I heard a great talk today with the former head of US Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. It was an engaging discussion that touched on leadership challenges that he encountered during the Iraq War, where the military’s traditional and centralized management style was failing against the fluid and adaptable nature of jihadi terrorist organizations. The lessons learned have implications for leaders of organizations of all sizes.
McChrystal discussed how he had to figure out how to respond to the shadowy, decentralized nature of Al Qaeda in Iraq, where the US military’s traditional response was mechanical and heavy-handed, and failing – change had to come, and quickly.
He figured out that Al Qaeda’s adaptability was besting US military efficiency. Functional excellence isn’t enough to defeat this amorphous enemy. In response, McChrystal changed the culture: Leadership began listening more to lower ranks and spending time with those on the ground to develop a more comprehensive view of the struggle. They broke down barriers between siloed departments that had their own agendas and consistently reviewed the big picture with all staff layers—changing the DNA of the military way.
Decision making was pushed down the ranks, which empowered those closer to the front, creating new generations of leaders – teams of teams. Essentially, the game had changed. Now, leaders needed to become enablers and orchestrators. Leadership developed the ability to tie teams together, align stakeholders, and help them accept risk for their decisions (McChrystal referred to this as developing ‘shared consciousness’ amongst the organization). By doing so, the US military was better able to target and eliminate the enemy.
McChrystal noted common leadership challenges, such as difficulty keeping focus, as with modern society’s information explosion, it’s easy to get distracted. As a leader, though, it’s imperative to stay focused on your objective. Developing a small set of core priorities is key, but limit the number so they are achievable.
Another challenge for leaders is communicating the big picture and prioritized goals to all levels of the organization. Leaders must relentlessly repeat and reinforce these views (at least SEVEN times) to get true organizational buy-in.
Leaders also need to have a thick skin. Sometimes events go sideways and call for the leader to take the heat. Don’t do things to an organization that could be fatal; make sound decisions with good metrics and data. Let go of the reins and decentralize until you’re uncomfortable, and then, per General McChrystal, do it again. This is scary to do, but will ultimately help change the culture.
As I said before, these lessons are applicable to leaders of organizations of all sizes, including yours. Just like modern warfare, your industry and business are always changing, so don’t rely on a 20th-century model when the competition is evolving; you’ll only fall behind.
Rob Schenk is a partner with Intivix, and is responsible for strategy, account management and operational leadership. To learn more about the Intivix team and what they can offer your business, get in touch right away at (415) 543-1033 (ext. 1) or firstname.lastname@example.org.