Three Life Practices from a Four-Star General

Stanley McChrystal is a retired United States Army General. Former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has described him as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I (have) ever met”. His last assignment before retiring was as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.

Stanley McChrystal - United States Army General (Retired) and Author
Stanley McChrystal – United States Army General (Retired) and Author

Today, Stanley McChrystal heads the McChrystal Group, a leadership and management consultancy composed of professionals from the military, academic, business, and technology sectors. He has given an inspiring TED Talk and is the author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.

I recently listened to an interesting podcast in which McChrystal had a wide-ranging discussion with Tim Ferriss that covered tactical and psychological lessons from combat, the development of mental toughness, leadership and other issues. The podcast generated a number of questions from listeners. As a result, McChrystal did a second, shorter podcast in which he answered some of those questions.

While all of the questions, and McChrystal’s answers, were interesting, I was particularly intrigued by this one: 

What are three practices from the military that civilians can use to help develop mental toughness?

Mental toughness, or grit, is an essential requirement for success. Nobody goes through life without failures and setbacks. However, the way in which we respond to failures, setbacks, disappointments, loss, etc. has a major effect on what happens afterwards. Having mental toughness helps us weather the storms so that our progress is not derailed.

McChrystal’s three recommendations are easy to understand—not so easy to do.

1.  Push yourself harder than you think you’re capable of. You’ll find new depth inside yourself.

2.  Put yourself (and groups) through (shared) difficulties and discomfort. When you have been through a difficult environment or situation, you feel more strongly about that which to you are committed.

3.  Create some fear and overcome it. It creates resiliency.

When you think about it, each of the three recommendations involves getting out of your comfort zone (physically, mentally, professionally, etc.). And, depending on the situation, you might end up doing all three at once. For example, if you put yourself in a difficult situation, you might be afraid and you might have to push yourself harder than you think you’re capable of to overcome the challenge.

But the advice from Stanley McChrystal is sound. People experience their greatest personal growth when then move towards the things that scare them instead of running from them.

You can apply McChrystal’s recommendations to many aspects of your life, including public speaking. For many people, having to speak in public is uncomfortable, frightening or worse. Even experienced speakers can find it uncomfortable to speak in front of certain audiences, or on a new topic, or in front of a large audience.

How can you apply this to public speaking?

So how, concretely, can you act on these recommendations in terms of improving your speaking? Below are some ideas:

  • If you have no public speaking experience or are very afraid of speaking in public, take a course or join an organization like Toastmasters. You will get experience speaking in a safe and supportive environment.
  • Participate in a speech contest. The farther you advance, the bigger the audience and the more pressure you have to deal with.
  • Speak at conferences on matters related to your field of expertise.
  • Volunteer to give corporate presentations to your colleagues, the Board of Directors or prospective clients.
  • Give a team presentation with some colleagues.
  • Deliver a guest lecture at a university.
  • Give a speech at a wedding reception.
  • Take an improvisation class.
  • Apply to speak at a TEDx event.

Ultimately, the more you challenge yourself with different speaking situations, the more comfortable you will become. And, when you face a setback—you forget part of your speech; the talk falls flat; the equipment doesn’t work—as is bound to happen if you speak often enough, you will be able to learn from the experience, bounce back and move on. In short, you’ll become a better speaker.

Applying Stanley McChrystal’s advice when it comes to public speaking will not only make you a better speaker, it will improve your self-esteem, your self-confidence and your resiliency. And that is something that will help you with any challenge that you face.

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One Reply to “Three Life Practices from a Four-Star General”

  1. Reblogged this on Life and Random Thinking and commented:
    Funny question, When was the last time your muscles ached?
    I remember a friend of mine who took over my training for a brief time.
    I can clearly remember a day he took me out to park to give me a workout. After running around the park for awhile, he told me it was time for pushups. (oh yay!)
    Being a decade or too younger than I am now, and considerably fitter, I peeled off a respectable twenty pushups. My back was straight, my wrists strong and I lowered down to my nose and back like I was a marine.
    I started to stand up. Whoa !
    Come on Dave, give me five more.
    I slowly lowered myself to do five more, but not quite so steady. I slowly ground out my 4th, and he had his hand on my back holding me there, two more Dave, just two more.
    Those two ground out even more slowly, and again his voice – JUST two more Dave, and I grit my teeth and pulled those two out of somewhere,
    that darn hand, and that darn encouraging voice, One more Dave, just one more.
    I halfway got that one done before I collapsed in the dirt.
    You know what? I was proud of those sore muscles the next day. Been proud of your sore muscles lately? Challenges do me good, and it’s good to fall flat, and build up.
    remember the poem – The Reward is Within.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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