A general’s guide to risk

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General Stanley McChrystal, who ended his military career as the chief of US and international forces in Afghanistan in 2010, has a new book on how to deal with risk.

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why it matters: From traditional military threats to infectious diseases to economic devastation, we live in a world defined by risk – and shaped by our response to it.

  • McChrystal argues that we should focus on minimizing our vulnerabilities to the risks we face.

What are you saying: I spoke to McChrystal about his new book”Risks: A User’s Guide,” which surfaced earlier this week.


On choosing between two risks in withdrawing to Afghanistan:

  • “There was a peace deal with the Taliban in one place that killed the Americans, so if you decide not to back out, you’re going to buy into that at an open-ended level of risk.”
  • “On the other hand, if you try to move too fast, it leaves you more vulnerable in the short term, although it wears you out sooner and reduces the amount of time you take to risk. If you look at it, it was probably a rational decision made in a very difficult environment.”

How to define risk:

  • “Risk is vulnerability in times of danger. But we are not good at predicting threats while we have agency over our vulnerabilities.”
  • “There is a mathematical relationship between a threat and a vulnerability, so try to reduce your vulnerabilities to zero.”
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What the COVID-19 response reflects regarding the risk response:

  • “We should have been in pretty good shape by now, but we’ve done an incredibly weak job — and that weakness is a function of our system, not the actual strength of the threat.”

On the importance of “true diversity” in avoiding groupthink:

  • “The first thing to understand is that your organization probably has a group idea, and it shouldn’t be confused with what diversity is. It means a different perspective from people who are looking at a problem differently.”
  • “It takes deliberate because most organizations are either hiring and promoting in their own image, or shaping people into it.”

At the risk that keeps him awake:

  • “I am concerned about a cyberattack because, one, we are more vulnerable than any other nation. And second, our society is more fragile than we think.”
  • “If you turn off our power for 48 hours, we’ll see the kind of tribal-like reaction we’ve only seen in zombie apocalypse movies.”


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