The day Rolling Stone published the late journalist Michael Hastings’ profile on four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal in June 2010, McChrystal called Vice President Joe Biden from Afghanistan.
Biden received the call aboard Air Force Two. The general told him that a magazine profile would be coming out that included derisive remarks about him, and he was sorry for it.
Biden told McChrystal he felt like it would be fine, The Washington Post reported, and called President Barack Obama to tell him about the call. Obama’s aides had been analyzing the article for hours already, according to The Post, and after Obama read it, he was angry. He requested McChrystal fly to Washington.
McChrystal was leading the American-led coalition forces in the War in Afghanistan, and Hastings’ article, “The Runaway General,” characterized McChrystal as a recalcitrant general with a team that cracked jokes about Biden and other White House officials.
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“And so on the one hand I thought that that wasn’t fair; on the other hand I’m responsible, and we have this negative article about a senior general show up on the president of the United States’ desk,” McChrystal said in an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “ This Is Success.”
“And it’s my job not to put articles like that on the president’s desk, so I offered my resignation.”
“President Obama accepted it, and I don’t have any problem with it because I’m responsible whether I did something wrong or not,” McChrystal said. “I’m responsible, and as I told the president that day, ‘I’m happy to stay in command or resign, whatever is best for the mission.'”
McChrystal said that he was comfortable with that decision, but that there’s still “some hurt” that comes up. That said, he also explained that it taught him a lesson about failure that others can learn from.
“I would argue that every one of your listeners is going to fail,” he said. “They’re going to fail in a marriage, they’re going to fail in a business, they’re going to fail at something for which they are responsible. And they’ve got to make the decision: ‘OK, what’s the rest of your life going to be like?'”
McChrystal retired from the Army on July 23, 2010. Though he did not complete the requirement of three years as a four-star general to retain his rank in retirement, the White House made an exception. The Army’s chief of staff awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal and the secretary of defense awarded him the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
McChrystal said that after that, it would have been easy to relitigate what transpired for the rest of his life and become “a bitter retired general.”
“And my wife helped me through this more than anything, because as I tell people, ‘She lives like she drives, without using the rear-view mirror,'” he said.
In his retirement, McChrystal has become a professor at Yale, the head of a leadership consulting firm, and an author.
McChrystal told us that “you can’t change what’s already happened. The only thing you can change is what happens in the future. So I tell people, ‘For God’s sake, don’t screw up the rest of your life because of something that happened there.'” He said that he chose “to lean forward.”
“I’ve been extraordinarily satisfied and happy with that,” he said.
Subscribe to “This Is Success” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. You can find the full McChrystal episode below.
A version of this story originally ran on December 26, 2019.