Intuitive Leadership: When Every Decision Matters with General Stan McChrystal and Alex Honnold

Published
Jul 26, 2021

This week on Nasdaq’s World Reimagined podcast, we sit down with two incredible leaders to discuss risk management, learning from failure, and more. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.

For most leaders, failure is not a matter of life or death. But for some, making life-or-death decisions is part of the job. What can high-risk decision-making teach us about the more ordinary and conventional risk leaders assume every day? What roles do preparation and instinct play in this process? How can leaders become better at conquering a fear of failure in order to make hard decisions?

In this episode, Host Gautam Mukunda speaks about risk and high-stake decision-making with two remarkable individuals who have spent their lives doing the impossible in the face of enormous danger. General Stan McChrystal is a retired four-star general, former Head of Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, and the founder and CEO of the McCrystal Group. Alex Honnold is a professional adventure rock climber, who is known for his free solo ascents, most notably El Capitán as documented in the movie Free Solo.

The more often you encounter the unexpected, the more comfortable you feel with the unexpected in general. You can prepare as much as you can, but you kind of know that some random thing is always going to go sideways, but then the more often that you encounter those kinds of sideways challenges and manage them… I think you build some confidence to just know that when a situation arises you'll figure it out quickly.
Alex Honnold
Nothing helps innovation like necessity.
General Stan McChrystal

Follow @GMukunda on Twitter or email us at WorldReimagined@nasdaq.com

Books Referenced on World Reimagined Season 2, Episode 7:

Alone on the Wall, by Alex Honnold

Risk: A User’s Guide by Stanley A. McChrystal and Anna Butrico

Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by Philip E. Tetlock

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Guest Information for Intuitive Leadership:

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber whose audacious free-solo ascents of America’s biggest cliffs have made him one of the most recognized and followed climbers in the world. A gifted but hard-working athlete, Honnold is distinguished for his uncanny ability to control his fear while scaling cliffs of dizzying heights without a rope to protect him if he falls. His humble, self-effacing attitude toward such extreme risk has earned him the nickname Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold.

This Sacramento, California-native’s most celebrated achievements include the first and only free-solos of the Moonlight Buttress (5.12d, 1,200 feet) in Zion National Park, Utah, and the Northwest Face (5.12a) of Half Dome (2,200 feet), Yosemite, California. In 2012 he achieved Yosemite’s first “Triple Solo”: climbing, in succession, the National Park’s three largest faces — Mt. Watkins, Half Dome, and El Capitan — alone, and in under 24 hours. In 2017 Alex completed the first and only free-solo of El Capitan’s “Freerider” route (5.13a, 3,000 feet), a historic accomplishment that has been hailed by many as one of the greatest sporting achievements of our time. The story of this feat was told in the Academy Award-winning documentary, FREE SOLO. Whether climbing with a rope or without, Honnold believes climbing is a fantastic vehicle for adventure, an opportunity to seek out those high-test moments with uncertain outcomes in which you’re forced to push through to survive.

Though Honnold often downplays his achievements, his rope-less climbs have attracted the attention of a broad and stunned audience. He has been profiled by 60 Minutes and the New York Times, featured on the cover of National Geographic, appeared in international television commercials, and starred in numerous adventure films including the Emmy-nominated “Alone on the Wall.” He is the founder of the Honnold Foundation, an environmental non-profit. 

General Stanley A. McChrystal is a transformational leader with a remarkable record of achievement. General Stanley A. McChrystal was called “one of America’s greatest warriors” by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He is widely praised for launching a revolution in warfare by leading a comprehensive counter-terrorism organization that fused intelligence and operations, redefining the way military and government agencies interact.

The son and grandson of Army officers, McChrystal graduated from West Point in 1976 as an infantry officer, completed Ranger Training, and later Special Forces Training. Over the course of his career, he held leadership and staff positions in the Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, 82nd Airborne Division, the XVIII Army Airborne Corp, and the Joint Staff. He is a graduate of the US Naval War College, and he completed fellowships at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1997 and the Council on Foreign Relations in 2000.

From 2003 to 2008, McChrystal commanded JSOC - responsible for leading the nation's deployed military counterterrorism efforts around the globe. His leadership of JSOC is credited with the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein and the 2006 location and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In June 2009, McChrystal received his fourth star and assumed command of all international forces in Afghanistan.

Since retiring from the military, McChrystal has served on several corporate boards of directors that include Deutsche Bank America, JetBlue Airways, Navistar, Siemens Government Technologies, Fiscal Note, and Accent Technologies. A passionate advocate for national service, McChrystal is the Chair of the Board of Service Year Alliance, which envisions a future in which a service year is a cultural expectation and common opportunity for every young American. He is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he teaches a course on leadership. Additionally, he is the author of the bestselling leadership books, My Share of the Task: A Memoir, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, and Leaders: Myth and Reality.

General McChrystal founded the McChrystal Group in January 2011. Recognizing that companies today are experiencing parallels to what he faced in the war theater, McChrystal established this advisory services firm to help businesses challenge the hierarchical, “command and control” approach to organizational management.

Episode Transcript:

Gautam Mukunda:

Leading means taking risks. Sometimes that's just about money, but the biggest risks involved lives. How do you lead when failure might require you or others to pay the ultimate price?

Intro:

I think of it as trying to create a new world, the kind of world that we perhaps have always wanted to live in.

Intro:

Climate change is a systemic risk to the entire economy, we cannot diversify away from it.

Intro:

To intervene when your country, your company, your family needs you to do so, that's leadership character.

Intro:

World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world. An original podcast from NASDAQ.

Intro:

Why do leaders fail, unwillingness to learn, a fear of showing their vulnerability and a fear of being themselves, a lack of authenticity.

Intro:

Character of a cooperation is not the personality, character of cooperation is the integrity and the morality of a company.

Intro:

So without truth and trust there is no democracy.

Gautam Mukunda:

2,500 feet off the ground. Clinging to the side of a sheer rock face with your fingertips, and no rope it's easy to say success is my only option. High achieving people often see failure as psychologically equivalent to death, but the key words there are psychologically equivalent. For most of us, this is a life and death situation is just a metaphor. Even if the worst happens, say your company goes bankrupt, you'll still be around tomorrow, but for a select few people lives literally depend on making the right call every time and sometimes that life is your own.

Gautam Mukunda:

So how do you become great at making those kinds of decisions? How do you become a great leader when the stakes are that high? And what can that teach us about the more ordinary risks we take, and the ones we ask of others? Well, for starters, it seems like one thing encountering risk on an almost daily basis does is make you very, very humble.

Alex Honnold:

Am I allowed to call you Stan? I feel it should be general.

Stan McChrystal:

I'd be hurt if you didn't Alex.

Alex Honnold:

Okay.

Stan McChrystal:

Just don't call me to go rick climbing with you.

Alex Honnold:

Just I don't know, I feel vaguely uncomfortable calling you Stan. I was like is that okay?

Stan McChrystal:

No, I've been called a lot worse things so Stan's great.

Gautam Mukunda:

Alex, I think Stan told me he would refuse to respond if I called him general when we first met.

Stan McChrystal:

That's exactly right.

Alex Honnold:

All right. I don't know, I hate to be the person. I don't know. I rarely talk to anybody important, so I just want to make sure I do it right.

Stan McChrystal:

And you're not today, so no worries.

Alex Honnold:

Okay, perfect.

Gautam Mukunda:

From the moment they met, the easygoing dynamic between Stan and Alex made me and even our producer Greg laugh out loud. Stan, by the way, is general Stanley McChrystal, a four star former head of JSOC. He led simultaneous wars on three continents, defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and transformed the way American special operations are conducted. He's written five books, and is currently head of McChrystal Group, and is, in my opinion, America's greatest living soldier.

Gautam Mukunda:

And Alex is Alex Honnold, who holds so many rock climbing records it's impossible to list them all, is the author of Alone on the Wall, and who you may remember from his unassisted ascent of Yosemite's El Capitan in the movie Free Solo. It wasn't surprising that when we put them together two people who have spent their lives doing the impossible in the face of enormous danger, began talking about risk. And really, who would know more about risk than one of America's greatest military leaders, and its most celebrated rock climber even though one of them might not see himself the way we do?

Gautam Mukunda:

Just to kick it off from that note Alex, I know Stan and I have both seen Free Solo and found what I would describe as the risk you take to be mind boggling. But then I read Alone on the Wall, and you really made it clear that you don't think about it that way. So how do you analyze risk?

Alex Honnold:

Well, a lot of it is more about trying to minimize risk than about trying to take risk. I mean, so much of rock climbing is about minimizing risk. I mean, I've never really called myself a risk taker though I'm sure by any objective measure, I probably have a higher tolerance for risk than most, but the whole process of climbing is about minimizing the risk that you can.

Gautam Mukunda:

What's your process for doing that? How do you think through that?

Alex Honnold:

Well, I mean, I think it's probably the same as any kind of risk management process preparation, training, learning, basically doing as much work ahead of time to make sure that you feel totally comfortable with what you're getting yourself into.

Gautam Mukunda:

So Stan, I know your new book is about risk.

Stan McChrystal:

It is, and I admit I had watched Free Solo some time back, but I watched a bunch of YouTube videos today about you talking about it. I want to pull in on that because one of the things Alex you just talked about was preparation. And I watched you doing physical exercises and practice climbs and whatnot, but what goes into the mental preparation? Because they talked about you just suddenly at a certain point on a certain day said, "Okay, this is the day." How did you calculate that in your mind? What told you that this was the day?

Alex Honnold:

There are a couple of things. The film is an incredibly honest, it's a great film, but it is a 90 minute version of two years of training and preparation leading up. In reality it was pretty clear that I was going to free solo El Cap, it wasn't like I woke up and just decided today's the day. It was more like I had been working for two months toward this climb and I basically finished everything on my to do list, and knew that I was as prepared as I was ever going to get. And conditions were only getting hotter, so it was basically a choice between doing it now or not doing it.

Alex Honnold:

It wasn't like it was spur of the moment like, "Okay, I just feel good, I'm going to do it today." It was more that the whole season had been leading up to that point, and this was the culmination of an incredibly long process. But beyond that though, the mental preparation for free soloing and for climbing in general is... I mean, I'd be interested to hear your take on this because I'm sure the way you evaluate risk, and then the way the U.S Army must evaluate risk doesn't really take personal feeling into account as much, I would assume.

Alex Honnold:

But with climbing it's very much if it seems scary, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, if you don't want to do it, there's no obligation to do it. So there's a good chance that if you feel scared or thinking about it, you should probably keep preparing or practice more.

Stan McChrystal:

Absolutely. And it's interesting because I wonder about the inertial momentum that takes you towards something. People are watching you, talking to you, your training, and they're preparing to film you, and what if you had in that process hit a moment when you said, "I actually don't want to do this. I've determined that after all of this that the risks are high." And I'll tell a quick story, we had an operation in Iraq, a counter terrorist operation, and we were going to put people into a town of Fallujah, which was going to be extraordinarily dangerous to do an operation.

Stan McChrystal:

And conditions changed and the commander who was going to go on the ground I called him and I said, "Okay, we just got word that we can't use this kind of fire support." And he said, "All right." And then I called him a little while later because I had another constraint put on us from above and I said, "Now, we can't use armored vehicles." And he said, "Okay, sir mission's off." And I know it took extraordinary courage on his part to tell me the mission was off because he didn't want me to think he was weak, et cetera, but he was absolutely right.

Stan McChrystal:

And I'm proud today that what I did was I said, "Okay, I trust your judgment." But part of me in the moment said, "No, I really think you need to go. I think it's acceptable." So I guess that's my way of asking is there momentum that takes you towards something? And then in the moment that you're doing it you say, "Well, maybe I shouldn't be?"

Alex Honnold:

That's a great question because I mean, that is one of the themes at the heart of the film Free Solo I think, is the filmmaker is exploring that very question. Because I think that was everybody's fear throughout the making of the film, was that there would be as you say momentum they would influence, or even just the process of making a film would influence my decisions. We all were aware of that and tried very hard to ignore it, just set it aside, and I think you actually see that more in other types of climbing.

Alex Honnold:

Not so much in the free soloing that I'm known for, but in classic mountaineering. Every season you read harrowing tales from people on Everest and things like that, people who go for the summit too late in the day and things like that. That's probably an example of that inertia carrying them beyond where they should have gone. It's like they've paid so much to go on this big trip and it's so important to them, and they're like, "Well, I know that I'm supposed to turn around at this time, but the summit is within view I'll just try my best," and then they die of exposure.

Stan McChrystal:

What usually kills people on Everest is summit fever, right? Where they get close enough and they're like, "I have to make the lunge."

Gautam Mukunda:

So I just want to probe on this a little bit. In Alone on the Wall, you tell a story about a climb that you just said nope, I'm not feeling it today and stopped. So have you thought through what's your process for saying no, not today?

Alex Honnold:

Well, that's what I'm saying is that I think that that's largely when it feels really scary.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah.

Alex Honnold:

The thing about my free soloing is that nobody is making me do it, it's strictly for my own pleasure, it's strictly for my own personal drive. And so if I look up at the wall and I don't feel motivated, or if I feel very scared, then I have no obligation to go out there. I mean, I think the important thing for me is just to be honest with how I feel internally, do I actually want to do this? Or am I excited to do this? Because the thing is managing risk when it only pertains to yourself, I think is relatively straightforward.

Alex Honnold:

But managing risk as it pertains to others, I think is a lot more complicated and I'm curious to hear your take on that a little bit because the types of risks that you're managing in throughout your career, they're not really risks to you personally, which I think in some ways makes it a lot harder to evaluate.

Stan McChrystal:

Yeah Alex, I think you've really pulled on something important, because when you become senior as a commander and you are launching people onto operations that you know are likely to be very, very difficult and dangerous and you're not going. I mean, if you were going along, then that would give you a certain moral certitude, but when you are not going because it's not appropriate for you to go, it's different. A quick story from the first Gulf War, I was in a special operations task force, and we sent an organization part of Delta Force deep into western Iraq.

Stan McChrystal:

And they were on the ground, and they made contact with Iraqi forces who started maneuvering a lot of Iraqi forces to destroy this 20 man element. And the commander, that was back at the base, we were in northern Saudi Arabia from where we launched it, the commander came in to our overall task force Commander, the job I later had, and he said, "I want to pull my patrol out right now. They've been compromised, they need to come out." And the commander, the overall task force commander denied the request.

Stan McChrystal:

And in the moment, I thought he was crazy because I thought he's leaving these people on the ground, and there's tremendous danger, and morally I judged him and I said, "He's not there, so he's not going to get hurt." But later when I put it in a different lens, the courage he showed because had that patrol actually been wiped out by the Iraqis, that general officer would have been literally held accountable by everybody, and his name in special operations for all eternity would have been associated with that terrible decision.

Stan McChrystal:

And yet, the reason he didn't pull them out is he knew that in the moment, General Schwarzkopf who was commanding all forces in the operation, would have not let us do any more operations. He would have canceled our operations because he would have used that as an excuse. So he was making a strategic decision that had physical risk for one group, but extraordinary risk for him as well. And in retrospect, I had a heck of a lot of respect for the courage that he had to show to do that, which just showed me that that risk is different depending upon your perspective.

Alex Honnold:

Though reputational risk is always going to be slightly less serious than actual mortal risks don't you think?

Stan McChrystal:

You would think so, but I would tell you that in many cases, particularly senior military leaders, they are more worried about being viewed as failing than they are about physical risks to themselves. It gets very nuanced and so it is difficult. I will tell you from my standpoint, when I had to send people into harm's way and was not going, I felt a tremendous amount more stress over the decision than I would have had I been sending myself.

Gautam Mukunda:

Physical risk is inherent to combat, or climbing. Most of us don't have to deal with that in our jobs, but reputational risk, moral risk, that's inherent to leadership. And Stan, whom former defense secretary Robert Gates described as, "Perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men I have ever met," felt those risks far more acutely than he ever did physical danger.

Gautam Mukunda:

You may never scale cliff or send soldiers into battle, but if you're a leader who is worthy of that title, at some point you'll have to risk your reputation in order to do the right thing and ask your people to do the same. Too many leaders can't do that, or won't. My observation from studying history and a little bit from working with leaders in both the Pentagon and the private sector, is physical courage is a lot more common than moral courage.

Stan McChrystal:

Absolutely. Much more common. And I don't want to discount it, but the moral courage part is difficult for a lot of people to do and maintain under pressure.

Gautam Mukunda:

Why do you think that is?

Stan McChrystal:

Oh, it's a great question. I'm not entirely sure. I think one of the problems is physical courage in most cases for soldiers particularly, you prepare yourself for that, you think about that, and there's a great desire to have that. Moral courage tends to come in moments that are more nuanced, and you find yourself rationalizing things that if you really boil it down, it's your own lack of moral courage, but you will find ways to justify what you do or don't do.

Stan McChrystal:

I wanted to ask Alex because I think it'd be interesting, if you had somebody you cared about a friend, or an offspring, a daughter or son, who is a very good climber, could you tell them to do something the equivalent of Free Solo of El Capitan? Or something very dangerous that almost gets to the idea of directing someone to do something where you are judging and to some degree passing risk to them based on your decision?

Alex Honnold:

In climbing you pretty much never pass risk on to other climbers, and I try very hard to never encourage anybody to solo and I know that people would criticize like, "Oh, if you make a film about it, you're implicitly encouraging people to take on this activity." But you almost never directly tell somebody, you should go free soloing. But the difference though is that I think that I do feel comfortable allowing somebody to explore this whole journey.

Alex Honnold:

For me free soloing is something that I've been working on for 15 years or more, and it's been a very slow gradual process in which I've systematically taken on greater challenges until I feel more and more comfortable with the things that I'm doing. I would feel comfortable telling somebody that if they're passionate about that path they can start down it, there's nothing wrong with putting your toe in the pool and seeing how warm the water is.

Gautam Mukunda:

It's one thing to risk your own life, but to urge or order someone else to do it, that's something else entirely. That requires trust.

Alex Honnold:

The thing is I think I would be comfortable telling somebody to try free soloing. If they're motivated, and they're passionate about it, and they're interested, I mean, there's no harm in going scrambling up something very easy, very much within your comfort zone and seeing if it's an experience that speaks to you. I would never tell somebody to try something cutting edge and incredibly difficult because really, it takes years to build up to that.

Stan McChrystal:

Sure, it makes sense. I had a question. Alex, do you think of yourself as exceptionally courageous, or a really good climber? I mean, probably both, but do you see what I'm saying? Or when people say that you're brave you go, "No, I'm just actually very good at this."

Alex Honnold:

I don't think of myself as particularly courageous. I mean, I think it probably does have more to do with just a high degree of comfort with something that I've practiced extensively. And I think through the process of practicing this one thing, in this case rock climbing extensively, I think has made me more comfortable with managing fear in other ways. I'm more comfortable taking other physical risks because I'm practiced in this one way, but I've definitely never thought of the word courageous about myself.

Gautam Mukunda:

Stan, I want to flip that question back on you. You've both taken risks as an operator and then commanded people to take risks as a leader, do you think of that as a particularly courageous or a productive skill? How do you analyze that?

Stan McChrystal:

Yeah, it's interesting. I would say first on the battlefield side, they talk about great officers or senior NCOs on the battlefield being courageous. Actually, the people who have to show the greatest courage are privates, because officer's leaders have something they have to think about, something they have to do that distracts you. If you are someone in the ranks there all you've really got to think about is your personal job and your personal safety, it's a lot more frightening. And so I have a greater respect for young people at very low ranks, who have got to go out and do things.

Stan McChrystal:

I actually found that the larger decisions of putting other people in harm's way, or making big decisions that could very well be completely wrong. I made a decision in 2005 to commit two thirds of my force to western Iraq in a period when I was told by some people I was risking the nation's counter terrorist force, breaking it than it couldn't be repaired. And I thought it was the right decision, but I know I worried more about that than I ever did about anything physical.

Gautam Mukunda:

Was it because it was a national asset? Because it was the people and you were just afraid that you'd burn through them? What was the thing that was driving your fear?

Stan McChrystal:

There was the safety of the people that work with me, but they all had signed up for this kind of risk, it was really for the national asset. I was betting something that didn't belong to me, it wasn't like I was investing with my money, I was investing with a national asset and if I'm wrong, the cost could have been very, very significant. And I know that's my job and my responsibility, but it didn't take away from the fact that that produced significant amount of thinking about it. Stress may be too big a word, but I paid close attention to the decision.

Gautam Mukunda:

Alex?

Alex Honnold:

You just used the word responsibility, it's your job, it's your responsibility, and when we're talking about courage, I mean, I think one definition of courage is being able to do something that you don't actually want to do. And I think the important distinction here is that with climbing, you're always doing things that you want to do. I'm taking risks because I want to, because I think they'll lead me to a more fulfilled life, or make me happier in some way or because I'm seeking out the challenge, but it's always on my terms.

Alex Honnold:

But I think that the situations that you're talking about aren't situations that you necessarily want to be in, you know what I'm saying? Obviously, you chose a career in the military, but beyond that I'm sure you've been in tons of situations that you would rather not be in and I think that's where courage really comes into play.

Stan McChrystal:

I think that's a great point, you think about the moments when you're most unsettled, it's when you're surprised. You're in a situation for which you didn't mentally or physically or materially prepare, you're not sure if you know what you should do, or if you can do it. Well, that's when military units break. Military units fail when they suddenly feel like they are unable to do what it is the moment requires. And they lose their confidence, and then the cohesion of the organization breaks down, and the effectiveness of the unit breaks down pretty quickly. And so in combat, what you're trying to do is put the other side in that moment where suddenly something that they didn't expect or they think they can handle is in front of them and you want to undermine their confidence, and then you get a superior position.

Alex Honnold:

It's funny, climbing is so similar to that. In that it's always the unexpected, whatever you're unprepared for that's the thing that shatters your confidence and leaves you second guessing why you're out climbing that day or why you ever chose to do the sport to begin with. The thing that you're unprepared for is the thing that the breaks you as you said.

Stan McChrystal:

Alex, I watch you when you're going up, of course, physically it's extraordinary, but there have got to be moments when you are reaching for something or trying to get ahold or do some maneuver that you're just not sure you can do. I realize when you're free climbing that you probably try not to be in that position, but how about even when you are when you're roped in? How often do you just try something saying, "Well, I give myself a 30% chance of being able to make this maneuver?"

Alex Honnold:

So when you have a rope on that's totally routine. So today actually I went climbing up this 500 foot wall and with a rope so it's totally safe, I had protection clipped, it's incredibly low consequence to fall. And I put my foot on a little foothold and tried to do this very challenging move, and my foot slipped off and I fell off and the rope caught me and it was totally fine. And on the one hand, sometimes you look at that you're like, "Oh, it's a failure because I fell, and that way it doesn't count as sending the route."

Alex Honnold:

But really, I looked at it as a positive thing that I had committed 100% to this foot because basically I was pleased with the fact that I had moved without hesitation, that I had climbed well. And even though the foot slipped off kind of like, "Well, at least I was climbing well right up until the foot slipped." You can learn from that, and then you can try it again in a slightly different way with a slightly different foothold. But as you said, it's very important to avoid that thing when you're free soloing you know what I mean? If you don't have a rope, then you have to keep it much more within your margin of comfort.

Stan McChrystal:

I know everybody probably tries to get you to crossover climbing to life in general, and because I'm like everybody else I wonder about that. How does it affect your attitude in life?

Alex Honnold:

I think it helps keep the rest of life in perspective, and I'm sure that a long career in the military must do some of the same. Physical hardships just don't seem quite as serious, the other challenges in life just don't seem quite as serious, it just keeps you a little more mellow and reminds you that most of life is pretty chill. When it comes down it, day to day life is pretty relaxed.

Stan McChrystal:

It's funny, I formed a company after I got out and I've got some of my former comrades working with me, and we do do that. There are moments where you either have a financial challenge or a business crisis and we're looking each other and laughing and I say, "Nobody's getting killed. This is not yet a crisis."

Alex Honnold:

You know what funny? Since the film Free Solo I've been invited for a fair amount of corporate speaking and things like that, and you talk to a company or you're speaking to a sales meeting or something, and they're always equating risk with business risk. And I'm kind of like, "Yeah, I mean of course there's a lot of risk in business, but it is a little different." No one's going to die, if you don't hit your numbers no one is getting dragged out of their cubicle and shot, you know?

Gautam Mukunda:

Have you guys read The Right Stuff?

Alex Honnold:

I have not.

Gautam Mukunda:

Stan have you?

Stan McChrystal:

Yes.

Gautam Mukunda:

So amazing book, it's about the early test pilots. And so Tom Wolfe tells the story that after he wrote it, he would always get asked by corporate executives, how do I make sure that my people have the right stuff? That was the question he was asked over and over again. And he said his answer was the right stuff is you're able to operate in an environment where 30% of your peers will die, and that's what the right stuff was in the book. And you're asking me that shows that you did not understand that point.

Alex Honnold:

Well, unless you want to build a really elite sales team.

Gautam Mukunda:

I'm going to note as a former professor of management, I strongly recommend against this strategy for any CEOs listening to this podcast. The one thing about the future we can be absolutely certain of is that it will surprise us, this isn't just true at the tactical level. The great political scientist Philip Tetlock in his book Expert Political Judgment, showed that even the most prominent experts when asked to make predictions about events in their own fields did a little better than random chance.

Gautam Mukunda:

If you're scaling a cliff, commanding special operators, or leading a sales team, something is going to surprise you. That's out of your control. How you handle it, that isn't. You have both lived in environments where as you said, the unexpected is where disaster strikes up to and including lives on the line, but the unexpected is also inevitable. How did you think about preparing and training for the unexpected?

Alex Honnold:

Well, to some degree, I think the more often you encounter the unexpected, the more comfortable you feel with the unexpected in general. You can prepare as much as you can, but you know that some random thing is always going to go sideways. But then the more often that you encounter those kinds of sideways challenges and manage them, I think you do build some confidence to just know that when a situation arises, you'll figure it out quickly.

Stan McChrystal:

Yeah, my experience is the same. In military you try to plan out this wonderful operation, but no operation ever goes as planned, something goes wrong, and usually a combination. And so what we tried to do was build an organization that was just used to that, we would call it audible. We were always just calling audibles and people's confidence went up, and so we spent a lot of time on the basics. If you could shoot, if you could move, you could communicate sort of like blocking and tackling in football, then you could adjust to a lot of things in the moment. And so the key was being good at those basics and having confidence, trust with each other with your comrades because the military is a team sport by definition.

Alex Honnold:

You know the classic Mike Tyson quote, "Everyone's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth." I think the corollary should be that the more often you get punched in the mouth, the more capable you are of sticking to your plan while you're getting punched in the mouth. I mean, I think that's what we're both saying here is that, yeah, your plan always go sideways. The more often that happens, the more capable you are in formulating a new plan quickly.

Stan McChrystal:

I remember at high school football at the beginning of the season, you're tentative, you put on pads the first day you start hitting, and somebody just cracks you and it hurts, but then you get up and you're not dead, and you go, "Okay, it's not that bad." And then you're fine. And I think that organizations have to be like that, as you say organizations have to get punched in the face so that they understand that it's not going to kill them.

Gautam Mukunda:

Once you've gotten punched in the mouth, you have to change plans. That means innovating, but innovation involves risk. It is in the words of political scientist Yehezkel Dror, "A fuzzy gamble." It's not just that you don't know if your innovation will succeed or fail, it's that you don't even know what the odds are. Taking that kind of risk is hard under any circumstance, but it gets much harder as the penalties for failure increase. So how did Alex revolutionize climbing and Stan transform how the United States military fights?

Gautam Mukunda:

I think of you both as innovators, so Alex when I read Alone on the Wall one of things I noticed is you sometimes seem to set records by taking paths that just hadn't occurred to anyone else, that seems to be one of your gifts. And Stan if I could tell a brief story, a few years after you left the army I was invited to participate in a Delta Force off site where they bring in weird academics like me to try and help them think through stuff. And I had just met you, and so I asked them, and one of the senior officers there said, "Look, all we do is take the method he invented."

Gautam Mukunda:

He's like, "Yeah, we've tweaked a little bit here a little bit there, but what Stan created was so revolutionary we're still just implementing and we're still just making that work." When I read your books you tell the story about you get sent to Iraq and occasionally talk about it as your org theory seminar. You go into war and you step back and be like, "How do we rethink the way we operate?" So For both of you I want to ask, how do you make this training, this preparation which might seem to make things scripted, with the ability to innovate, particularly to innovate under supreme pressure?

Stan McChrystal:

I'll start because the background in the military actually I think makes this harder. The military has doctrine which tells you generally how you're supposed to do certain things and there's benefit to it, but there's also a corseting effect. You have an entire tendency on the part of people to do what doctrine says, and my belief is doctrine should say, "Don't lose." Don't get killed and don't lose and whatever it takes to do that is the right answer. So inside military organizations, my belief is you try to build this sense of trust between small teams in those teams and confidence in individuals. And then this idea that they've got to look at every problem with an assumption that they are going to solve it.

Stan McChrystal:

I found that when we put too many rules and regulations around our teams, they became excuses for not doing something. And when I took command I said, "Okay, there are only two rules now, you can't do anything that's illegal or immoral. All the other rules are off, and I expect you to figure out a way to accomplish things." And extraordinarily people, and some did it quicker than others, found very innovative ways to do things and it stimulated other people. And the key thing I think was trying to put a lot of innovative people together that pushed each other because I don't think of myself as an innovator. What I think of myself as is someone who believes that you can create an environment and where really talented people will figure it out.

Alex Honnold:

My whole take to this is just a totally different track, and I think because to appreciate innovation in climbing you have to take a slightly broader view of the growth of the sport, the changes in the sport. I mean, I think part of the reason that I've climbed in a slightly different way than some folks before me has more to do with the fact that I grew up with access to a climbing gym, which is a technological innovation that is no part mine. I'm a product of just changing times in the climbing world, and then that's allowed me to just look at things in a slightly different way because I have a slightly different background for climbing. So the generation before me didn't have access to the same training techniques that I had access to as a kid.

Gautam Mukunda:

I don't think those are mutually exclusive, what you're saying is one of the key drivers of innovation is diversity in backgrounds and perspectives. Tiger Woods was the first golfer who started golfing when he was two, and so he was just miles better than everybody else for a long time, but then you see a new generation of golfers who all started when they were two and it turns out, that gap narrows really fast.

Alex Honnold:

Yeah I definitely agree with that.

Stan McChrystal:

My view from the outside of you is you got so incredibly talented at all the basics of climbing, that it gave you the opportunity to innovate to other things because you were more solid in those things which gives you a launchpad to others. Does that make sense?

Alex Honnold:

Yeah, actually, that does and I hate to totally agree with you because it feels slightly douchey, but it is true that I have always been a very well rounded climber, confident in many styles of climbing. I know how to roughly do this and then that allows me to take on all kinds of interesting climbing challenges in slightly different ways because I'm like, "Yeah I feel good trying those things." I don't know. Yeah, I think that's totally fair.

Stan McChrystal:

How much of climbing is mental, and how much of it is physical?

Alex Honnold:

Well, it depends. I mean, it's always underpinned by the physical ability to do something. So at the heart of it, you have to be able to hold on to the rock, you have to be able to propel your body upward, you have to be able to hike up to the mountain or whatever. So the physical side is definitely at the core of climbing, but beyond that, the mental side is just so complex and so varied because if you're crippled by doubt or by fear then no matter how strong you are, you can't really climb well.

Alex Honnold:

The mental side is very important, but overall, the physical side of it is always at the heart of climbing. And I think that's what I love most about climbing too, is the actual physical act of moving up the wall in the same way that running or swimming just feels nice to do, it's like an elemental human movement pattern, I think climbing is the same way.

Gautam Mukunda:

Alex, I got to push you on this because in Alone on the Wall you say you don't think of yourself as an athlete like five times, which I find difficult to understand. So I'm going to ask you, how is that even possible? And then how does that pair with what you just said?

Alex Honnold:

Well, that's interesting also because I mean, I wrote Alone on the Wall in 2013 I think, and so my views have maybe changed a little over the last eight years because now I definitely consider myself an athlete and try to take care of myself as an athlete. I think that when I wrote Alone on the Wall, I felt more like a scrappy, young adventure, I was just a 20 year old dude living in a van and going on cool climbing adventures. But I think as I've gotten older, and as I've trained more seriously for things, I mean, it's hard for me not to call myself an athlete at this point.

Alex Honnold:

Part of the reason I wrote that is because I wasn't competing on the World Cup circuit, or doing any of the obviously athletic sides of climbing, I was choosing to go wandering around in the hills and try to climb big walls and things like that. And so I think what I meant by that was that I wasn't approaching climbing from the same mindset of training rigorously in the gym all the time. But as climbing as a sport has progressed, and as the standards have risen over the last decade, I'm doing more and more supplemental training and things like that just stay with the curve. And so now it's you have to train an athlete to some extent if you want to stay even remotely skilled in the sport.

Stan McChrystal:

It's interesting because when I first got in the military, you would go to physical training sometimes, I was in the 82nd Airborne on my first assignment and then special forces, and you would go out to physical training at 6:30 in the morning and there would be guys reeking of alcohol, and taking the last drag on their cigarette before the first sergeants call the company to attention and then go do PT. And they would spend their lives chain smoke, drinking, and nowadays it's very different, by the time I was senior the Special Operations Forces particularly thought of themselves as athletes.

Stan McChrystal:

They ate a different way, just as they took care of their weapons and other equipment they take care of their bodies as a professional athlete would which I think is a psychological difference from what we had before and I think it's not subtle. I think it's a significant improvement, but it's a dramatic change.

Alex Honnold:

The climbing world has gone through that exact same transition. The previous generation or two of climbers were all partying hard, living dangerously, just having a crazy adventure of life. And now if you want to climb at an elite level you have to train like an athlete, you have to take care of your body, you know what I mean? You just can't be partying like that because you wouldn't be able to perform otherwise.

Stan McChrystal:

They used say think Paul Horning of the Green Bay Packers used to drink a case of beer the night before big games. [crosstalk 00:37:12] okay?

Gautam Mukunda:

Just think of it, you could not imagine a professional athlete living the way Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth did.

Stan McChrystal:

No.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah.

Alex Honnold:

Though the question is would either of them even be professional athletes in today's league? That's really the question.

Gautam Mukunda:

If you take risks, sometimes you're going to fail. When you do it's a chance to learn, but how do you learn when the cost of failure is unimaginably high? Or does it make the lessons even more impactful? Have either of you thought through what's your methodology for learning from failure? And is there a failure that you think back on that you learned the most from?

Stan McChrystal:

Alex, I can't imagine you had too many failures?

Alex Honnold:

Well, no, I was going to say that actually failure is an integral part of climbing because when you're climbing with a rope, or when you're climbing in the gym, or when you're bouldering, which is climbing close to the ground on little boulders, you're pretty much failing nonstop. My typical day at the cliff, and this is when I'm rope climbing, you do a couple of warmup climbs and then you basically try something that's right at your limit, and you fail on it over and over and over, and then you hope to eventually do it.

Alex Honnold:

So typically, a route that's your project that you're working on, I mean, sometimes you spend a month and you basically fail on it for the whole month, and then you succeed on at once and then you move on to the next project. So I mean, failure is a core part of climbing, and how you handle failure and how you learn from failure is a very important part of being a serious climber.

Stan McChrystal:

Yeah, makes great sense. Gautam, you might find it interesting in the special operations world, which really came into the modern era after the failure of the Iran rescue mission, what happened is there became this aversion to failure. I.e after the Iran rescue mission ended so publicly in failure, the psyche of the organization said, "We'll never let that happen again." And so as a consequence, it leaned over to be over prepared, over supplied for everything in the future, which actually stifled a fair amount of innovation.

Stan McChrystal:

Because people for a number of years didn't do things with fewer resources or take greater chances, because they just didn't want to let the nation down. And when we got in Iraq starting in 2003, that dynamic couldn't exist because we had to do more and that helped push innovation because nothing helps innovation like necessity, but it was a significant change. And I think many organizations I see today don't innovate because they don't perceive that they have to.

Alex Honnold:

The equivalent to that in the climbing world would be if you only free soloed, if you only climbed without a rope then you're never allowed to fail and so you wind up in that same position, you're never taking risk, you're never innovating, you're never trying really new things. The opposite side of the spectrum is if you climb in the gym full time, if you're a World Cup climber, you're competition climber, you're constantly trying the craziest moves, you're trying things that nobody's ever tried before because there's no consequence to it. You're like you may as well be trying new things every single day because that's how you improve.

Gautam Mukunda:

So how do you create for yourselves and then for other people when you're training them, this willingness to be comfortable falling or failing?

Alex Honnold:

Well, one way to manage that with climbing is just to not really think of your climbing in terms of success and failure, but just to think of it as are you learning? Are you growing from this? If you fall off a climb you don't have to see that as failure, you can just take it as a point of data that your foot slipped on one hold let's say, and in the future you'll use a slightly different hold or you'll weight that foothold in a slightly different way. Basically, as long as you've learned from it it's not necessarily a failure, it's all part of the long process of slowly becoming a better climber.

Gautam Mukunda:

Process over results?

Alex Honnold:

Yeah.

Gautam Mukunda:

Stan does that speak to you?

Stan McChrystal:

It does, but I really want to go in a slightly different direction because let's assume Alex you had gotten an injury some years ago when you were already a world class climber, but suddenly physically you couldn't do that sport anymore. What would you do for a living that would give you the same kind of reinforcement or feeling that climbing does? Have you ever thought about that?

Alex Honnold:

Yeah, I mean, I've thought about it a little bit, but it's hard to imagine that anything would be quite as satisfying and stimulating for me as climbing. But before I dropped out of university, I was studying engineering and I have a foundation that works on solar projects around the world, and I wouldn't be surprised if I got into environmental engineering or environmental projects of some kind. Just because I personally am interested in that, and I think if I were doing that at a high level, it might be as exciting for me in some ways as doing climbing just without the physical side to it. But it's hard to imagine a totally different life, it'd be like what would you have done if you didn't go into the military? It's hard to imagine an entirely different life.

Stan McChrystal:

It is. What I found in retirement is that I love building teams, I build an organization, a company that does consulting work, but the entire reinforcement for me is being part of a team again. And then I do some teaching, and so what I found is that the thing that I loved about the military was building teams and the interaction on the team. The thing I tried to recreate in my retired life has been that exact same thing. That's why people say you love the military because you love being at war, or the danger and that was never it, it was always about being able to be around a group of people and feel honored to be a part of a team. And particularly if that team is very good.

Gautam Mukunda:

Alex, I know you told me that a big part of what you think about is teams, could you talk a little bit about that?

Alex Honnold:

I mean, it's funny because I'm known as a free solo climber and people think of me as climbing by myself all the time, but so much of climbing is relying on your teammate and always with your life. I mean, anytime you're climbing with somebody, they're literally holding your life in their hands and they're [inaudible 00:43:13] you so anyone you climb with, you're trusting your life to and that's a pretty serious commitment for a teammate. I mean, a big part of climbing is really choosing people you trust, and it's interesting because on the one hand it's also casual, you're like, "Oh, I'm just going climbing with my friends." But on the other hand, it is an incredible responsibility to make sure you have the right team.

Stan McChrystal:

Absolutely.

Gautam Mukunda:

Stan, how do you think about creating that kind of trust in teams?

Stan McChrystal:

Well, trust is something that I believe comes from experience. I tell people jokingly when I ask them who do they trust? And they say, "I trust my spouse, or my pastor, or whoever in their lives important." And I say, "You trust McDonald's." And they laugh and they go, "I hate that food." And I said, "No, actually you may hate it, but when you see the sign you know what it costs, you know what the product is, you know how long it takes to get it. And so you can make a decision, an informed decision." And so I think trust comes from having people whose competence you know level, whether it's good or bad, and their intentionality, whether that's good intentions for you, and their reliability.

Stan McChrystal:

So I think it takes interaction. So the way that I've seen it work best is, if you're trying to build up trust with somebody, you got to do things with them, you got to interact with them. Just reading a resume it gives you maybe some grounds for making some assumptions, but I think all of us feel most comfortable when we've had a shared experience with people. So I think it's critical to create those shared experiences. I've been married for 44 years, and I will tell you that we trust each other because we've got so much interaction. We've seen each other in really good times, and we've seen each other in really bad times, and we can make a judgment and I think great teammates are like that.

Gautam Mukunda:

Alex, is that how you evaluate climbing partners?

Alex Honnold:

Yeah. I totally agree actually, that to build trust in something it's about having experience with it and feeling like the outcomes are predictable. I mean, what I thought of while you were saying that was that a when beginners climb for the first time, they're often very afraid of the equipment, they're afraid that the rope is going to break, they're afraid that the harness won't hold, basically they don't trust their equipment. And I always say the same thing that basically you just have to start through exposure, you just have to build trust with the equipment. So weight the rope one foot off the ground where it's not so scary, and bounce on it a bit and start to build some confidence that the rope will hold you, and then try to climb. But you have to build that trust gradually in a way that feels comfortable to you if you really want it to take.

Gautam Mukunda:

Have you thought about how to use this approach in I guess I would say in lower leverage situations? The research on teams tells you if teams don't trust each other they don't work, period. And so one of the biggest questions in team design is how do you create trust in a team? So it is my general observation that when you are at the outermost limit of human activity, you refine techniques that are not always but often applicable at lower scales of risk. And it is why people are so driven to learn from you, and from Stan, and from people like the two of you about what you do because they're never going to face that situation, but what you know can help them in theirs.

Alex Honnold:

Yeah, that's interesting because I think in this case, my threshold for trusting people in normal teams, I mean, basically, I'm incredibly trusting because most of the time there's not a huge downside to trusting somebody. With climbing if your life is on the line, then you have to have a certain threshold, you have to really vet your partners, things that, but in the rest of life I just trust anybody because there's no huge downside to it. My life isn't in their hands and I'd rather just be a trusting person and if I occasionally get burned by that then so be it, but it just makes life easier to just trust everybody.

Gautam Mukunda:

I love that. Stan?

Stan McChrystal:

I love hearing that because I'm exactly the same way, I have been burned a couple times in life, more than that by trusted people, but by default I tend to trust people tremendously. There are a few instances where I don't, where somebody is a stranger, and they want me to do something I automatically put up defenses. I used to do that with intelligence when we were doing operations, because I had seen enough bad intelligence that I was spring loaded to be skeptical. But nowadays, let's say an investment, I don't have a lot of money, but if I invest I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. If I know the person at all and trust them, okay because again it's not my life, it's something of lesser importance to me.

Gautam Mukunda:

When you've done the impossible, and scaled the heights of human achievement, either metaphorically or well, literally, what's left to do? What do you want to leave behind? So Alex, you mentioned your foundation, and I don't want to let us end without you talking about it because I found it to be so extraordinary. So could you tell us about that and what motivated you to do it?

Alex Honnold:

Yeah, so the Honnold Foundation supports solar projects for a more equitable world, so it's basically just providing energy access and then various projects around the world. I mean, I guess what motivated is just because I felt I should try to do something useful with my life in the world. I was spending a lot of time climbing and was making more than I needed, and I was living in a van it's a very simple lifestyle, I was doing exactly what I want to do, and I felt I had a certain moral obligation to try to do something useful for those on earth who aren't able to just live in a van and do exactly what they want to do every day. So I started the foundation and thankfully it's been going well for many years now, and especially since the Free Solo film it's really blown up quite a bit and we've been able to support all kinds of pretty inspiring projects.

Stan McChrystal:

Yeah, let me jump on that because I very much admire what you're doing with that. I'm a great believer in solar power, and I'm a great believer that a lot of change that doesn't happen in our world right now just is because of inertia. It's not because of any other strong rationale, there are stakeholders who've got some reason to oppose it, or it's just people too lazy to get things moving. And I think a lot of people suffer because we just won't stand up and start fixing certain things, and so I want to just thank you for what you're doing with the foundation.

Alex Honnold:

I appreciate that. And I totally agree that basically, I feel exactly the same way that there's so much in the world not being done just because of institutional inertia. It's not being done just because nobody's doing it, and you're like, "I wonder why nobody does that." Sometimes it is just a matter of somebody trying, somebody just doing the thing and it feels good to just dive in a little bit and try to do a thing or at least try to do something useful.

Stan McChrystal:

It's also really good Alex, you have taken one skill and accomplishment that is very much admired, people almost fixate on it, but you've leveraged it to do something much bigger. You've leveraged it to give the foundation legs that it might not have if you were in another line of work.

Alex Honnold:

I mean, that's a big part of why I started the foundation, was because I was at a point in my professional climbing career, and this is eight years ago now or nine, almost 10 years ago. Where I didn't need any more professional opportunities, I didn't need to do any media or anything, because I was already going climbing as much as I wanted. And basically, I was already leading the life that I wanted to lead, so there's no real reason to become more well known or to do any of these opportunities. But at the same time, I enjoy doing them like having the opportunity to shoot a TV commercial or something I was like oh, it's fun. It's cool.

Alex Honnold:

It's interesting. It's new work for me. It's good money, I was like I feel like I should take advantage of that kind of thing, but there wasn't really any reason to do that in terms of my climbing. And by starting the foundation it gave me a nice way to funnel that into something that felt slightly more useful, because now it gave me an opportunity to do these fun interesting projects that otherwise are a little bit out of the way of a real climber. The thing is if you want to be a professional climber, really you should just climb full time, but I find it pretty interesting to do all these other sorts of things.

Alex Honnold:

To speak and to do commercials and even to make a film like Free Solo I mean, I could have just done that climb without recording the film and the climb would have been just as meaningful, there just wouldn't have been a documentary about it. I did things like the documentary knowing that all of that gets funneled back through the foundation and winds up doing something useful.

Stan McChrystal:

That's great.

Gautam Mukunda:

It really is. Stan, as if you hadn't already done enough for the country, I know you still spend a lot of your time on service work. Could you talk about what you're doing there?

Stan McChrystal:

My big cause is civilian national service for young Americans, every young American gets the opportunity to do a year of AmeriCorps City Year. Something that is what they're unlikely to do for the rest of their life, but they do it with people not from their zip code, not from their economic background, not from their religion. So you have this interaction for a year doing something of value, and then you go on with life with a theory that you plant the seeds in people to be better citizens later in life. I think experiences what I think changes each of us, it shapes us, and so I think given that opportunity I'd like it be for every young American doing something whether it's conservation, healthcare, education, you name it is key.

Stan McChrystal:

And my wife said something interesting to me, because I joined in this movement and I was up somewhere speaking about it. And when I got off Annie goes, "I think that if this thing gets the momentum that you hope it does, it will be the most important thing you've ever done in your life." And it struck me one in the moment as wow, but honey, I already did this military career, but I think she was right. It is potentially something that makes America a better place, and if we can be the smallest part of things like that, then I think the satisfaction that we can derive is immense.

Gautam Mukunda:

That actually was to my follow up question, which is you spent your life in service to a greater good and taking risks that most of us probably, I guess except Alex, can can scarcely imagine, what motivated that?

Stan McChrystal:

I would love to say that when I was young I wanted to help the nation and I think that was part of it, but my father was a soldier, and my father's father was a soldier, and my four brothers are soldiers, my sister married a soldier. So there was the grooved path that I never thought much about anything else, and then it turned out that I loved it which is fortunate because I could have ended up doing something I didn't at all. And when I first got in, I think I really joined mostly because I thought it would be interesting, I thought it would be a bit fun, a bit exciting and a bit interesting.

Stan McChrystal:

And then later in your career the reality is, the military is not much fun when you get senior. When you're a general, it's not the fun it is when you're a lieutenant, but your motivation has evolved and you start to do things because you think you can make a positive difference. And so you start to actually be doing the concept of service, at least that was my experience, but it took a while before I hit the tipping point where I was really doing it for something bigger than me.

Alex Honnold:

I've got a slight follow up question to that and no disrespect, but I'm curious of this because I'm nearing this point in my life. But how much of that transition from enjoying the work of being lieutenant to appreciating the service of being a general, how much of that is timed around your own physical decline basically? Because at a certain point, you just can't physically perform the way you could in your 20s or 30s let's say, and it just doesn't really make sense to still be an operator in the same way.

Stan McChrystal:

No, that's absolutely around it because you have your own physical decline and that's well said, I've had my entire spine fused, I've had five surgeries on my spine, and it's fused now and so I feel the decline rapidly, but-

Alex Honnold:

That's a great military posture.

Stan McChrystal:

Oh, I know. I was going to say I don't have to worry about slumping, but also your job as you get more senior I could go out on operations once a week, but anything more than that people would actually accuse me of not doing my real job, which was to run the place. And so organizationally, you are pushed into more staff jobs, you're pushed in further from what was fun earlier, and so your physical decline is matched with this less exciting role, and so you have to derive your satisfaction from other stuff.

Alex Honnold:

I asked that because you see a fairly similar path in the professional climbing world, where you go from cutting edge climbing to eventually being the team captain of a brand's athlete team or things like that. Or you wind up becoming expedition leader where you're mentoring young climbers and teaching them on their first expeditions and things, but it's a very slow gradual evolution that I definitely see myself on sadly. I mean, I'm still pursuing my own climate objectives as much as I can, but I can definitely see the road ahead. Actually, I guess I'm noticing it more because now when I go on expeditions I'm no longer the youngest, and I'm teaching other people sometimes a little bit. I'm like "Oh, geez the process has begun." I'm like, "I'm starting to become the old guy."

Stan McChrystal:

I always have loved to work out and I still do, it's just different, but I knew I'd hit the point when a soldier once said to me, "Sir, you're in good shape for your age?"

Alex Honnold:

Ow.

Stan McChrystal:

I went, "Oh, that hurt."

Gautam Mukunda:

Did they find his body Stan? Two such remarkable people have, of course, met plenty of remarkable people. So I couldn't wait to hear each one's answer to our last question. In your extraordinary career, you've met a large number of extraordinary people who was the one who most impressed you and why?

Stan McChrystal:

It's interesting, and I'm not going to give a name, I'm going to give a group of people. A lot of senior NCO sergeants in the United States Army came from very difficult backgrounds, often broken families, poverty and things like that, and they came into the army and they become senior sergeants, sergeants major and first sergeants. And it was very interesting, they would have come in and the army would have given, offered a set of values to them. And they basically look at that set values and they go, "Okay, I accept that." And they embrace it. Officers tend to come in and are more nuanced, and I don't use that in a positive sense.

Stan McChrystal:

And so what would happen is later in my career would be in a moment where there was a decision to be made, and the officers would be seeing things in tones of gray. And they'd be talking about, "Well, maybe you need to do this." And then the senior NCO would say, "Wait a minute, there's nothing complex about this. That's wrong, this is right. Boss, we do what's right, don't we?" And you'd almost be humbled in the moment because there are many things in life that are black and white, right or wrong, and so it was that group of people that I was so lucky to be around because how often I think they reminded me, don't overthink it. You know what's right, you know what's wrong and do what's right.

Gautam Mukunda:

Alex, I want to ask you the same question.

Alex Honnold:

I hate to put too fine a point on it, but I'm pretty good friends with Jared Leto, who's a musician, actor, a fairly big Hollywood person. He's also a fairly passionate climber, and we've climbed together quite a bit, and one thing that I've taken from him and this is by no means an endorsement of him all the way around. But what I find so interesting is that he doesn't have much of a background as a climber, but he has this incredible background as a musician where he's used to performing in front of an auditorium. And we've gotten soling together in the mountains a fair amount where we'd all scramble things and I know it's slightly outside of his comfort zone, but he has this incredible ability to just perform under pressure which obviously comes from all the other aspects of his life, basically performing for film or performing on stage.

Alex Honnold:

And I don't know, I mean, I guess the thing I took from that is that to a certain degree the skills you learn in one field are applicable to others. If you push yourself super far in a certain craft, you do gain a general ability to just perform under pressure when you have to. And I don't know, for whatever reason when you asked that question this just came to mind, and I've always found that slightly inspiring that even though he's not a great climber, and he's not that experienced of a climber, he does know how to just flip the switch and just perform when he has to. And for some reason, I find that inspiring.

Gautam Mukunda:

I love it. I don't ask for words of wisdom from too many people, but I want them for you are their last words you have for us, for the audience?

Stan McChrystal:

Not for the audience, for Alex really.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah.

Stan McChrystal:

I have great admiration for anybody who sticks to something to get really good at it. I think if all of us in life picked something we're going to be really good at it and then to hold ourselves to a standard it's good, and you're a great example for all of us at that. So thanks.

Alex Honnold:

I appreciate that because if you're going to do something, do it well. And it's just choose your thing and just try to get as good at it as you possibly can, but yeah, I appreciate you saying that but I mean I see my own climbing as very much a work in progress. Where I'm like, "Well I'm still trying to get better, still trying to improve in different ways, still trying to learn."

Stan McChrystal:

Remember you're in decline now.

Alex Honnold:

[crosstalk 01:00:54]. Actually tunny enough, I had one of my best climbing performances ever, sport climbing yesterday which was a total shock and I've been dieting a little bit, and I've been training a different type of finger training thing and I think I'm peaking. It's actually interesting.

Stan McChrystal:

Okay, fight it off, but I'll tell you at a certain point-

Alex Honnold:

I think when the time comes I'm going to welcome my physical decline because I'll probably have a family at some point and I am looking forward to not training as much, but until I absolutely have to I might as well enjoy the ride.

Stan McChrystal:

Good call.

Gautam Mukunda:

I can't imagine what it's to climb the way Alex does. There were scenes of Free Solo that were hard for me to even watch. And even after knowing Stan for years, it's difficult to understand how he was able to take over command in the middle of a war when we were losing, and decide to reinvent the way special forces operate on the fly. If you've reached the top of your professional world, it's easy to default to being someone who shares his or her wisdom, someone who gives advice, because who wouldn't want that?

Gautam Mukunda:

It feels really good. It's a flattering place to be, but what struck me was that both Alex and Stan wanted more than anything else to ask questions, to learn from each other. And I think that's the secret of how they are able to do such remarkable things. They each go through life asking themselves what they can learn from the people they meet, even when those people might disagree with them. That's really tough to do.

Gautam Mukunda:

Your brain is wired to seek confirmation, to make you feel right not to be right. The natural response to hearing that someone thinks you're wrong is to reject what they have to say, not listen to see if they have a point. The only way to defeat that is to believe so powerfully that it overcomes your natural tendencies, that you still have lots to learn. To ask questions even when your objectively at the top of your field, and sometimes to change your mind. It's not easy, it doesn't come naturally, but it can be done. After all, hanging off of a cliff by your fingertips doesn't come naturally either.

Outro:

World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda. A leadership podcast for a changing world. An original podcast from NASDAQ. Visit the World Reimagined website at nasdaq.com/world-reimagined-podcast.

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