US Army General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal calls upon his lifetime of military leadership to provide fables and tales of leadership, all to help you appreciate the power of teams.
US Army General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010 and a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, credits a team of writers with collaborating on this unusual management guide. McChrystal draws on the varied experiences of his co-authors: Yale grad Tantum “Teddy” Collins, a Marshall Scholar in international affairs at Cambridge, and former SEALs David Silverman and Chris Fussell, both current McChrystal Group executives.
The structure and functional distinctions between commands and teams have serious ramifications for adaptability.Stanley McChrystal
You won’t be surprised that McChrystal, a man accustomed to being in charge and supported by an almost unlimited number of staffers should recognize how beneficial co-authors can be. However, you might be surprised that a former four-star Army general – and a former Pentagon, governmental and media superstar – would admit that he needed and accepted help and that he celebrates the help he received.
That attitude speaks to McChrystal’s concept of leadership and to the purpose of this autobiographical work, which sets out principles you can use to build the best possible team from all the potential teams within your organization or company.
McChrystal’s credentials on issues of leadership and teamwork are hard-won and beyond reproach. He calls upon his experience leading troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to frame his lessons and tales. He writes at length in blunt, basic language that only occasionally veers into military-speak or corporate phrase making. His literary and advice-giving voice is that of a storyteller. Every lesson he offers and every nugget of leadership guidance comes in the form of a fable. A military attitude prevails in the prose as he draws from almost every era of history and business and from mythology.
Some fables are the right length, and some run on for pages of description that don’t lead directly to McChrystal’s take-away or main point. This creates the feeling of an over-written reference manual, possibly due to McChrystal’s determination to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
By focusing on the component parts rather than the overall process, we were missing the fundamental problem.Stanley McChrystal
His life in the military seems to have convinced McChrystal that he must explicate everything in detail. The General gained renown in the Army for the depth, breadth and occasional complexity of his PowerPoint presentations. Former president George W. Bush may have been the decider, but McChrystal proves he is the explainer.
McChrystal’s cascade of stories from history, different nations, professions and endeavors – and from his career – suggest an information omnivore who must ensure that everybody knows how much he knows. McChrystal knows a lot, and most of his information is genuinely useful to any team leader.
He opens the book with an incident in Afghanistan, where police officers had to go into action before they completed their training. McChrystal recognizes the hazards of going into duty with inadequate preparation, but, he realizes, “this is the situation leaders and organizations far from any battlefield face every day.”
An Information Omnivore
McChrystal’s default to explanation is not a bad thing, even if his unadorned style gets a little tiring page after page. Most of his explanations are entertaining, illuminating or compelling stories. For instance, he found in Afghanistan that his troops’ superior equipment and training did not compensate for the deeply unfamiliar environment. He found that it called for constant cycles of “changing – assessing – changing,” and recommends that thought process to other leaders.
When he describes a process, purpose or method, you can read every word and learn in detail. But if you’d prefer to go to the endgame of his reasoning, skip a few pages. Despite McChrystal’s efforts to build his arguments and prescriptions brick by brick from page one, his messages prove more digestible if you move around in any order you like. Dipping into the book provides unexpected illuminations; you might need military-level discipline to read from the first page to the last.
Worthwhile, brief “recaps” of the main points conclude each chapter and actually summarize his most salient points. Read from one recap to the next for a clear overview. Each recap closes with a simple, distilled, easy-to-remember and insightful lesson.
Truth of the Situation
McChrystal commanded armies in perhaps the most complex, self-contradictory, taxing and thankless situation of any general in US military history. His attitude and methods produced something that eluded most other generals in that theater: Results. What enabled him to achieve those results might be his most striking and singular quality as a leader and a teacher of leaders: McChrystal always wants to learn.
To become effective…we would have to dismantle our deeply rooted system of secrecy, clearances, and interforce rivalries, and in its place establish an environment of such transparency that every man and woman in our command understood his or her role within the complex system that represented all of our undertakings.Stanley McChrystal
He recognized that these theaters of operation presented unique, even unprecedented challenges. He knew he could not effectively address them using the tactics of previous conflicts or War College exercises. McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan with one dominant mind-set: He would adapt to the truth of the situation as he found it. This is the most important lesson McChrystal imparts. He rails against any reliance on predictions based on experience and against focusing too narrowly on research or preset goals.
While leading the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, McChrystal recognized that he and his forces were not prepared for the situation on the ground and never would be. The General is not afraid to be humble. He notes that Al Qaeda fighters, while hardened and resilient, had little training and few resources, but used innovative disruption to great effect. That is a coming trend affecting all organizations, McChrystal warns. The tactics that worked before won’t work now, and the ability to adapt will make all the difference.
McChrystal doesn’t shy away from salty language, a contrast to most business books. He’s fascinated by issues of trust and how trust scales across organizations. His background makes him the perfect instructor on questions of scale – when to throw more resources at a problem, when to retrench and when to withdraw entirely from one solution to find a better one. His writing on the problems that result from scaling up teams is some of the most compelling and original content in the book.
McChrystal’s take-away is that nothing is more difficult than increasing the size or number of teams while maintaining the superb performance of a single, small unit.
Paradoxically, the seemingly instantaneous communications available up and down the hierarchy had slowed rather than accelerated decision making.Stanley McChrystal
For someone who spent his entire career in a rigid hierarchy, McChrystal makes a surprisingly compelling case for job functions and cultures seldom associated with the military. He calls for a “shared consciousness” among all team members, regardless of position. He makes an articulate case that 21st-century business, war and teamwork will be nothing like their 20th-century counterparts. Embrace change and openness, McChrystal urges, or these new up-and-coming modes will stymie you.
US Army General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal also wrote My Share of the Task: A Memoir. He co-wrote Risk: A User’s Guide with Anna Butrico and Leaders: Myth and Reality with Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone. He co-founded the CrossLead consultancy with former Navy SEAL David Silverman, who is CEO of the McChrystal Group, where Chris Fussell – also a former SEAL and a veteran of the Naval Special Warfare Department – is a partner. McChrystal credits co-author Tantum “Teddy” Collins, a Marshall Scholar in international affairs at Cambridge University, with helping to compile this book.