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Contributing writer

Leadership: From dictator to enabler

Nov 02, 20164 mins
IT LeadershipIT SkillsSecurity

Ret. Gen. Stanley McChrystal tells Rapid7 Security Summit that effective leadership comes from tapping expertise from “deep within an organization”

Effective leadership isn’t what it used to be, because what it was doesn’t work any more.

That declaration comes from one who ought to know – one of the US military’s most prominent and celebrated leaders of the past decade – retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal, who gave the opening keynote at the UNITED2016 Rapid7 Security Summit in Boston Wednesday, admitted at the start that it was the early failure of elite US forces to defeat the terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq that taught him what it would take to succeed.

And he said while a military mission is obviously different from that of civilian organizations seeking to detect and defeat cyberattacks, the same principles apply: Instead of issuing orders from the top down to the “troops,” an effective modern leader is, “more of an enabler, an orchestrator,” he said, who helps to unlock the potential inside the organization.

He compared it to a gardener who, he noted, “can’t grow anything – only plants can do that. But a good gardener can prepare the ground, plant the seed, water, feed, weed – create an environment in which plants can do what they do.”

The kind of hierarchical leadership that led to victory in World War II, where the generals told subordinates what to do and success depended on the execution of those orders, doesn’t work in modern warfare or modern business, he said, citing World War II Gen. George S. Patton and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs as examples of brilliant, visionary leaders who would have to adapt to succeed today.

McChrystal said he had to adapt as well, starting when he was named commander of JSOC in 2003. His mission was to lead a combination of elite military units to eliminate the terrorist threat in Iraq – in particular its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin Laden.

He assumed that these terrorists would operate like others in the past – a pyramid hierarchy that would be, “slow in execution but very precise.

“So when you go after it, you start by analyzing it, fill in the name of its leaders, don’t strike it initially, but then do it quickly so you damage it enough to make it collapse on itself.”

That didn’t work.

“We started looking and couldn’t find it,” he said. “Something completely different was happening. It wasn’t ponderous or slow. It operated as network, was incredibly fast, learned quickly and applied lessons in the same day.

“It was not vulnerable to losing a key leader. It was like they didn’t notice it. They just repaired and moved on. They were extraordinarily adaptable to the situation at the time. They had no baggage about what they’d done before.

“And they were really lethal – really hard to deal with,” he said.

The only way to win, he said, was to adapt. So he did, and the entire organization did.

One daily 30-minute meeting via videoconference between 25 leaders in Baghdad and 25 more at Fort Bragg, NC, evolved into a daily meeting involving 7,500 people in 27 countries.

Four raids per month, personally approved by McChrystal, which on average would eliminate three al Qaeda leaders, escalated to 300 raids per month by 2006, none of them approved by McChrystal.

“That’s how we beat them in 2008,” he said.

McChrystal, now cofounder of The McChrystal group, who expanded on that philosophy in his 2015 book “Team of Teams,” said for business leaders, “it starts by taking down the silos.

“Success came from shared info that used to be kept in the C suite,” he said. “They (subordinates) made decisions on their own. It was a change from hierarchy to shared consciousness – where everybody knows what’s happening and what needs to happen.”

That, he said, also came from his understanding that he was not always the expert. “The experts were deep inside the organization,” he said. “I had to ask them how we operate. It was like reverse mentoring. Their role as experts became incredibly important.”

For a leader to unlock that expertise, he said, requires establishing credibility with subordinates.

“You have to build an organization where people trust you,” he said. “Two-plus-two doesn’t always equal four. It equals what the people in the room believe. Building relationships and credibility is the only way to get the right answer believed.”