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How DOD Evolved Its Leadership Model, Agility with General Stanley McChrystal – Plus Your Weekend Reads

In order to be a great leader you have to be agile and open. Those are two things that don’t lend themselves naturally to the Defense Department. The DoD is known for it’s hierarchical culture, but that is changing, because the nature of war is changing. Now the DOD is facing opponents without borders or states.

General Stanley McChrystal addressed these and more issues during his keynote presentation at FOSE.

General McChrystal was formerly the Commander of International Security Assistance Force as well the United States Forces in Afghanistan. General McChrystal has also commanded the Joint Special Operations Command and the 75th Ranger Regiment. He recently retired from the US Army, and is now a Senior Fellow at Yale as well as an author.

General McChrystal told the crowd at FOSE that the intelligence community was forced to evolve after 9/11. “We faced a challenge we had never seen before, we didn’t have the right equipment, the right mentality, the right physical training.”

“After 9/11 the sea on which we operated changed because instead of predictable or finite terrorist groups we had Al-Qaeda. It is tough to get your mind around the fact that they were not geographically grounded and had very broad aims. It was constantly evolving. When we first entered the war we thought of their organization as a hierarchical. We went after the top two in charge. But they never got the memo that that’s how they were supposed to operate. They were in this lose association, a network. It made them extraordinary adoptable and resilient.”

How to target a foe without a blueprint?

“Our charter said respond to terrorist attacks. When Al-Qaeda hijacked planes they didn’t demand anything, they basically said how do you like that. So now if you wait to respond you respond to wreckage and dead bodies. You have to develop a strategy to preempt,” said McChrystal.

Key to Success is Collaboration

“You have to get people to share the problem with. We went after an inter-agency taskforce. In late 2003, it was my approach, I built a big tent to assemble everyone in and for a time I thought I was a genius. But each part of the tent brought different structures, approaches, cultures, objectives – so just putting everyone in the same space didn’t solve the problem. I had to lead by influence, because most of the people there were on loan from their agency, so I couldn’t hire, fire or incentivize them,” said McChrystal.

Shared Consciousness

“You can separate military, business and government anymore. It is all interconnected so the more people we can get to see and understand the problem the better. We had to operate under a model of shared consciousness and purpose.”

Get Rid of Hierarchical Systems

“It seems obvious but it is much harder than it seems. The only way to deal was to let go of the hierarchy. The mantra become it takes a network to defeat a network like Al-Qaeda. But when you get rid of a hierarchal system you have to also let go of control and the ability to limit what people have access to. But you gain speed and decentralization. We had to be decentralized because we were fighting in 27 different places at once. One fight linked together but each local had to be different enough to adapt to things on the ground. The ability to develop networks that could gather information and help turn that into understanding and then translate that understanding into action was key.”

In order to facilitate that collaboration McChrystal set up a new staffing seating arrangement that forced people from different departments and agencies to work together.

Leaders don’t have a look, all leaders have these things in common:

  • Leaders will deal with evolving challenges.
  • Leaders are going to have to adapt to those challenges.
  • Leaders will have to deal with the human factor.

Weekend Reads

  • The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace:To Encourage Interaction and Innovation, Companies Try Smaller Spaces, Games; Trivia Helps Break Awkward Silences
  • Atmospheric Conditions Impact Performance: Atmosphere matters. Just as pressure systems, high winds and extreme temperatures can collide to create violent storms, just the right calmness and moderate temperatures can combine to provide a perfect day. A work environment is no different. If you are looking to drive your team to better outcomes or simply aren’t seeing the results you would like, you have to honestly look at yourself and ask the question: am I creating the environment for success? An organization’s culture and atmosphere is made up of a complex mix of important factors that combine to give employees and others the daily “feel” of the place. Leaders drive many of those factors such as: the tone at the top, positive employee engagement, an aspirational vision, a passion for the mission, attracting talented high performers and even creating constructive conflict. All of those things impact the work environment. Those, and many others, can and often are a major priority for leaders. They are thought about in strategic planning sessions and retreats. They are the subject of articles, books and conferences. However, one crucial aspect of the workplace—atmosphere—is often ignored.
  • Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People In Business honoree follows a strict routine that allows all that productivity. Here, he shares five key creativity boosters that you can put into play right now.

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2 Comments

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Profile Photo Mark F. Lessig

General McChrystal did not get rid of the hierarchical nature of ISAF by changing the seating chart. That’s a ridiculous premise. Provided the right people are promoted for the right reasons, any hierarchy can be made effective. The problem, and, yes, it’s a real problem, is the Services have promoted and continue to promote the wrong people. Civilian senior leaders are no better. The DOD SES Corps is the most myopic, self-aggrandizing, ingratiatory group in the DOD. Let’s remember that if any junior officer did what Stanley McChrystal did, they’d have been fired and most likely demoted. Don’t hang too hard on every word he says.

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Profile Photo Carol Davison

No but changing the seating plan to mix it up encourages non group think. Its promoting the right people with the right competencies into the right seats on the bus at the right time that optimizes effectiveness. Most organizations promote their own kind because people like people who are like them. They don’t realize that the lumps in my head near to fill the holes in theirs to optimze effectiveness.

How do you make this above play?

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