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Gen. Stanley McChrystal Tells Westmont Crowd That Trust, Empathy Are Key in Complex World

Retired four-star general discussed new social paradigms at the annual President’s Breakfast

As globalization and technology rapidly advance, trust and empathy become more important than ever, retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal said during the Westmont College President’s Breakfast Friday. Click to view larger
As globalization and technology rapidly advance, trust and empathy become more important than ever, retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal said during the Westmont College President’s Breakfast Friday.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

The world is an ominous place right now, according to U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal.

With photos behind him of Vladimir Putin, automated assembly-line robots and boats overpacked with refugees, he told attendees of Westmont College’s President’s Breakfast that the rapid pace of globalization and technology made staying afloat in today’s world an increasingly complex task.

Empathizing with others and trusting one’s colleagues, subordinates and future leaders is more important than ever, McChrystal explained.

On Friday, the retired, four-star general headlined the 12th President’s Breakfast at Santa Barbara’s Fess Parker — A DoubleTree Resort by Hilton.

McChrystal was bestowed the Westmont Leadership Award before his speech, which was part of the breakfasts’ annual goal to “promote discussion of significant issues in the community.”

McChrystal, who now teaches at Yale University, headed the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, and led the United States and NATO war effort in Afghanistan until 2010, when President Barack Obama fired him for critical comments he and his staff made in Rolling Stone magazine about the president, Vice President Joe Biden and their staff.

Accelerating technological change has transformed not only the threats that individuals, organizations and governments face, but how we perceive them, McChrystal said.

“The degree to which something is hacked is less important than the degree to which we think it has been hacked,” he said. “The fact that we are not feeling secure in our information is as important as the fact that we are probably not secure in our information because it changes the way we think and interact.”

The democratizing effect of technology and information-sharing is a great boon for society, he said, but forces us to reconsider who can pose a threat.

“We have been postured as a nation security-wise, but in particular our military, against big threats from nations like Russia or China,” he said.

“Now we have groups or individuals who can threaten things like aircraft carriers and secure facilities. Think of a swarm of small drones flying over the face of the White House as the president is trying to load the helicopter to fly away.”

He emphasized that as technology and globalization rapidly pull us together, empathy becomes increasingly important.

He said that many in the West view China, for instance, as an insular if not backward country only now seeking power and influence in the world. In fact, he said, the people of the world’s most populous nation see their last couple hundred years as “a weekend” in a long history of prominence and influence.

It can be easy to lump living, breathing individuals together and view them superficially when we hear about them merely as statistics caught up in or fleeing violence and strife, McChrystal said. 

“We know what’s down on our street, but we sometimes forget what’s in other people’s street,” he said.

More variables to keep track of makes cause and effect something that can only be untangled in the rearview mirror, and makes prediction a difficult task.

This was reflected in his own military career, he said, with the War in Iraq: As the need to collect and share information became so continuous, demanding and imperative, he and other higher-ups had to expand the involvement of younger subordinates and trust them with new responsibilities.

“We’ve developed a saying in command that says, ‘If the order you’re given is wrong, execute the order you should have been given’,” McChrystal said. “Think about that responsibility.”

In today’s evolving, information-oriented would, “We can’t forget that we’ve got to think for ourselves,” he said.

He added that this new paradigm replaces the centralized and hierarchical social, business and military worlds he and many others grew up in with a faster, more powerful way of operating that requires more trust in others.

He said younger folks like the Westmont choir, which performed before his lecture, are bright, committed and the future of the country, but that their fate is still in the hands of their predecessors.

Because young people do their best to fulfill the jobs those currently in power expect of them, “it really puts the responsibility back on us” to serve and prepare them as well as possible, he added.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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