A 4-Star General Shares His Secrets for Successful Leadership

by Staff Writer

Speed and agility are becoming ever more critical for leaders and their organizations. In businesses of all kinds, moving quickly is a now essential — and leading fast-moving teams requires a new brand of leadership.

A rapt audience heard Gen. Stanley McChrystal share lessons for today’s leaders at the Smartsheet ENGAGE customer conference keynote earlier this month. McChrystal, a former commander of U.S. and international forces, best-selling author, and founder of the McChrystal Group, shared his thoughts on how leaders can evolve — and bring their teams along with them.

Gen. McChrystal speaking at Smartsheet ENGAGE customer conference

Here are McChrystal’s four insights to empower you to succeed as a modern leader in today’s rapidly changing, competitive market.

1. Efficiency is Not Enough

While efficiency is highly valued in business operations, McChrystal questions the true advantage of efficiency for modern teams. He argues that given the complexities of today’s world, efficiency isn’t enough. Leaders and their teams must have the ability to adapt.

He noted that while teams might have to sacrifice some efficiency for adaptability, adapting to changing conditions is critical for effective results, and there’s little value in doing something efficiently that’s not ultimately effective.

“In an increasingly complex world, efficiency is nothing without the ability to adapt.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

2. Don’t Tell People What to Do

According to McChrystal, when you provide people with a common purpose, build trust within and across teams, and cultivate a shared consciousness, anyone in your organization can take action without going through a chain of approval.

Often the ones on the ground have the best understanding of what action needs to be taken. Leaders should empower their teams to make decisions on the ground, says McChrystal. Rules-based management isn’t always flexible enough in today's world, and sometimes rules become an excuse for not getting things done.

McChrystal’s solution was to tell his teams not to do anything illegal or immoral, nor to be cavalier with the lives of their teams, and to create an environment in which anyone in the organization was empowered to take action without approval, as long as they provide context to leaders.

“If the order is wrong, execute the order we should have given.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

3. Inspire People to Make the Change

Once you realize that the way you work needs to change, you need to inspire people to do things differently. Anyone who has attempted to manage large organizational change knows the challenge faced in getting others to transform, and there are always reasons not to change.

McChrystal shares four objections he typically hears when leaders are looking to change something, and his recommendation for handling each one:

  • “It’s working so far...why change?” Even if things aren’t working as well as they could, people are usually pretty comfortable where they are. The familiar can feel like a better option than the unknown. Leaders must remind people that even if people are competent at the current system, that doesn’t mean that it’s working — or that it will continue to work. Leaders need to show people why the change needs to happen.

  • “What if it doesn’t work?” When trying something new, there’s always a fear of failure. A new way of doing things can bring up feelings of uncertainty — even if the current way of working isn’t really working. McChrystal suggests that leaders remind their teams that if they’re in a bad spot, they should change where they are, even if they have no guarantee that they’ll end up in a better spot.

“If you’re in the field and facing enemy artillery, you should move.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

  • “Will there be room for me in the new system?” McChrystal notes that as things change, people are reasonably concerned about how they will fit into the new way of doing things. “Our job as leaders is to help them figure that out,” he says.

  • “I’m too busy already.” Often, even if people seem to understand the reasons for change and how they will fit in to the new system, they try to push change out until later. McChrystal encourages leaders to work with teams to understand the urgency and importance of change and to inspire their teams to take the leap in spite of all of the other work they need to do.

McChrystal admits that leading change is difficult, and encourages leaders to see change management as a conversation, drawing on the trust they’ve worked to build with their teams.

4. Focus on Cultivating the Environment

Ultimately, says McChrystal, rather than executing themselves, leaders must focus on fostering an environment in which every member of the team understands the context of the problem, what needs to be done to solve the problem, and is empowered to execute.  

He encourages leaders to think of themselves as gardeners who nurture their teams’ environments. Gardeners don’t make plants grow; they prepare the ground, make sure the plants have proper food and water, and continuously remove weeds, McChrystal says. By creating the proper ecosystem for plants to do what they do best, gardeners enable them to thrive.

To learn more about McChrystal’s leadership philosophy, you can read his bestselling books Team of Teams and My Share of the Task, as well as his new book Leaders: Myth and Reality.