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My Conversation with General Stanley McChrystal

Frank Zerunyan

Several weeks ago, the Los Angeles World Affairs Council representatives contacted me to request my participation in their upcoming program on October 13, 2021. The program featured United States Army 4-star General Stanley McChrystal (ret) about his latest book, “Risk.”

The Los Angeles World Affairs Council Event

The organizers of this event had seen one of my lectures in a virtual webinar series here at USC Price. I spoke of resiliency, values, ethics, and leadership in human capital development in that lecture.

During that webinar presentation, I said that human capital development requires and supports a culture of learning, adapting, critical thinking, tolerance, and reasonable risk-taking within the context of core human and ethical values. I cited my book chapter entitled “Techno Innovations: The Role of Ethical Standards, Law and Regulation, and the Public Interest” in “Next- Generation Ethics. Engineering a better society.” In that book chapter, I discuss the critical importance of instilling human values and ethics into artificial intelligence (AI) to protect the public interest. In short, where there is a code of ethics established through values, leaders possess the guidelines to carry out their tasks responsibly and with integrity. I conclude that AI leadership must not be different. 

The Event

On October 13, I had the pleasure and honor to discuss “Risk” with Stan (he asked me to call him Stan) related to the importance of adaptability, structure, technology, and leadership. These concepts are among the “ten dimensions of control present in every organization…that can be monitored and adjusted to maintain a healthy Risk Immune System,” that Stan and his co-author Anna Butrico discuss in their book. Stan examines the success of a military unit, and for that matter, any organization in its defense depending on its ability to “detect” the foe, to “assess” its path and strength, to “respond” effectively, and “learn” enough to prevent or respond to further attacks. Modeled after the human immune system, Stan calls this the “Risk Immune System.” 

The other control dimensions in this risk immune system include communication, narratives, diversity, bias, action, and timing. From the start of our communication, I asked Stan one compound question, as we lawyers call it, about why the book on risk? And why now? 

I described to Stan the reasoning for my question. In our book Newgotiation for Public Administration Professionals,” my friend and colleague Yann Duzert and I explain the importance of “why” as a preparation and value creation proposition in our four-step Newgotiation process.

The other two of the four being value distribution and implementation. We also discuss the critical importance of communication, narratives, bias, and timing as part of our ten elements in each negotiation process. So, the parallels between our book on “Newgotiation” and Stan’s on “Risk” are remarkable. However, these shared concepts are not coincidental as both relate to the human condition and behavior. So, I wished I had more time to discuss human condition and behavior with this distinguished 4-star general as a mayor and council member. 

The Why? 

On why the book? Without hesitation, Stan responded, “because we have far more control” on managing risk than we think. While “that means we have more responsibility than we often accept…just how much of the risk we face depends on us,” he said.

The book describes risk as an understandable and straightforward mathematical equation; “threat times vulnerability equal risk (Threat X Vulnerability = Risk).”  “If there are no threats-our vulnerability don’t matter, and if we have no vulnerabilities-threats don’t matter.” 

On why now? Given eradicating either the threat or the vulnerability is typically not possible, the book has substantive relevance today during the pandemic. I asked Stan in our conversation whether we are still attempting to eradicate the risk of COVID19 or are we managing its risk based on what we assessed and learned.  He said that it remains to be seen as to what we learned from this pandemic. 

What we hope

However, we both agreed that neither the communication nor the narratives have been helpful to combat a common enemy. Stan said that success in war or, in this case, the pandemic, directly correlates to a common agenda and unity of purpose against a common enemy. We would have far more control than we think if only we were willing as a unified group to accept responsibility. Sadly, we still do not have a consistent and standard plan against COVID19, our common enemy.

The fear by some or the nonchalance against a deadly virus by others remains the subject of much debate. Instead of fighting the virus, our politically polarized states and cities fight along the political division lines. I remain hopeful that we will soon learn without the need for shaming, opposing, firing or mandating actions to reduce the threat and our vulnerabilities to COVID19.  This effort will require an American and a global human response against this common enemy.