In the classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart plays a young U.S. senator who arrives in the U.S. Capitol and takes on corrupt politicians. In the film’s famous climax, with his career in jeopardy, Smith filibusters for days — first to an inattentive Congress but, eventually, to a rapt audience as the corruption is uncovered.

Stan McChrystal, former Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Commander of United States Forces in Afghanistan, invoked this scene when discussing leadership at an event on October 26 at the Jackson School of Global Affairs.

“When people are listening, anything can happen — and the American people are listening now,” said McChrystal. “We see the dysfunction with the selection of a House leader, we see the parties unable to compromise… We can fix this; there may be some pain getting there, but we can get there.”

Leadership, McChrystal said, will be paramount. He shared his admiration for the leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom he called “a clear symbol of a focused narrative” during the war against Russia. Someone who was once a comedian becoming one of the world’s most celebrated leaders, McChrystal said, is “extraordinary” — and challenges our understanding of what makes a leader.

“It’s not about being a good leader or a bad leader,” he said. “The question is: Are you an effective leader? In the military, when you are an effective leader, you can lead your soldiers to do anything for you.”

During his conversation, which was moderated by Jackson School Dean Jim Levinsohn, McChrystal also touched upon the current conflict in Gaza and the ongoing challenges with Russia and China, underscoring the importance of U.S. leadership.

“It’s our responsibility,” he said. “We must be a nation that people want to follow, which isn’t necessarily the same as being the nation others want us to be. Our basic values need to be ones that people admire, and they shouldn’t be self-proclaimed or trumpeted. There needs to be balance in our foreign policy that makes other countries want to follow our lead.”

Following his three decades of service in the U.S. Army, McChrystal taught at Jackson as a Senior Fellow from 2010-2022.