Transformational leadership lessons from U.S. JSOC leader Stan McChrystal

April 11, 2022

With the Industry 4.0 movement recently marking its 10-year anniversary, I had the privilege to attend an executive level summit of digital leaders from across industry to discuss our collective success on the digital transformation front. Or, more precisely, the factors that continue to hold us back. One overwhelming takeaway from the two days of thought-provoking presentations and intimate discussions was how technology concerns were universally less of an issue than the people and culture aspects of the equation.

Our keynote speaker, retired U.S. General Stan McChrystal, set the tone for us, describing the challenge of leading the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. He told the story of a quick, resilient and digitally enabled adversary that seemed always a step ahead of his team, an assembly of the best of the best of U.S. forces, “exquisitely trained and lavishly resourced” units from the Army, Navy and Air Force. “Al Qaeda in Iraq was extraordinarily effective and had been beating us for two years," he said. "We found we were failing; we had to transform."

JSOC was an impressive group from a distance, McChrystal said, but up close it was an assembly of proud, tribal groups—perhaps not unlike many industrial organizations’ operations, engineering, IT and maintenance departments. “At first it wasn’t a problem, when scale was small or assignments independently pursued,” McChrystal noted. “But with 9/11, we realized JSOC was a Tower of Babel—they didn’t speak the same language and they didn’t trust one another.”

The constituent tribes had siloed communications and individuals entrenched in their ways. “We had to turn people into culture and merge with technology,” McChrystal said. The technology centerpiece was secure, satellite-based video conferencing, and it had to work flawlessly to avoid giving credence to inevitable naysayers. “I told my reports ‘It has to be perfect, or I’ll kill you,’” deadpanned McChrystal to a rapt audience. “They couldn’t tell if I was serious or not either,” McChrystal then joked. “It was just that important: communications became the center of everything we did.”

At first, a 30-minute daily call among the JSOC leadership set the operating rhythm of the organization. But meaning became corrupted as it was translated down the six layers in the hierarchy. “Then, we moved to a 90-minute call with 7,500 people every day,” McChrystal said. The end result? A dynamic, new culture with connectedness and empathy across the organization. Decision-making improved, too, as better-informed personnel made them at the grassroots level.

“In October 2003, we were executing four raids per month with a 70% effectiveness rate, and our attempts to push scale didn’t work,” McChrystal said. But with the new communications strategy in place, that number jumped to 300 raids per month by August 2006. “Our roles had to change,” McChrystal added. “We pushed context down, so individuals were able to make decisions. We didn’t bother with reorganizing; we democratized information instead.”

In the process, the general said he gave away a tremendous amount of authority, characterizing his newfound approach as “eyes on, hands off,” adding, “You have to be connected all the time, and you have to change the way you lead.”

And, while the standing calls and associated chat rooms helped to build connections among the JSOC troops, distributed operations—with people spread globally—represents a continuing challenge, not unlike the work-from-home disconnectedness experienced by many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If any of the challenges described by McChrystal sound familiar, you're not alone, as my fellow summit attendees will readily attest. What lessons he shared do you think make sense for your team? Give them a try, and let me know what works for you.

About the author: Keith Larson
About the Author

Keith Larson | Group Publisher

Keith Larson is group publisher responsible for Endeavor Business Media's Industrial Processing group, including Automation World, Chemical Processing, Control, Control Design, Food Processing, Pharma Manufacturing, Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Processing and The Journal.

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