Lessons from General McChrystal: Responsibility of a Leader

By: Howie Cohen

Most leaders want to make a positive impact in their organization — and most individuals want to be on high-performing, elite teams. Very few wake up in the morning with a burning desire to fail at work.

Yet why do individuals perform at substandard or mediocre levels? Why do many teams fail? What prevents many organizations from achieving their goals?

From my experience, these teams lack effective, caring, and invested leadership. Most people want to be challenged to achieve high standards, work in a disciplined environment, and be held accountable for their performance. In the absence of these elements, performance suffers and engagement drops off. Those who are poorly led, micromanaged, not challenged, or held to low standards will underperform.

Years ago, I encountered this phenomenon head on. The lessons I learned helped me become a more effective leader.

In June 1996, I took command of the 112th Signal Battalion. Shortly after, I attended the United States Special Operations Command Pre-Command Course at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. I ran into a mentor and friend of mine, Colonel Stan McChrystal (later to become General McChrystal, Commander, International Security Assistance Force and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan and eventual founder of McChrystal Group). We spent a few minutes catching up on each other’s lives over a cup of coffee. The discussion eventually progressed to topics such as leadership philosophy and preparation for command.

At this point in his career, Colonel McChrystal had successfully commanded multiple times as a Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, and Colonel. At this time, he commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment. Our casual conversation suddenly challenged me to become introspective as he shared the following thoughts with me:

I believe that soldiers wake up in the morning with the intent to do great things. They want to be on high-performing, elite teams. They do not come to work to fail. However, often times, soldiers don’t excel at their job. If that happens, I believe one of the following three things is missing:
1) Someone failed to clearly communicate the standards and expectations demanded of them.
2) Someone failed to properly train them.
3) Someone failed to provide these soldiers with the resources need to do their job well.
If one, two or all three of these things are missing, who is at fault? Who has the responsibility to provide these three things? It is a leader’s responsibility! Thus, if a soldier is not performing well, I believe the leadership is failing him.
Now, if leaders clearly communicate the standards and expectations, provide quality training, and, provide the right resources, yet the soldier still fails to perform, at that point you have to reevaluate whether the individual is a good fit for that organization. However, until the leader provides all three of these things, the leader is the one who is responsible for that soldier’s substandard performance.

These words had a profound impact upon me, shifting how I thought about my own responsibilities as a leader.

I served with General McChrystal three different times during my 28-year military career. Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

  • Create a healthy environment and culture. Through his words and actions, General McChrystal taught me that a leader’s responsibility is to create a climate and culture that both challenges and enables individuals to operate at their very best. A leader must set the conditions for success. If a leader does that effectively, the men and women in that organization will often exceed the expectations placed on them.
  • Build a team of teams. Fostering a high-performing environment depends on building trust, establishing and communicating a common purpose or vision, creating an environment where sharing information and collaborating with others is encouraged and rewarded. The leader must also push decision-making down to the lowest level possible. (General McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams, outlines these principles in more depth.)
  • Encourage risk. Successful leaders allow those below them to take measured risk, make honest mistakes and learn from them, and encourage creativity and innovation. Most importantly, these leaders underwrite the honest mistakes of their personnel.
  • Invest in your people. Through General McChrystal’s example, I learned that effective leaders invest in their people by coaching and mentoring them to be better. As leaders, we have a responsibility to help others be successful. By sharing our experiences and guiding those below us, we build strong relationships based on trust.
  • Take responsibility. Working with General McChrystal taught me that my soldiers’ failures were my failures. He always said, “You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.” When someone below me made a mistake, I took ownership of it. When leaders take good care their people, those people take good care of their leaders.

Now, more than ever, leadership matters. We find ourselves operating in complex, unpredictable environments that require highly effective, adaptable leaders who create and sustain a healthy organizational culture.

Today’s adaptable leader communicates effectively, exhibits high levels of self-discipline, demonstrates self-awareness, and commits to continuous learning and self-improvement. The role of the leader has shifted from barking orders and managing all aspects of the organization to connecting people both internally and externally to share information and collaborate, while demonstrating the confidence and trust in his or her people to decentralize decision-making to lower levels.

When a leader exhibits these skill-sets and commits to the principles discussed above, he or she will lead a high-performing, elite team capable of successfully executing challenging tasks in a complex environment.

Howie Cohen is a partner at McChrystal Group, an elite advisory services firm that aims to build adaptable teams capable of solving the world’s most complex leadership challenges. Prior to joining McChrystal Group, Howie served for 27 years in the US Army, retiring at the rank of Colonel.

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