4 Invaluable Lessons from a Four-Star General

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal is best known for his position as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from 2003 to 2008. He has been described as a military leader who says what other military leaders are afraid to say. In fact, his unflattering remarks about former Vice President Joe Biden in a 2010 Rolling Stone article lead to the four-star general’s resignation as the top commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. He resigned from the military shortly thereafter, and today he teaches a graduate-level class on leadership at Yale University.

No matter where you stand politically, McChrystal’s track record as the commander of JSOC during the Iraq War can’t be denied. Through his past leadership roles and keen observations about the complex world we live in today, he is able to offer up invaluable insight and advice to business owners. He recently spoke to our industry group about leadership and how his military experience changed the way he viewed it – and why you should reconsider how you look at leadership also.

We Learn from Our Mistakes

General McChrystal went into great detail about the origin of JSOC after the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. If you’re not a history buff or were too young to remember it, you can read about it here. It’s fascinating. The botched rescue attempt carried out by all four branches of the military was a tragedy that played across Iranian television for days as a demonstration of the United States’ complete and utter failure. “It was a perfect opportunity for our military to place blame, backstab and point fingers,” He said. But instead, they studied the tragedy so as not to let something like this happen again. The United States would never be in a position where we were not up to the task at hand.

In studying and reviewing the failed mission, it was determined that a contributing factor was that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were all contributing to this one operation, but none had worked cohesively together before. The synchronization, collaboration and teamwork required to pull off an operation of this magnitude – to save the 60 American hostages – simply was not there. So JSOC was formed to bring elite Special Forces from each branch together as a standing task force. Rangers, Seal Team Six, Delta Force, the 24th Special Tactics Squadron and the Night Stalkers all came together to form a military dream team so to speak. How could the U.S. ever fail again?

It would seem impossible with an organization stacked full of committed, courageous and competent talent. But the 2003 Iraq War revealed flaws in the very foundation of the organization’s structure. McChrystal had been a part of JSOC since 1981, but in 2003 he was appointed commanding general charged with destroying the al-Qaeda terrorist network under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This assignment should have been easy peasy. After all, the U.S. was equipped with billions of dollars’ worth of unmanned aerial vehicles, precision strike weapons, a global positioning system, night vision technology for every soldier and information technology. The terrorists had nothing but commercial cell phones and the internet, yet somehow they were running circles around our forces. “It was disorienting to us,” McChrystal admitted. “How is this happening? Was Zarqawi so good that he had created a terrorist organization that no one had ever done before? Or did they hire consultants and do it off site?” (The general, by the way, has a fantastic sense of humor.)

The lack of dominance over the enemy’s unconventional tactics necessitated a closer examination of al-Qaeda’s structure and a re-evaluation JSOC’s. For hundreds of years, the U.S. military has maintained a hierarchal structure with a very specific chain of command. “We’re a good traditional hierarchal organization, but we operate mechanically. And there is a limit to how fast the mechanics can work,” he said. JSOC was efficient, but up against the “loosey goosey” terrorist network, it was not effective.

The terrorist network, in contrast, operated lightning fast and didn’t seem to have a strict chain of command. When a key leader was taken out, the organization didn’t crumble. Instead, it automatically adjusted and kept moving. They adapted to the situation, which made them extraordinarily lethal, fast and resilient.

When McChrystal first took over JSOC’s operations, he implemented a daily teleconference meeting with about 50 people from two locations – its rear headquarters in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and its headquarters outside of Baghdad. The idea behind the 30-minute briefing was to update just the top leaders on operations and intel. Those 50 people, in turn, relayed the information to those under them. Those then passed the information along to their subordinates and so on. Those cascading meetings, which had to go through six layers of command, took up a considerable amount of time and by the time intel had reached the boots on the ground, it was usually watered down or obsolete. “They began calling us a self-licking ice cream cone. That can really hurt your feelings!”

‘If It’s Stupid and It Works, It Ain’t Stupid’

There’s a saying that “if it’s stupid and it works, it ain’t stupid.” JSOC was tired of playing catch up with the enemy. This was a different war with very different rules from what the U.S. was accustomed to. We were no longer operating in a simple or even complicated world. We were operating in a complex world and it was time to make changes. McChrystal knew something had to be done; there needed to be changes in the way information was shared, changes in how decisions were made and changes in how personnel in the different branches interacted. In other words, the very culture of the organization had to change. “For an organization as proud as the military is, that was a tall order – especially for the leader,” he said, pointing to himself.

In lieu of a 30-minute morning briefing with 50 key players, McChrystal opened the teleconference meeting up to all 7,500 personnel from 27 countries and 76 different bases and extended it to 90 minutes. That seemed inefficient to some but McChrystal said it was the most efficient thing he’d ever been a part of in his career.

“What happened was every 24 hours every member of our organization got his or her entire head into the game, understood what the situation was and what we had to do. You didn’t have to tell them what to do because you painted the big picture for them. What we essentially had done was changed an organization that in our hearts, souls, DNA and habits was a traditional hierarchy and we made it something completely different. We created shared consciousness, which is a common conceptual understanding. We did it every day for five years because it was so valuable.”

To compare the difference this change made consider these numbers: in October 2003, JSOC was completing one raid a week, or four raids a month with McChrystal approving each one. They had a 75-percent success rate, taking about three enemy leaders out of the fight each month. But al-Qaeda was getting bigger and stronger and had a generally dismissive attitude toward our military. In the grand scheme, our efforts were insignificant to them. “As a traditional leader, what do you do if what you’re doing does work? What do you do? You do more of it, right? So we pushed down on the accelerator and we went faster. One year later, we were doing 18 raids a month with a 70-percent success rate.

But the enemy continued to get better and bigger. They were defeating us. It was time for more radical adjustments, which required that McChrystal loosen the reigns a bit. “The only thing my comrades and I can’t stand more than change is losing, so we made the decision to change how we were operating.

“By August 2006, we were doing 300 raids a month, 10 raids a night. I used to approve every raid, now I’m approving NO raids. Everything has been pushed down the ranks, not because I wanted it but because I wanted to win,” he said. “Interestingly, our success percentage went up. I thought it would go down and there would be more mistakes because we had more junior people making decisions. What I found were two things. One is when people making the decisions are closer to the point of action, they know more and they know when and how to do it. Second is they own it. They feel like it’s their mission.”

Are You a Gardener for Your Business?

Modeling a business after JSOC’s new organizational structure is easier said than done. After all, your business is your baby and it’s hard to let go of some of the very things that might be holding you back. “It’s not about ego because you have to step back from the days when you’re the most important person making all of the decisions,” he said. “You have to be an enabler and an orchestrator, where you’re allowing other people to do that which they can do.”

McChrystal likens leaders to gardeners. Most people believe that gardeners grow plants, but that’s not true. Only a plant can grow a plant, he explained. “The gardener creates the space, prepares the ground, plants the plants, waters, feeds, weeds, protects and, at the appropriate time, harvests. The gardener creates an ecosystem where the plants can do what only plants can do. A gardener creates the opportunity for them to do it simultaneously and excel. The gardener is the enabler. That’s what I think leaders have to be now.

“Today, we have to take a different approach. The first things you have to do is share the vision and show them the big picture. Value what people do. Reach down and ask for their help in solving problems. Get out of the way. Decentralize until you’re uncomfortable. Then decentralize again. I got comfortable with it because if I tried to understand everything and control everything, it just slowed us down. You have to allow things to go sideways now and again. Let go of the reigns and let her run.”


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