynamic. And I think it’s, and I always counsel people, I say don’t look at what happened to me and draw that conclusion. If you’re going to be effective, you’re going to have to pass information. You’re going to have to pass it to the media and to people, and that’s just the risk going with the business.
HH: The other most impactful anecdote in here, other than your own story, is that of Captain McBroom, who was in charge of United 173. Would you tell people about him?
SM: Sure, in 1978, United Flight 173 took off from New York and went to Denver. And then it took off from Denver and went to Portland, Oregon. And during that second leg of the flight, what happened was they got an indication light that said one of the landing gear as they had gone down may have had a problem and not locked into position. And they heard a slight thud, but they couldn’t verify whether in fact the landing gear were down or not. So they went through about an hour and fifteen minutes, from 5:00 in the afternoon until 6:15 in the afternoon circling in the vicinity of the Portland airport trying to mitigate this problem. And they called down to people on the ground, they talked to technical experts. They went back and talked to the passengers. They did all of these things to get ready. In this small cockpit, and with the in-flight crew passing information and doing it, and at the end of the time, they ran out of fuel and crashed, and ten people were killed.
HH: Because he lost track of the fuel gauge.
SM: The plane was flyable, he was an experienced pilot. The flight engineer, who was tragically one of those killed, had been reminding hey, we have a fuel issue here. But in the small confines of the cockpit, that information just didn’t get passed effectively. It didn’t get into Captain McBroom, and he didn’t take the appropriate action, which was to land the plane, which he could have done. And there were no villains here. There was no evil person. It was a failure of interaction of a small team that you would think would be absolutely welded to each other, but it just wasn’t effective.
HH: And that, there are some categories of problem sets in Team of Teams. One of them is a leader losing sight of a critical piece of data. Another is inoperability across silos. Which is more common in the private sector, do you think?
SM: Well, I think they’re related. I think that the second, inoperability across silos is what we see most often. The leader is typically a pretty competent person, but what happens is if…
HH: Hold that thought, General, we’ll come right back. Inoperability across systems when we return with General Stanley McChrystal.
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HH: Inoperability across systems and divisions, General McChrystal, what’s that mean to someone who’s driving around out there and haven’t heard that before?
SM: Yeah, if you look at any organization that has to create something together, typically it’s been broken down probably for 150 years into the pieces. I’ll build the wheels, you build the axle, you build the trunk, and we’ll bring it all and we’ll bolt this thing together, and it’ll work. And the problem is, it doesn’t. What we’ve learned is if you try to just cobble pieces together, there are holes don’t line up, things aren’t balanced and what not. And so a leader in today’s world, if things were slow enough, and if they were simple enough, a leader could get all the information, and that leader could put all those pieces together and make a sage decision. The problem is the speed at which we move now and the complexity means that no single individual can do it. It can’t come fast enough. So what has to happen is the silos that are inside an organization have got to be broken down. Everyone in the organization has got to see the whole. They’ve got to see the problem in its entirety so that what they do has contextual relevance. So how they operate, then you’re really harnessing at that point the brains of everybody.
HH: Everybody gets their brains out of the foot locker.
HH: The opposite of what your dad said. Now I heard a young SEAL officer give the equivalent of a Ted talk, saying after every operation, they do a hot wash of their operation, in which the junior man goes first so that there is…did you develop that culture as well at the task force? Do you believe in that?
SM: We absolutely did it. It actually started during World War II with a Brigadier General, S.L.A. Marshall, and what they would do is they would go to companies that had been in a firefight, and they would study it, and they would find that everybody’s recollection was different, because everybody saw their perspective. And so the official report written by the captain would be flawed. And when they studied all the pieces, they found all kinds of realities that only a small percentage of the force actually fought. A lot of people would go along. It wasn’t that they were cowards, they just didn’t fight, because they weren’t connected into the whole well enough. We would do after action reviews, and afterward, and you’re exactly right, you start with the junior person, because if you start with a senior person, their opinions influence the junior people. So you go in reverse order. And you try to deconstruct what happened with an emphasis on what was wrong. Now you do talk about this was good and we’ve got to sustain it, we’ll say, but the real emphasis is saying this happened, this is what I knew, this is what I did, and this is what happened, and it didn’t come out well, what do we do about that. And I have seen hot washes, we call them, or after action reviews, get violent. I’ve seen screaming and emotion between people who are very close friends, and I didn’t think it was a bad thing. I actually thought it was a good thing, because you’re instead of walking away after an operation bottling up frustrations or pretending that there weren’t problems, pretending that it was just some act of fate, random, black swan, instead if you peel that open, you’ll find all kinds of challenges. One of the things that you find when you study aircraft crashes is, as we did for the book, and I’m the chairman of the safety committee on the JetBlue Airlines, I’m on the board, when you study…
HH: I’m feeling better about flying JetBlue right now. I already love the airline, so okay.
SM: Absolutely. And what you learn is it’s never one big problem. It’s never just the wing breaks and falls, I mean, it’s occasionally that, but 90% of the time, it’s a series of things that happen, sometimes over time. The crews or an organization stopped checking something, or they start taking shortcuts, and that is known inside the organization. And then suddenly when something bad happens, you’ll find this combination of factors that have all come together to create the actual problem. And so in the military, what we had to do was tear this apart, so we got at many of those as we could.
HH: How do you avoid the problem of over-empowering the diva, the person who is, again, I’m going back to this, I wrote it down. “The figures who learned to leverage superficial gifts so effectively that they…” you know, the person who abuses the hot wash process by being a drama king?
SM: Yeah, we found it kind of fixed itself. We did this, I’ll go back to our big video teleconference every day with 7.500 people. You’re on it every day. As the commander, I’m on it every day. So I couldn’t look or be my best every day for five years. I could act smart on one day, but over time, people could figure out whether I was smart or whether I wasn’t, because you just, a lot of transparency gives people to triangulate what reality is. And so we found that works.
HH: Let’s pause on that. A lot of transparency allows people to triangulate reality. That is so true, right? That’s why CEOs should be out of their office.
SM: Exactly, it makes you a better leader, because it makes you make the reality better, because you can’t just get your tie straight, comb your hair, come out and B.S. them for a few minutes.
HH: And did you, what’s that? Okay, I’ll be right back. I’m missing my breaks, I’m so engrossed talking to Stanley McChrystal.
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HH: And I want to talk about the chicken sandwich-fetching, trash taking out SEAL commander who you put into an embassy, because there’s a lot in that anecdote. You save it towards the end of Team of Teams. I want people to know they should read to the end for that reason.
SM: I’m a great believer that you have to connect organizations. And inside the U.S. government, the State Department, the intelligence agencies, they grow apart and they grow suspicious of each other. And there are blockages that stop them from cooperating as well as they should. And we wanted to put liaisons from my organization around the Mid-East so that we would have presence in the embassies so they’d be able to monitor intelligence, coordinate operations. And in some places, it was great reluctance. And I wanted to put an individual into the embassy in Sana’a, Yemen. And there was hesitation, but finally, they said okay, you can send this guy. And so we carefully selected a SEAL officer who’s got an extraordinary personality.
HH: It came across in the book, yeah.
SM: Absolutely. So we put him in, and he had just been fighting in Western Iraq. And so he is a warrior, he’s a Naval Academy graduate right near the top of his class, he is raw energy. But he also understands the big picture and has humility. So he went in, and they basically said okay, you’re here, we’re really not that excited to have you here, so sit over there and don’t touch anything. And so at the end of the workday, he just got up and started emptying trash cans and helped them carry the trash out. They didn’t give him anything else to do. They wouldn’t basically give him access. So he started helping do the trash, and he did that for about two weeks. And he also found that one of the people from an intelligence agency there liked chicken sandwiches from Chick-Fil-A. And so he arranged during one of our resupply flights that was going into Yemen to have a bag of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches delivered for this guy. Small point. And then about two or three weeks into it, they finally asked him, hey, can you deliver this over to the Yemeni military across town? And he said sure, I can. And then the conversation went probably a day later that says well, we’ve got a security-related problem. Do you have anything, and he says that’s what I do. And not only is that what I do, I am the point of this entire task force that’s ready to help you. Within about three months there, he had become a key member of the team, and our connection with that organization became rich and effective for the next years.
HH: So you had to force feed the initial connectedness and let it, as you say, leaders are gardeners now. They have to grow that connectedness. How often would it get weeded out?
SM: Well, constantly. I mean, I found that my job over time became not making decisions. When I first took command, I would decide on every operation, and we were only doing about one a week, and so that was probably doable. But as we sped up, a couple of things happened. One, we pushed execution decisions down, but it freed me to work this environment, to take the gardener role, to work on relationships, to spend time talking to either political leaders, other government leaders, to do the things that in the long run would get the resources, get us the access, the freedom of action that the organization needed to be effective, because at the end of the day, relationships define how much you can do.
HH: In the studio with us in an old warrior, a would-be warrior. There’s a warrior in the other room out there. You just mentioned something that civilians don’t quite think about with the military. He had this humility, this SEAL team commander had humility. What was that quality?
SM: Well, the quality to not think that when you walk into the room that you are the dominant personality or you are the most important person. Empathy is one of the critical things every leader has. And I really define empathy as the ability to get around the table, sit where the other person is, and see through their experience, see through their eyes. You know, sometimes military walk in, and we think we’re pretty neat people. And particularly if we’re in uniform, we’ve got medals and badges, and it can be a little intimidating. And intimidating can be the right word. That can be a barrier to discussion. And you can walk in and people can be in awe, but if they’re in awe, they’re not talking to you. You’re not really communicating. And so what we had to do was demonstrate humility so that people could feel as though there’s a real human connection.
HH: If there had been humility in GM at the time of the non-recall, do you think that fiasco, which you describe in detail, would have been avoided? If there had been humility, the willingness to say something is not right, you know, these people are saying their cars aren’t stopping.
SM: Yeah, if you think about that, because it went on, what, 13 years…
SM: …from the beginning of it to the time they actually ferreted out the problem. And the problem was a lack of communication. But the humility to say we have a big problem, and it may not be this simple, let’s open up, let’s try to figure it out, let’s listen to everybody, just like the U.S. government for 9/11, all the information was inside General Motors to connect the dots on that problem and to solve it.
HH: Now I want to close this segment, and we have a very short segment afterwards, General McChrystal, and I know you’ve got to head off to an airplane, the Perry Principle, which I knew about, I’m from Ohio, so I knew about the first Perry, and Commodore Perry goes off to Japan, and the Perry Principle, why don’t you explain what it is, how it came to dominate, and how we have to let it go.
SM: Right. The Perry Principle, we used that, we coined the term. Matthew Perry was sent to open Japan. And he basically was sent with a fleet of ships, the biggest the U.S. had ever sent forward, and he was given incredible latitude. Go see if you can open up Japan to foreign trade and interaction. And he went, and he used his initiative, and he accomplished that mission. Nobody micromanaged him, because they couldn’t. And then we compare that in the book to other cases which armies on land became a bit different, particularly when the telegraph and the railroad became available, because suddenly, you had the ability to more closely manage, and we’ll use the term micromanage, the movement of armies…
HH: Yeah, Grant’s orders to Meade were amazing, detailed.
SM: They were, and he was right with him. I mean, and so the requirement was, or it became under what we call the Perry Principle, I’m going to give people as much direction as I physically can, as my connections will allow. I’m going ot have the strings on the marionette as short as my capability is. And of course, what happens is you get marionettes. You get puppets. And we compare that to Perry, but also compare it to Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. He had created this fleet of entrepreneurs of battle, is the way he they described his ship’s captains. And they were given insights into his overall idea, they were given insights into what he wanted, and then he gave this extraordinary order that said no captain can do very wrong if he puts his ship alongside that of the enemy, meaning in the fight, he won’t try to micromanage the fight. They will win it by their individual initiative.
HH: And Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, but the French admiral said every admiral was a Nelson.
SM: That’s amazing. Nelson put together this fleet, and he was killed in the opening minutes of the battle. He was wounded, and then died during it. He had no effect on the conduct of the battle other than setting it up. And then all of his ship’s captains performed amazingly.
HH: I’ll be right back. One more segment with General Stanley McChrystal.
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HH: I want to thank General Stanley McChrystal for spending so much time with me, spending an extra day in California just to be able to do the program. I go back to your memoir, General. So after a lifetime, what I learned about leadership, probably not enough. And so what is the best thing for people who want to study it as a practice to continue to do it? Is it biography reading? Or is it practice? What is it they should be doing?
SM: There are certainly a lot of things. I think biographies are best, or books about big events that have to happen. I like books, the David McCullough books on building the Panama Canal, things which are very challenging tasks, caused people to rise to that. And often, you’ll identify a leader or a series of leaders who over time commit themselves, and you’ll be able to get a window, because over an extended period, you’ll see how a person develops, how they react to challenges, and do it. And that’s the tool that I’m most comfortable with.
HH: Without going D or R, and I know you don’t, what do you think we need in our next president looking at this war that we’re in right now?
SM: I think that the biggest challenge for America right now is a loss of confidence in the world. Not our loss of confidence in the world, but their loss of confidence in us. I think American power is still huge, and I know from first-hand experience, people around the world, they will complain about America, they will criticize, but they want and they depend on American leadership. And that’s got to be very overt leadership. And so even though we’re tired and we don’t want to spend the money or we don’t want to put our people at risk, I think America’s role in the world is one of leadership. It has to be one or moral leadership, or values-based leadership, but also commitment. And I think it’s going to be very important for our next leader in a foreign policy vein to demonstrate that we are going to be reliable allies, frightening enemies, as the Marines would say, no worse foe, and that we are going to stay the course. We’re going to show the resolve when we start something.
HH: How will that be manifested in a next administration? You know, President Reagan used Grenada to send a very loud message. Is that going to have to happen again?
SM: I certainly don’t think so. I think what’s going to happen is we are going to have to take time, because a single event happens, and it gets on the news, but it doesn’t build long term trust. Countries and allies build an approximation or an estimation of what you’re going to do over an extended period. So I think they’re going to have to see us do things over time. So I think we’re talking ten or twenty years of real effort to put America in a position where people consider us as reliable as they would like to.
HH: You know, this new age, we have less than a minute, there’s just social media, we’re engulfed by it, Donald Rumsfeld told me once he didn’t have time to learn social media, because the war was all on top of him. Are we going to be able adapt fast enough as a free culture? Or do we inevitably lose to the fanatics with one point of view?
SM: We either adapt, or we lose. We either get inside that maelstrom and operate in it, or if we try to stand on the outside, we absolutely will fail.
HH: General Stanley McChrystal, on that note, somber, but appropriate, thank you. Team of Teams, America, New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, you should read it. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.