Gen. Stanley McChrystal on life after the military

July 23, 2013: 6:18 PM ET

Former commanding general Stanley McChrystal joined HP's EVP Todd Bradley to discuss leadership, technology, and McChrystal's response to Rolling Stone.

FORTUNE -- For years, as commanding general and later as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, Gen. Stanley McChrystal would watch his troops on the ground on a daily basis from afar. Thanks to video streaming technology, Gen. McChrystal said,  "I could watch every one of our operations, and through my laptop, I could listen to the communications." While Gen. McChrystal had the ability to talk back to his troops, he held back, afraid of micromanaging. "I never once talked," he said. "As soon as a person from higher up reached in, you confused everyone."

Despite his silence, Gen. McChrystal said that the technology allowed the military to shorten communications, act faster and make decisions that helped the missions. Gen. McChrystal, who runs a consulting company called the McChrystal Group, is now sharing this type of lesson with the likes of HP (HPQ). His main liaison in this unusual relationship with the computer giant is Todd Bradley, HP's executive vice president of strategic growth initiatives, who until recently ran the company's PC business, which until a few weeks ago was the industry's largest.

The two men shared stories from their yearlong relationship in a conversation titled Lessons in Leadership at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen on Tuesday.

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HP derived the most value from the relationship from "the way they deployed tools to increase the speed of execution, increase the efficiency of execution," Bradley said. Even more than shortening the time it took for information to travel across the company, the speedier communication provided middle managers with the information they needed to do their jobs. The changes helped in "creating the culture where the mid-tier of our organization has the courage to execute."

Gen. McChrystal said that he knew nothing about business until after he left the military in 2010, but learned since then that the two have much in common. Ultimately, both are about people, he said. "We found ourselves very comfortable dealing with people," he said.

Both McChrystal and Bradley had to operate as leaders in a less than supportive atmosphere at times. In the case of Bradley, he ran HP's PC business as the company struggled through management and strategy changes. At one point, it even said it would sell that PC business and later backtracked on the decision. For his part, Gen. McChrystal was in charge of a mission in Afghanistan that many in the U.S. government and public were ambivalent about. Both men said that in those situations, the role of leaders change. "Your responsibility is to dilute that ambivalence to create certainty," Bradley said. Gen. McChrystal said he followed the same approach and plowed ahead, offering those under his command as much clarity as possible about the mission at hand. "I hope the ambivalence will reduce as we make progress," he says.

Both men dished out a variety of management tidbits to a crowd of enterpreneurs and disruptors. "Act competitively, act as if someone is going to take your lunch every day," Bradley said. To grow qualified managers into great leaders, Gen. McChrystal said, "You got to put people in challenging jobs where they feel they're in over their heads."

Gen. McChrystal also shared thoughts on the crisis that engulfed him after Rolling Stone published a story that quoted him disparaging civilian leaders. Gen. McChrystal said the article was inaccurate, but after it was published, he decided to offer his resignation. Rather than dispute the accuracy of the report, he made a vow to conduct himself in a way that would prove to people over time that his character is "not congruent with the tone of that report."

"I tried to disprove it by conduct," he said. He paid a price for the decision, as others were able to "define" him. "Silence hurts," he said. "Every day you want to scream." 

Eventually an inquiry by the Defense Department inspector general cleared Gen. McChrystal of wrongdoing and disputed the accuracy of the Rolling Stone article. Rolling Stone responded that there was no credible source in the inspector general's report disputing the facts reported in its story.

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Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.

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