4 thoughts on leadership from Gen. Stanley McChrystal

In his latest book, "Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World," retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal describes how the leadership lessons he learned commanding the Joint Special Operations Task Force during the Iraq War in the early 2000s are relevant in everyday business.

Gen. McChrystal coauthored the book with David Silverman, CEO of McChrystal Group, Chris Fussell, partner at McChrystal Group and Tantum Collins, a recent college graduate.

Gen. McChrystal graduated from U.S. Military Academy West Point in 1976 and began serving in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. After a series of promotions, in 1990 he became an action officer for the Army Special Operations working in the Joint Special Operations Command, and in 1991 he led troops in the Gulf War in Iraq.

In 2003, Gen. McChrystal was promoted to chief of the Joint Special Operations Task Force during the Iraq War. Although his prior success in the military propelled him to this lead position, he quickly realized the traditional military actions he led in previous wars were failing during the Iraq War against Al Qaeda's decentralized network of agile and ruthless terrorists. He understood the old rules of war no longer applied — to defeat Al Qaeda, Gen. McChrystal's Task Force "discarded a century of conventional wisdom and remade the task force into something new," according to the McChrystal Group. He would oversee the units that captured Saddam Hussein and tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's leader in Iraq. Gen. McChrystal was dismissed as commander of the Afghan war in 2010 and resigned from the military after an article in Rolling Stone reported disparaging comments made by him and members of his staff about the Obama administration.

Here are four leadership ideas from Gen. McChrystal.

1. Give small groups the autonomy needed to innovate. "Team of Teams" tells the story of how, in the middle of the war, Gen. McChrystal built a new network that "combined transparent communication with decentralized decision-making authority." Military Joint Special Operations Task Force leaders applied best practices from the smallest units and devised strategies to employ them to their force of thousands of troops in Iraq, and created a renewed sense of unity with new technology. This new "team of teams" beat Al Qaeda.

According to Gen. McChrystal, the challenges he and his colleagues in the military faced battling terrorists in the Iraq War relate to the many obstacles business leaders must navigate. The smartest response for leaders operating in rapidly changing and fast-paced industries is to "give small groups the freedom to experiment while driving everyone to share what they learn across the entire organization," according to the McChrystal Group.

2. Define the team and talk about goals often. A team is more than a group of people employed by the same organization, working for the same boss. Rather, a team includes any individuals necessary to achieve the organization's mission, Gen. McChrystal said during an interview with the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It is the leader's duty to continuously motivate and reward his or her team and provide the necessary information to team members so each individual feels they have a stake in the organization's goal.

To ensure continued alignment, leaders must also repeatedly refocus team members on the goal. "If you're a business, it's about winning what you do," he told Stanford. "If you're an educator, it's about educating kids. There's some standard of winning in whatever you do, and that's what it's about."

3. Value every interaction no matter how small. According to Gen. McChrystal, every conversation and interaction leaders have with their team is meaningful.

"Every comment you make to someone matters, because if you're flip or tired or cranky or whatever, they're going to go home and tell their spouse that," he told Stanford. "But if you're positive and upbeat and do the kinds of things you want to do as a leader, they're going to [tell] that." Gen. McChrystal added that he often wrote thank-you letters to individual troop members.

4. Don't hide from your mistakes. Although admitting fault in big mistakes and taking accountability for the consequences is difficult, it is one of the most important responsibilities a leader has. Gen. McChrystal demonstrated this in 2009 in Afghanistan after a U.S. jet bombed fuel tankers the Taliban had hijacked, resulting in the deaths of about 100 civilians. After the event, Gen. McChrystal called Afghan president Hamid Karzai and also publicly apologized to the Afghan people on television. He admitted that at the time, he thought he was doing the right thing.

During a crisis, everyone is watching to see how the leader will react. "Everybody watches your body language — whether you're calm, whether you're not," he told Stanford, "As soon as they see you cutting corners and shaving edges, your regard, even if you get away with it, is gone."

Copyright © 2024 Becker's Healthcare. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy. Cookie Policy. Linking and Reprinting Policy.


Featured Whitepapers

Featured Webinars