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Coaching the Insubordinate General


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What does a leader do when a subordinate drifts—or perhaps dives—into insubordination?

The question of insubordination and failure to respect authority—even at the most basic levels of management—brings up a host of questions: does a leader restore authority by firing an insubordinate employee? And how long can a leader wait to act before their own ability to remain in their job becomes compromised?

These questions took center stage at the White House last week, after a Rolling Stone interview with General Stanley McChrystal was published, portraying the General as mocking the leadership of fellow generals, the vice president, and President Obama himself.

“The general was out of control,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times on Sunday, noting that McChrystal’s firing by the president was “inevitable,” because the general’s actions had begun to raise dangerous questions about Mr. Obama’s ability to lead.

“Obama’s failure to fire McChrystal months ago for both his arrogance and incompetence was a grievous mistake that illuminates a wider management shortfall at the White House,” wrote Rich.

But while some argued that the only option that protected the president was firing the general, others warned that dismissing McChrystal could also erode the president’s standing as a confident and powerful leader.

On ABC’s This Week, George Stephanopolous raised the question whether President Obama might seem “thin-skinned and petulant” if he fired the general for speaking his mind.

So:  what can a coach do for a client whose leadership is in question after the insubordination of an employee?  And how can coaches help employees whose actions run them afoul of their bosses?

“If you want a strong leader to lead you have to deal with the consequences of occasional in-subornation,” said Mattison Grey, an executive coach who’s worked in both military and civilian environments. “I think this is one of those situations where awareness goes a long way to the solution.”

Awareness of what?

The unique “double-bind” relationship between leader and subordinate, Grey says. “The leader and the subordinate must understand the double-bind of being both a leader and a subordinate.”

“Subordinates get so many mixed messages that sometimes they just get their wires crossed and lose track of what role they are in,” Grey continues. “We ask them to supervise and lead people, be strong, show leadership, influence others and get things done all day long, but then require them to flip a switch and become subordinate when dealing with their supervisor. This is really a double-bind that we put our people in.”

For General McChrystal, the expectations of leadership that come with four stars on each shoulder cannot be overestimated. As leader of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the general’s mission was more than military—he was tasked with using finesse in diplomatic negotiations among allies and the Afghan government.

And yet there was a simple line military protocol dictates does not get crossed: an officer in uniform does not publicly speak critically of the Commander in Chief.  

In business, the rules are hardly as clear cut. As Mattison Grey has said, there’s a “double-bind”—companies and top managers on the one hand encouraging leadership among employees—while also being harshly critical of perceived insubordination.

“I believe it is one of the reasons employees really hesitate to show stronger leadership. They don’t know how to navigate that situation “up” the chain of command,” said Grey. “As the employer you can’t have it both ways. If you want a strong leader to lead you have to deal with the consequences of occasional in-subornation. Employees will excel or they will underperform but you don’t get to complain about both. Choose.”

For the subordinate employee, coaching can offer questions that may guide a person into making good choices—either to protect their job or to realize that the constraints of being a subordinate are restrictions they’d rather be liberated from.

“It’s about understanding the role of employee vs. free agent,” said coach Barbra Sundquist, who suggested a series of coaching questions to be directed to subordinates who may be clashing with a leader.

“Talk about organizational mission (what higher good can you achieve through your work?) versus personal values,” said Sundquist. “What personal values are non-negotiable for you? How do your actions align with those values you say are non-negotiable? Is there a way to achieve organizational mission without compromising your personal values?”

Sundquist suggested working with clients to identify relationships that are important (to a general, surely a relationship with the president would be, wouldn’t it?) and then work around questions of managing those relationships, with career limiting or career enhancing behaviors.

“Coach on becoming aware of behaviors that negatively impact performance and relationships,” said Sundquist, who recommended advising clients to “set goals for new behaviors, clear up past mistakes, (and) measure progress.”

For an employee who realizes through coaching that working in a restricted organization is clearly not a match, the coaching conversation can move on to questions of leaving the job honorably and move on to a new role elsewhere.

McChrystal, realizing his situation, arrived at the White House for a meeting with the president with his resignation letter ready.

For President Obama, as the leader in the public glare, the choice was made to punish the perceived breach of protocol swiftly. For top managers in companies, coaching may offer a far less public, and maybe more nuanced path.

“The coach can help the leader, manager or employee be aware of this double-bind and assist them to make a plan to help work through it in a graceful way,” said Grey.

Another idea?

Encourage free thinking leadership among employees—but saving the shoptalk for another day—and never in a way that undercuts the leader in the process of leading.

As Sundquist put it, “although I love the general’s candor, I think he should save it for his memoir.”

About the Author

Mark Joyella is an Emmy-winning television news reporter and anchor who has worked at television stations in Colorado, Georgia, Florida and New York. A firm believer in the power of coaching, Mark has been on both sides of the coaching equation, as a client, and as a coach, helping aspiring journalists excel in writing, reporting and storytelling. Mark lives in Connecticut with his wife and daughter. Follow Mark on Twitter at

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There are 4 Responses so far...

Diane Krause-Stetson on June 28, 2010

What a thoughtfully written piece with important leadership lessons and insights for professionals beyond the coaching world. I would love to see more articles like this about coaching in the mainstream media.

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Mark Joyella on June 29, 2010

Thanks for the kind note, Diane. We’re trying very hard to bring fresh insight and reporting to coaching, and we’d love to see our work picked up elsewhere to spread the word. If you like what you see, please let other coaches know we’re here!

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Vic Williams on July 1, 2010

Or, he was a special forces guy who was being subverted by ordinary army officers, who didn’t like him as boss or all the touchy-feely stuff instead of pop, bang, and crash. The honorable way to bypass that problem is to fall on his sword, get replaced by someone who can engage more of the ordinary army officers, and get on with things. Part of the ‘get on’ now seems to be a greater emphasis on early withdrawal. The hooplah hides the action.

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Mattison Grey on July 2, 2010

That is really great point. People do this sort of thing subconsciously all the time. We have all had friends of colleagues that have “blown up” perfectly good careers or lives. It is more socially acceptable to get fired or let go than to quit a perfectly good job or give up a successful good career, because we just don’t want to do it anymore. So the universe conspires, we get what we want and save face. I can’t tell you how many times I have watched this happen.

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