What We're Reading February 2018

What We're Reading

As much of the world knows, General Stanley McChrystal has led a distinguished life, perhaps most notably for his command of the Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s fighting to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq. Now a retired four-star general who served for more than 34 years in the U. S. Army, he also is the lead author (with Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell) of the New York Times bestseller, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. In this work he methodically leads the reader through the growing complexity of decision making and shows how the “new rules of engagement” he and his colleagues learned on the battlefield are what will move not only the military but businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations forward.

Looking back over the past 100 years, for example, McChrystal and his co-authors note that since the days of Frederick Taylor’s standardization of industrial processes, leaders have been programmed to search for the “one best way” to solve problems. This search for efficiency and execution of “best practices” in a hierarchical management structure can be slow and cumbersome, locking the organization into doing the same thing, the same way, until it realizes it is becoming very efficient at being ineffective. And the “best practice” in one situation may be overcome by other unpredictable variables.

Where Taylor sought industrial efficiency and speed, our current leadership environment is much more complex. The world is changing faster than ever, the authors write, and efficiency is no longer enough. Instead, we need to cultivate “resilience thinking” to deal in new ways with the challenges of complexity. The smartest response for leaders today is to give small groups the freedom to experiment while driving every¬one to share what they learn across the entire organiza¬tion. As the authors make their case through compelling examples, they demonstrate how the “team of teams” strategy has worked everywhere from hospital emergency rooms to NASA, transforming organizations large and small.

The parallels with The Leadership Challenge and this book are striking. As the authors tell it, McChrystal and his colleagues on the ground in Iraq understood the military’s traditional hierarchical structure added barriers to efficiency and agility and Challenged the Process in very effective ways. They hard-wired “outsight” into the organization by integrating other intelligence and special operations leaders into the decision making and analytic structure (the operations center).

McChrystal himself Enabled Others to Act by giving his leaders the authority to make decisions rapidly, in his name, to achieve an operational mission goal. As he put it, his “eyes on – hands off” approach to trusting others worked because they had superior perspective on what was happening at that time and place—and he had confidence in their knowledge and judgement.

One metaphor used in Team of Teams really spoke to me. It compares exemplary leaders to good gardeners, in that, “Gardeners plant and harvest, but more than anything, they tend”. McChrystal also exemplified this notion: he thoughtfully and carefully “tended his garden” in words and actions, setting the example for others to follow by clearly setting expectations and communicating his leadership philosophy. He understood clearly that the success of his organization was dependent on the informed actions and leader development of his subordinates. He constantly asked for feedback, and was very transparent to those in his command.

I fully expected this book to be a re-hash of yet another military leader’s success on the battlefield. But I was completely wrong. McChrystal and his team clearly captured the dynamic nature of decision making in very complex environments. They artfully used examples in business as well as the historical military context to drive home the point that seeking the “one best way” to solve a problem in our information-saturated society cannot achieve the success of a network of trusted professionals with independent authority to act on a problem.

David A. Bitterman, FACHE is a Certified Facilitator of The Leadership Challenge and Deputy Director, Leader Training Center at the Army Medical Department Center and School. David served 30 years as an Army officer, leading “teams of teams” in locations around the world. He is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, and continues to learn about leadership every day. He can be reached at david.a.bitterman.civ@mail.mil.

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