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9.23.20 – SIW – 

If there is one thing that all organizations need today to see them through the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and growing social unrest, it is strong leadership at the top. But where do you begin to address a situation for which there are few precedents or a blueprint to follow?

On its annual Military and Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, GSX+ invited retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal to speak on the topic of “Leading in Turbulent Times.” During his keynote address, McChrystal, who is perhaps best known for his leadership of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), drew a parallel between the threat the military faced from al-Qaeda in the early days of the war in Iraq and how security leaders in organizations today need to be able to adapt in order to mitigate the risks they face.

A Military Case Study

For the first 20-plus years of its existence, McChrystal said that JSOC, which had a hierarchal leadership structure similar to that of a large corporation and was designed to be “predictable” and “durable” in times of stress, worked very well because the terror groups it faced were organized in much the same way.

“The reality was it made sense. A founder with strong discipline, tight processes and procedures to put structure into it so that the organization could survive in a difficult environment,” explained McChrystal, who now heads up management consulting firm McChrystal Group.

However, in 2003, McChrystal said they encountered a different type of terrorist group in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which had a very different composition.

“What he created was not a tightly structured, hierarchal, disciplined organization. He created something entirely different,” he said. “It had this amorphous quality to it. It was viral-like. It was nowhere but it was everywhere. It didn’t have midnight meetings to tightly coordinate things and yet the organization always seemed to be informed. They were able to adapt to the moment.”

Though they initially thought they would be able to defeat the group the way they had done others in the past, McChrystal said they soon realized that al-Qaeda in Iraq was using what was new information technology at the time in the form of smartphones that provided every terrorist with access to the internet. As a result, McChrystal said they were losing the battle to this group for the couple of years which seemed “unthinkable.”

“We had better weapons, we had better people, we had a history of professionalism, we had, in our view, a better cause but they had these different qualities that made them very, very difficult to deal with,” he added. “And they really reflected the arrival of a complex environment in the modern world.”   

To counter the threat, McCrystal said he knew JSOC needed to change but that reorganization wasn’t really the answer, so they let things that worked well remain the same, such as finance and logistics. What did change, however, was the way in which they shared information and how they made decisions. This democratization of information, which they referred to as “shared consciousness,” enabled everyone to be informed and they subsequently pushed down decision making to lower levels of the organization.

As a result, U.S. forces were able to turn the tide and went from carrying out as few as one raid per week on targets of interest in October 2003 to an average of 10 raids per night in August 2006. “We essentially were able to run our opponents into the ground but only by changing the way we interacted,” McChrystal said.

Applications for Commercial Organizations

So, how can successes on the battlefield be applied to commercial organizations and their leadership teams? McChrystal said it is how you think about leaders and the roles that they play. While most people have historically thought of leaders as largely males with certain personality traits, McChrystal said he has come to think of leaders as more like gardeners tending to plants. It’s not really gardeners that grow things, but they have a tremendous impact on how various plants turn out through watering, fertilizing, weeding, etc.  

“When we think about leaders creating an organization, what they’re doing is creating an environment or ecosystem in which the people in the organization – the junior leaders and even the most junior people do that which only they can actually do, which is accomplish the mission,” he explained. “We’re in a different world now, this is a team sport. It’s not even just a team, it’s a team of teams and unless all those teams function effectively and unless they function together, it’s really hard for us to win.”

In addition, McChrystal said that leaders must resist the temptation to address the “crisis of the day” by bringing all hands on deck immediately to solve it but rather provide their teams with context regarding these various crises and realize that when they’ve navigated through one, others will still be on the backend to deal with.

“The reality is what senior leaders have to do is have the maturity, is the term I will use, and maybe it’s the contextual span of vision, to lay out for the team, ‘this is what we are doing in the broader picture, these are the things we are dealing with in the short term and they are a big deal,’ but the reality is we’ve got to keep our eye on far ridgelines,” he said. “Sometimes that means bringing the organization in to focus on those things that are very, very important – they are the values of the organization, they are the discipline with which the organization operates, how it functions and it often it is how we develop our junior people. If we want to, we can bring everybody in, work 24 hours a day, buy pizza, and field ground balls… but we won’t be ready for the future if we do that.” 

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of SecurityInfoWatch.com and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at joel@securityinfowatch.com.