Stanley McChrystal. © Getty Images
Stanley McChrystal. © Getty Images

Learn how to delegate like Stanley McChrystal

9 June 2017

Smash siloes and think like a gardener, says the US general, retired, who knows a thing or two about leadership

The name Stanley McChrystal is one you may not recognise. The 62-year-old is best known as the decorated US army general (now retired) who led the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq during the Gulf Wars – it was his team who captured Saddam Hussein.

Now, in a move that is not uncommon among ex-military men, McChrystal is sharing his experiences and the lessons he learnt during years of leadership in tough conditions as a management consultant.

After leaving the army in 2010, McChrystal joined Yale University as a senior fellow in the prestigious Jackson Institute For Global Affairs. He sits on a number of boards, including JetBlue Airways, and is the best-selling author of the book Team Of Teams: New Rules Of Engagement For A Complex World.

So what does this military man have to share about leadership? For McChrystal, it is delegation and empowering all members of his team that equals success – especially if you want to bring down an al-Qaeda leader (McChrystal’s men killed al-Qaeda chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). He is disparaging of hierarchies (caveating that businesses, like the army, need some form of structure) and advises firms to tear down siloes.

“View your leadership as being less about giving top-down orders and more about cultivating those who follow you, empowering them to make the right decisions,” he said in a 2015 Forbes interview. “Many leaders are tempted to lead like a chess master, striving to control every move, when they should be leading like gardeners: creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem in which the organisation operates.”

He advocates constant communication, honesty even in times of uncertainty, and asking questions of people at all levels. To draw out ideas from subordinates, he writes in Team Of Teams that he would ask junior officers and sergeants the question: “‘If I told you that you weren’t going home until we win – what would you do differently?’ At first they would chuckle, assuming I was joking, but soon realised I wasn’t,” he writes. “At that point most became very thoughtful. If they were forced to operate on a metric of task completion, rather than watching the clock until they went home, the implications would be significant. Once they recalculated, their answers were impressive. Most adjusted their approach to take a longer view of solving the problem.”

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