by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development Lead International USA

“Setting oneself on a predetermined course in unknown waters is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg.”                                                         Henry Mintzberg

Leaders today make these decisions in the context of an increasingly complex operating environment. This was certainly true for General Stanley McChrystal who took command the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq in 2003. The goal was neutralizing Al Qaeda in Iraq but conventional tactics were failing. McChrystal quickly discovered that his opponent was fighting a much different type of warfare than his military forces had prepared to fight. His superior force in terms of personnel and materials was constantly failing to prevent terrorist attacks and capture the perpetuators. In his book Team of Teams, he writes, “In the course of this fight, we had to unlearn a great deal of what we thought we knew about how war – and the world – worked.” A faster, flatter and more flexible task force successfully beat back al-Qaeda. Let’s uncover some of their secrets today.

New Realities

McChrystal identified the following challenges to creating the kind of organizational approach needed.

  • The current systems depended more on being able to predict the enemy’s actions and respond accordingly but the enemy was unpredictable.
  • The needed organizational teamwork was very difficult to scale and created silos.
  • Speeding up the individual elements of the system did nothing to eliminate the interface gaps between them.
  • People had trouble seeing the operating system in its entirety.

Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Evan R. White/Released

The solution “Team of Teams” focused on two practices: “shared consciousness” and “empowered execution.” Shared consciousness starts with a desire to fuse generalized awareness with specialized expertise. Basically, McChrystal argues that often what makes a high performance team (shared vision, strong sense of belonging, high trust level) create barriers to sharing information and true teaming across the organization.   McChrystal’s goal was for the entire organization to share a holistic understanding of the environment and the organization while also preserving each team’s distinctive skill set.

Shared Consciousness

His approaches to creating shared consciousness are all quite practical.

  1. He started with designing an open workspace and putting different rungs of management in the same place.
  2. He established a daily briefing that shared information with all task force members and partners.
  3. Equally important, he made the daily briefings very interactive so that deep learning was taking place across the organization. McChrystal sought to maximize idea flow by having a high level of engagement within teams and encouraging frequent contact among teams.

Empowered execution

McChrystal reveals that as the senior officer, he had to be consulted on most decisions. While this made him feel important and needed, he began to question his value to the process. Unless he had personally been tracking a target, he would usually only know what the officer was telling him. He rarely had some novel insight. Technology had made it possible for him to be in the communication loop, but providing a “rubber stamp” only slowed the process.   While he could access all the information, he could not process it fast enough and accurately enough given the quantity and speed of decision making needed. Empowering others to make decisions became the only way to make the best decisions in the relevant time frame.   McChrystal observed,

“Paradoxically, at exactly the time when I had the capability to make more decisions, my intuition told me I had to make fewer.”

Unfortunately, McChrystal’s revelation is not all that common. According to the Harvard Business Review only 20% of workers feel empowered and act resourcefully. Despite having life and death responsibility, McChrystal chose to err on the side of greater delegation. He discovered the sweet spot of empowerment to be the point at which he felt uncomfortable. McChrystal redefined his role as a “humble gardener” rather than the “heroic leader. He discovered that “Without my constantly pruning and shaping our network, the delicate balance of information, and empowerment that sustained our operation would atrophy.”

The Invisible Hand of Leadership

In economics, it was Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, who introduced
the idea of an “invisible hand” that brings demand and supply into equilibrium. One of the great debates among economists is how much economic intervention is healthy and necessary. At what point do government policies bolster and at what point do they diminish economic growth? Organizational leaders need to ask the same question of their policies, structures, and leadership styles as they grow their organisations.


McChrystal’s “Team of Teams” strategy has worked everywhere from hospital  emergency rooms to NASA and has the potential to transform organizations large and small. It turns out the invisible hand of leadership requires a lot of intentionality and design. And more importantly, requires leaders to lose their ego and redefine their role. But the result is an organization that finds the optimal point between leadership supply and demand.

Are you courageous enough to change your leadership game in order to create a “team of teams”?