Recently, my team had the honor of hosting retired four-star General Stan McChrystal as our keynote speaker for an event. The audience was a group of folks with an important job at Cisco; helping our customers navigate various escalation channels when they have problems with our products or services. With a relentless focus on customer experience, this role requires superb listening skills, a mindset for problem solving, and, most importantly, the ability to lead. So, who better to talk to us about leadership in tough situations than the former head of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and the former leader of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command?
Having traded in his military brass for a blazer, General McChrystal was unassuming and insisted we call him Stan. In between war stories, he drew parallels from the battlefield to the boardroom, emphasizing the importance of leaders setting the tone and driving the right culture. McChrystal emphasized that the role of leaders is to remove roadblocks to make the team effective. And, that instilling confidence and empowering teams is critical, especially during challenging times when there’s uncertainty about how things will unfold and play out.
An example brought this to life. As he managed the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq, McChrystal and his leaders realized that the Army’s longstanding, rigid leadership practices were not effective against an enemy that employed loose, decentralized leadership and decision-making. This was giving the enemy an edge and by maintaining traditional operations standards, the U.S. was losing the war. To turn the tide, McChrystal needed to help the U.S. forces make a fundamental shift in leadership practices, changing the way they communicated, operated, and made decisions.
The first step was to be more inclusive. Daily briefings with top levels of U.S. Army leadership were extended to thousands of soldiers, using technology to connect broader teams and share intelligence with everyone, simultaneously. This created a “shared consciousness”, which then strengthened the team’s common purpose and built trust.
Next, planning and decision-making was delegated down into the ranks to the people doing the work. Teams collaborated more effectively, and were empowered to act on intel much more quickly. Positive results were seen almost immediately.
This story struck a chord with me because, like many leaders, General McChrystal could have just maintained the Army’s top down status quo. There was tremendous risk involved in change, including potential loss of life. But, he noted that you can’t mitigate risk through policies, even in the Army. And, with an “eyes on, hands off” approach, he found that his teams were more careful and thoughtful about decisions because they owned it and were fully accountable.
As business leaders, our risks are primarily economic, but we also experience tremendous resistance to change. General McChrystal’s compelling message was that organizations and people who don’t embrace change are simply going to lose. When we’re under threat from a competitor or in a tough customer situation, do we let go the reins and allow our teams use their judgment and take action? Do we give them the confidence to step up, take on big challenges, and own them?
That’s the culture I strive for with my teams – General McChrystal called it “empowered execution”. Frankly, if the Army, with a deeply embedded structure and norms can adapt its leadership style so nimbly to meet circumstances, then we civilians certainly have a fighting chance to do so as well.