Fearing The Ego

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A reader writes:

I am writing from Afghanistan as a Special Forces operator.  I have a staff job at the moment, so I’m working a desk that has allowed me to follow the fallout from the McChrystal article.  I have to say, this whole thing has been absolutely baffling. It is all everyone - and I mean everyone - is talking about here.  I read your initial response, and although I know you are blogging in the heat of the moment, I think your initial reaction - in particular the extrapolation of a larger “real vs. fake” argument from the “real soldier” quote given by one of my colleagues - is not quite as seamless as you make it sound.

There are two separate issues here from my vantage point: the dynamic issue of Afghanistan and the static issue of power versus ego. With regard to Afghanistan, every morning I sit in briefs and listen to the latest sitreps, and while I’m focused on executing whatever task is immediately in front of me, I always seem to have two thoughts in the back of my mind:  1) I can’t believe how absolutely, ridiculously complex, and multi-faceted, this whole operation is, and 2) even with that knowledge, there’s always going to be another hundred variables I haven’t thought of. 

This is the context for the second issue, which I think is more relevant: this whole thing is more about power and ego than it is Afghanistan.

Anyone who has gotten as far as General McChrystal in any field - but particularly those that wield power in the public eye - is invariably going to have an huge amount of self-confidence, to the point where the specter of self-delusion looms.  I’m not saying the General is delusional, but it seems like the same ego that gives people the determination to succeed, excel, and desire high-ranking positions is the same ego that leads them to believe that their worldview is undoubtedly correct, that their beliefs are so accurate and necessary that things like articles in Rolling Stone are beyond a good idea - they are a window into righteousness.  It’s the same thing that went on in Secretary Clinton’s campaign, and Palin's.

The problem here doesn’t seem to me to be that General McChrystal, a man of undoubted talent, has the wrong view of Afghanistan necessarily. It's that he felt his worldview was so correct that it didn’t matter if he let his aides mouth off, it didn’t matter if he slandered his chain of command, and it doesn’t matter if the other bureaucrats are pissed off, because his beliefs are the correct ones, and therefore the only ones that matter.  Does his formative experience in the military, and more specifically SpecOps, contribute to this?  Probably. But you don’t have to search hard to find other people in public positions of power to find similar traits.

One thing that has impressed me about President Obama is that he seems to be very aware of this problem.  He undoubtedly has a massive ego, but also appears, at least from a distance, to have a healthy fear of this ego. Hence, we see his constant desire for consensus, his reliance on experts who may not be popular with the public, and his pursuit of the best ideas wherever they may come from.  In short, he believes that his ideas are not infallible.  Seems a conservative notion, eh?

(Image: Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images. )