A retired four-star general, Stan McChrystal is the former commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan and the former commander of the nation’s premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He is best known for creating a counter-terrorism organization that revolutionized the interagency operating culture. His leadership of JSOC is credited with the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein and the 2006 location and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Since retiring from the military, Gen. McChrystal has served on several corporate boards of directors, including Deutsche Bank America, JetBlue Airways, Navistar, Siemens Government Technologies, Fiscal Note and Accent Technologies. He is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he teaches a course on leadership.
A passionate advocate for national service, McChrystal is the Chair of the Board of Service Year Alliance, which envisions a future in which a service year is a cultural expectation and common opportunity for every young American. Additionally, he is the author of the bestselling leadership books, My Share of the Task: A Memoir, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, and Leaders: Myth and Reality.
Gen. McChrystal founded McChrystal Group in January 2011. Recognizing that companies today are experiencing parallels to what he and his colleagues faced in the war theater, he established this advisory services firm to help businesses challenge the hierarchical, “command and control” approach to organizational management.
Chris Fussell serves as the President of McChrystal Group and is an author of the 2015 New York Times bestseller, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, as well as 2017 Wall Street Journal bestseller, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams.
Mr. Fussell was commissioned as a Naval Officer in 1997 and spent the next 15 years on U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, leading SEAL elements in combat zones around the globe. From war-torn Kosovo to counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to highly specialized efforts in the troubled areas of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, he experienced and led through the modern evolution of the U.S. military’s Special Operations community, first on SEAL Teams Two and Eight, then in the Naval Special Warfare Development Group.
Mr. Fussell was selected to serve as Aide-de-Camp to then-Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal during General McChrystal’s final year commanding the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), where they served for a year together in Iraq. He witnessed first-hand the Special Operations community’s transformation into a successful, agile network. In 2012, Mr. Fussell left the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in order to join McChrystal Group.
As the world faces an unprecedented global crisis, all facets of society have been affected tremendously, including Corporate America. Organizations across the United States have been forced to quickly adjust and face the COVID-19 crisis head on, and, in particular, leaders of these organizations must find innovative approaches to keep their teams motivated and productive.
In a recent web presentation, Thuy Vu, Co-Founder and President of the Global Mentor Network, sat down with Stan McChrystal, retired U.S. Army General and Founder and CEO of McChrystal Group, and Chris Fussell, Former Navy SEAL and President of McChrystal Group, to discuss how leaders can adapt to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis. This C-Suite segment features highlights from the interview.
General Stan McChrystal: The two are interrelated because leaders need to provide what the team needs. It feels like an existential crisis, but we’re going to get through it. The first thing a leader must do is give people a contextual understanding of the situation in very candid terms so that they can process it. Then the leader can also give them the reassurance that, “There’s going to be tomorrow, there’s going to be a next year. We’re going to go through a lot, but we’re going to come through it stronger.”
The next thing a leader needs to do is provide clear direction. There is this tendency to say that all the plans are out. We’re working from home. Nothing is the same. But really organizations have to keep working. Businesses have to keep functioning. They have to meet customer and client needs. One of the things you have to do early as a leader is tell people, “Yes, what we do must change a bit, but we must still accomplish our job.”
Finally, leaders must provide inspiration. A leader has to convince people that although they’re isolated, they’re still part of the team doing something important.
Chris Fussell: What we found in Al-Qaeda and what we find here in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is the world is flatter and interconnected through technology. It makes for a more interesting world, but also a higher-risk world. Leaders need to leverage that technology effectively, as we are today.
We’ve all gotten comfortable in the routine of the occasional webinar or conference calls. We lead in a bigger, more distributed fashion now. When you’re truly this disconnected, leaders need to immediately pivot to what we call digital leadership. That became the mantra for the special operations community. It may sound counter-intuitive because we think of leadership as front-line battlefield. But today’s fight also requires leaders to get comfortable leading their organization through digital platforms.
We often will tell senior executives that the camera is your new best friend. You have to learn how to be a leader to your people, whether it’s 100 people or 100,000 people, through digital platforms. You have to do it very quickly because we’re all going through this together. Your colleagues are no longer in the hallway. They’re no longer having lunch with their friends or coffee in the morning. They’re sitting in their home waiting to hear from you. Bring that genuine leadership into this environment, and you can help bridge the gap between where we are now to a standpoint where we will be on the other side of this because we certainly will get through it.
We lead in a bigger, more distributed fashion now. When you’re truly this disconnected, leaders need to immediately pivot to what we call digital leadership.
– Chris Fussell, President, McChrystal Group
McChrystal: Imagine individuals who are fairly young and have been told to work from home. They have been assigned some work. They’re doing it, but they don’t know how it fits into the big picture. They don’t know where its priority lies. They don’t even know if they’re doing it well, because they’re not getting the same feedback that you get in an office, and they can’t look at their peers doing it.
I think what leaders have to do is first provide the context for the work they’ve assigned. You set priorities. You say, “This is what we’re focused on now in this time of crisis and moving forward. This is what you’re doing, and this is how it fits. This is how it matters.”
Then we’ve got to do more outreach on an individual level. We tend to think video teleconferencing is for groups. First-line supervisors and more senior roles need to reach out particularly to young people once a day. It can be for two minutes through a video call. Give the feedback that used to come with a pat on the shoulder or a smile in the hallway. I think that’s critical, and it makes people feel like they are connected to the team and doing something that matters.
McChrystal: If an organization is going to survive, then you have to cut costs. I think the best way to do it, first, is always treat people with dignity. Everyone who joins your organization, everybody who works here and everybody who leaves it should be treated with dignity. Now, that’s sometimes hard at the emotional moment when someone loses a job. The reality is the organization should do everything it can to try to support that person.
The second is be absolutely honest with the organization. You must show people the numbers and say, “This is our situation, we have to do this, or we just don’t survive.” While it doesn’t erase the disappointment that someone feels, the reality is employees will respect it. The most important thing you can do in that case is show people the respect that in most cases they’ve very much earned.
Fussell: Yes, I think it’s critical. I would say one of the things that we learned in the special operations community was constantly calling for what is the strategy? What are we going to do today that guarantees we will win?
It took us a little while to realize that when you’re fighting something this complex, what we see our leaders say is, “We are going to become a culture that is able to win no matter what it encounters. We will be as adaptable as the network we are facing. We will be able to flex with greater speed and clarity, and we have all the necessary tools, the scale and all the other comparative strengths.”
Organizations should be thinking, “How do I create a highly adaptable and very agile organizational model at scale?” Whether 300 people or 300,000 people, we need to become a culture that is comfortable and is in a state of constant adaptation.
“Be ready for a surprise and interesting things to start to unfold because we all react differently in different times.”
Fussell: We were in my most remote and isolated positions the first time I met Stanley McChrystal face to face. It felt like I already had a relationship with him as a subordinate because we interacted so much digitally. But I could tell you the first time we were physically co-located, I was part of a three-person team sitting on the border Afghanistan and Pakistan quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
Well, I didn’t feel like I was isolated. We felt like we were part of a global team. We maintained purposeful connections on a constant cycle around the world. At a certain point, if you truly buy into that model, and I can tell you this from my own experience, you forget who’s forward and who’s home because you’re constantly involved with each other. You’re chatting, you’re on devices, you’re sending emails, you’re seeing each other physically. Those barriers break down.
Fussell: There are different types of leadership personalities that thrive in different environments. One of the things we try to caution leaders against as you go into a mode like this is to not expect that the same 10% is going to be the same 10%. Be ready for a surprise and interesting things to start to unfold because we all react differently in different times.
I can tell you from the special operations community digital portals were all we had. We found new and interesting ways to leverage platforms. This was 20 years ago, the technology was not there. The user interface was not pretty, but we had phenomenal portals where anyone could go with what we call shared consciousness. The situational awareness for everyone had to be immediate and easy.
If you went to our classified portal, you could immediately see the top 20 taskers and who’s responsible for them, who’s done the most recent work and who needs comments to be placed so that decisions can be made.
I can certainly tell you the most effective and high accountability organization I was ever involved with, and not just because of the personalities that were there, was one that was literally never in the same room. It was thousands of people spread around the world, and we held one another to a level of accountability. I can’t imagine that we could have replicated it if we had all just come into the same building every single day.
McChrystal: What I would say first is orient the organization on the scoreboard and the overall picture. Don’t focus on their particular batting average because it’s that contribution that gives people a sense of purpose.
The next is the transparency. One of the things it does is it reminds you what your work is contributing toward. Otherwise, if people feel like they’re working on an assembly line, and they never see the finished product, it’s hard to get a sense of pride over what you’re doing. There has to be that sense of connection.
Finally, there’s nothing like knowing that you’re appreciated. There’s almost no value you can put on the leader just reaching out and saying, “Great job, thank you.” We used to in front of the 7,500 people that were on our daily video teleconferences. We’d reach out to young people and say, “Hey, great job.” They felt good, but it was magnified by the fact that 7,400 other people heard them get that compliment, and it was good for their reputation. It was good for everyone.
There is nothing more important than taking care of yourself and your relationships.
– General Stan McChrystal, Founder, McChrystal Group
Fussell: One of the things that I know I took away from military experience was to constantly be working yourself out of a job. As soon as you took over, whether it was a four-person unit or a 400-person unit, the person above you would ask, if you went away tomorrow, who’s in charge, and is that person ready to do your job? Your job is to be constantly training them to come into this position.
McChrystal: It’s going to be harder than people realize because much of what we learn when we’re particularly younger in an organization is what we see from other people, our peers and the people just slightly more experienced than us. We learn how to do things, how to act and how to interact from our bosses. We watch what they’ve done as they moved up through it. When people are distributed, they are going to be out of sight, out of mind. The danger is they start to become a phone number or a name, but not somebody we have that same level of empathy with.
Fussell: If we look at what this could do over a 12, 18 or 24 month cycle, I think it’ll come in waves. That’s what the science seems to be suggesting right now. We can’t get lazy in this space.
Organizations are going to have to pivot now and get very aggressive. How are we going to handle this moving forward? We’ve had some conversations with some really progressive organizations out there that are already looking down that horizon. We’d encourage everyone to really think through what a two year and beyond plan looks like in this space.
McChrystal: The first thing you have to do is give them the big picture and the contextual understanding. This will allow them to make decisions with confidence and understand how they fit in. The second is you have to set the expectation that they will make decisions.
Now that means that they will fail a certain percentage of the time. You need to figure out beforehand how you’re going to deal with failure. You have to say, “Okay, good try. You swung at the pitch.” If you don’t, you’re not going to get the kind of initiative that most of us hope out of our young leaders.
Fussell: One of the governing dynamics of the traditional organization is that in times of crisis, leaders have a natural tendency to collapse in on themselves. A lot of industry leaders will have the story of when the factory blew up, and the core team came in during the weekend and got through it.
But what doesn’t get done when that happens is everything else. Everybody is hyper-focused on the issue at hand, and the business doesn’t run itself. We wait to get through that existential moment. The classic example of this in geopolitics is the Cuban Missile Crisis. We made movies and wrote books about this. All the leaders of both nations come together and just solve this one issue for about a two-week period, because otherwise the world is going to literally blow up.
Not much else happened during that window, understandably, because we’re all waiting for the senior leaders to come back out and things to come back down to normalcy. We’re not going to get back into normalcy. That tendency is happening right now in a lot of organizations. They’re centralizing, they’re pulling authority into the core, and everybody’s waiting in their home office to be told what to do.
One of the drums that we beat loudly with leaders, especially in moments like this, is you have to start decentralizing authorities down to those folks that want more responsibility. To do that effectively, they have to hear from you. You have to communicate with them effectively to share information so that they can see and have confidence that they’re in the right direction.
You have to establish a new way of sharing information. What are the digital platforms you’re going to use so that people can maintain that hallway awareness from their home office? As all those things come together, you can really start to cascade authorities down to the edge. When you’re fighting a decentralized, complex network sort of fight like we all are now, it’s happening at the edge. You have to get the responsibility out there with the right levels of information and clarity so that those people who want that increased responsibility are ready to receive it and leverage it effectively.
McChrystal: I think we do. If you go to the last 10 years of a business cycle in the United States, and even the world, it’s been pretty good. There are a lot of leaders who have gotten used to calm seas and started to feel pretty good about that. What that has done is almost given them a pass on having to create the real vision, because real vision comes when you have an uncertain future. You have to plot a course toward something better. I think this is going to help them.
There will be a new normal, unlike what we had before. It’s those leaders who accept that reality and figure out where they can leverage the capacity to go on a better and new direction.
Fussell: One that always pops top of mind for me is take care of yourself and your teams, especially now. This is a disease that we’re fighting. If you let yourself break down, you’re more likely to get sick. If you get sick, you’re useless to your team. You’re going to get your teammates sick and your families sick. The more senior you are, the more important this is because everyone will be watching you. If you’re working 22 hours a day, you’re not eating healthy and you’re starting to fall apart physically, then mentally that’s going to cascade down through the organization. Start thinking immediately, what is my personal cadence to take care of myself, my family and my teammates? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I maintaining a healthy diet? Am I figuring out how I’m going to maintain some physical outlet even though my gym is closed and my normal running route is blocked off?
You have to demonstrate and talk about that with your teammates. Even in the greatest periods of crisis during our conflicts overseas, when a team deployed forward, you still worked out, you still trained. You’d come off a mission and then later that day you’d be training on the range so that everyone was staying sharp mentally and physically. If you let those things start to break down, then that will cascade quickly through your organization.
McChrystal: There is nothing more important than taking care of yourself and your relationships. Those two are interrelated. The relationships that matter to you most are going to be what gets everything else done at the end of the day. Your capability to keep yourself in the game and your capability to be really connected with the people you care so much about.
Thuy Vu oversees content creation, business development and strategic growth at the Global Mentor Network. In other words, keeping an eye on the ship at all times and making sure nothing runs aground.
Ms. Vu immigrated to the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee, lived in a couple of refugee camps, learned English and went on to a fulfilling career as a journalist. She has anchored and reported for various news organizations, including NPR and CBS, ABC and PBS stations.
She is a seven-time Emmy award-winning journalist.
Global Mentor Network helps aspiring leaders build their skills by exposing them to insights from top leaders in government, business, sports, media, social services and entertainment. Mentors offer inspiring, insightful lessons on how to harness diversity of thought to solve complex problems, commit to values-based leadership, and unite and mobilize people to achieve noble causes. Learn more at GMN.net.
McChrystal Group is a global advisory services and leadership development firm composed of a diverse mix of professionals from the military, academic, business and intelligence sectors who specialize in transforming stagnant and siloed organizations into cohesive, adaptable Teams of Teams.
Learn more at mcchrystalgroup.com.