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General Stanley McChrystal: How to Lead Resilient Teams Through Uncertainty


Many of us have hit rock bottom in 2020. The real question is: will we bounce higher in 2021?

In March 23, 1994, I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was a warm spring morning– just starting to get nice outdoors– and I was in the best job you could be in in the Army. I was commanding a battalion of 600 young paratroopers and had commanded them for almost a year: reaching the point where I was confident in the job. Our battalion had just returned from a large training exercise, and we’d done very well.

In three weeks, our battalion would take over the position of Division Ready Force 1. This is the highest priority battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division, the first deployed if anything happens around the world– the first out the door to represent the United States if a crisis were to arise.

While meeting with my brigade commander, we received word that something had happened at Pope Air Force base– a mile and a half away from his office. Through his window, you could see dark, oily smoke billowing from a large tower. We headed to the airfield to appraise the situation, soon learning that an F-16 fighter and a C1-30 cargo plane had collided in the air space above Fort Bragg. Though the C-130 was able to keep flying, the F-16 plane crashed into the parking area, hitting a parked C-141 cargo airplane that was preparing to do a parachute drop with our paratroopers that morning.

When it hit, debris and fuel from the plane produced a fiery wall that engulfed a grassy area where my paratroopers (and those form other battalions) were preparing. Over 20 of my paratroopers were killed, more than 100 were injured, and many were badly wounded or burned. It was a scene of absolute devastation and horror.

There was an immediate sense of shock: the United States was in peace– no one expected a tragic loss. There quickly became the sense that we had to look after our killed and wounded. The division commander pulled me aside as my teammates and I had to do the gruesome work of identifying remains and informing loved ones and told me that my battalion was indeed in line to be the next Division Ready Force 1. Within a few days, he said, I’d have to tell him if our battalion could still be prepared to maintain that ready status.

My first reaction was that we couldn’t be Division Ready Force 1– but then I came to the conclusion that if we could do it, we had to do it. Our battalion had to respond to the loss we had, take care of our families, heal the wounded– but we also had to face forward. We had to embrace our mission. Instead of focusing on loss and tragedy, the battalion had to focus what they had to do: be ready as Division Force 1.

It’s not a question if an individual or an organization will ever get hit with the unexpected, ever get punched. The question is how they respond to it, how they pick themselves up. It’s a familiar lesson.

As the world battles a second wave of Covid-19 amplified by an even more infectious strain of the virus and we prepare for a dark winter of social distancing, our organizations preach resilience. Most of the popular conversation centers on improving individual grit and perseverance: prioritizing self-care, reframing problems as challenges, adopting mindfulness practices, etc. Those techniques are valuable– but they are not the key to developing true resilience. True resilience is a collective capability.

Like the tallest skyscrapers that punctuate a city’s skyline, resilient teams must be anchored to a strong foundation while engineered to move and sway in the face of strong winds. This is not a new idea. Since the early 1990s, organizational theorists and practitioners have known that the paradoxical combination of stability and flexibility is the key to resilience. But that begs the question: why, 30 years later, is team resilience still so elusive?

I would argue that our mistake has been an intense focus on the “why,” at the expense of the “how”– failing to consider the tangible actions needed to cultivate a team culture that naturally produces resilience.

Create Stability with Common Purpose

Resilient teams know who they are, what they do, and why they do it. In times of stress and crisis, identity can become blurred (and even distorted). Wise leaders recognize this existential risk and proactively take steps to reinforce a team’s common purpose to increase engagement and guide decision making.

When I was commanding the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), I had to prioritize aligning all the forces– with their own biases, tactics, and opinions of one another– around a single mission. As the war dragged on, we had to focus our mission further, not expand it wider.

It is not enough to simply paint an inspiring vision or articulate a compelling mission on a regular cadence. Leaders must lead consistently– routinely making difficult decisions that align with the team’s common purpose. Furthermore, they must reveal the inner workings of their decision making to the team, making it clear how the common purpose informed their actions.

The team will begin to see that the common purpose is not simply an aspirational ideal, but an actionable north star that guides all of the leader’s decisions, and over time, it will become permanently rooted in the culture. It will become the stable foundation that is an essential ingredient of every resilient team.

Of course, stability is not the only essential ingredient.

Enhance Flexibility with Actionable Intel

Resilient teams dedicate time and energy to continuously scan the horizon for opportunities and risks. They then proactively push that intel through established communication channels to critical stakeholders for rapid action.

However, it should be noted that truly resilient teams are not always the first to act– they are the first to course correct. Feedback loops are at the heart of resilient teams. Transparency, candor, and psychological safety are the oil that grease the gears of feedback loops. In most organizations, these components are unintentionally discouraged; leaders lash out at messengers who deliver bad news, team members speak in generalizations to avoid conflict, direct reports are rewarded for agreeing with their manager. While these tendencies make for a pleasant team, they do not make for a resilient one.

I sat in almost every single one of our Operations & Intelligence (O&I) briefings, held every day in our fight against al Qaeda in Iraq. I was always on camera, so the entire force could see me– and I knew that a surly attitude or a scowl (even if unintentional) would affect how the force interpreted the day and saw the fight. I publicly thanked people for their candor even when they delivered bad news, or I disagreed with their perspective. To the best of my ability, I tried to model the honesty and transparency that I expected from every member of my team and cultivate an open culture of learning.

When individuals at every level adopt these behaviors and proactively push valuable information to the point of need, the team has the critical information to respond to threats and opportunities. However, this information is only valuable if the mechanisms exist to shift resources and coordinate action across the teams.

These mechanisms form the third, and most neglected ingredient for resilience.

Coordinate Action with the Right Operating Rhythm

Many teams are simply out of sync. They have established a stabilizing common purpose and they have adopted a flexible posture to quickly react, but they lack the connective sinews — an effective operating rhythm to bridge the two ends of the spectrum.

To establish an effective operating rhythm, our teams established the O&I, where the force would align every single day on pressing priorities, updates, and changes in the competitive environment. We used video teleconferencing technology, which was cutting-edge, at the time, to make the force dispersed over the 76 countries feel that they were participating in the same fight and sharing the same vision. The day-to-day drumbeat of these meetings gave us a clear path forward in the fight.

Every team has an operating rhythm– the habitual cadence in which the team meets, shares information, and disperses to get work done – but most of these rhythms happen by accident. More often than not, a leader implements a routine according to their personal preferences and over time this routine takes on a life of its own, simply becoming “the way we do things around here.”

Resilient teams actively fight this pull towards passive adherence. They keep a pulse on their operating rhythm (and other processes), regularly asking, “Does this still make sense in our current context?” When they see slack in the system, they proactively make the necessary adjustments to ensure coordinated action that aligns to the common purpose, while also remaining relevant based on latest intel.

At McChrystal Group, we do our best to practice what we preach. For the last 10 years, we had worked on a weekly cadence, coming together as a company each Friday to hear information from the field, discuss challenges, and share the latest intel on potential opportunities. We were still operating in that rhythm in March when we saw our client pipeline dry up overnight due to travel restrictions associated with Covid-19. We immediately accelerated our operating rhythm, meeting daily as a company to share the critical information that was needed to effectively adapt our business model. Traditionally, we had done 98 percent of our training in the classroom setting. By the end of 2020, 73 percent of our revenue was realized through virtual training. With the continued uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, political transitions, and other significant environmental shifts, we have continued this daily rhythm to ensure we maintain our collective resilience in this time of constant change.

Without question, more unforeseen disruptions, unexpected issues, and unprecedented challenges will greet us in 2021. Some teams will fail. Other teams will hunker down and merely survive. But some teams will take the necessary steps to engineer true resilience – absorbing the hits, redirecting the force to bounce higher in the end – and ultimately, come out on top.

 

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