July 19, 2016

At the Gazelles FORTUNE Leadership Summit in May, I had the honor of hearing General Stanley A. McChrystal address our convention. McChrystal’s last assignment was Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan – a position some say he earned because of his reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to think or say the things no one else would. Today, he is leading The McChrystal Group, a consulting firm dedicated to “bringing lessons from the battlefield to the boardroom,” and is the author of New York Times Bestseller Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. His military record is remarkable, and his experience and perspectives are applicable to our corporate world and organizational leadership.

Leaders ARE the Culture

“As leaders, you are the culture” says McChrystal. You are not separate from the people who make up the culture within your organization, he went on to explain. A leader can’t make that differentiation or act disconnected. In order for the culture of your organization to be strong, and to be respected as leaders, we must be connected to our teams.

Be Adaptable

Once McChrystal understood that ISIS and the Taliban did not operate under any military hierarchy, he adapted the hierarchy of his units to meet the enemy’s structure. He realized he could not fight an organization that operated in such a vastly different way than our own military, and knew that success would be tied to changing US operations to adapt. Ultimately, this led to the successful take-down of a highly-sought after al-Qaeda leader. So, as we think about our competitors in the marketplace – even considering that constantly changing environments or our own selves may be our biggest competitors – we must be agile to succeed.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

One of McChrystal’s most surprising challenges was that he was often told by people around him that the White House was angry with him. Ultimately, those comments were traced back to an un-named aide, no particular official. He demanded to know the source and was direct in conversing with them. How many times have we been told the Executive Suite is not happy – with no named person to directly address?

While McChrystal often had views that were not aligned with his commander-in-chief at the time, when asked about his interactions with these Presidents he spoke about their strengths. He described President Bush as always having his back, and said President Obama engaged in hearty conversations to make rational decisions. (My impression was that he wasn’t comparing or contrasting these two presidents; rather that he valued different things about each of them.)

McChrystal’s experiences in the Army seem very removed from our daily work lives. Yet, we can apply his take-a-ways to our own leadership decisions and to the culture of our organizations.