Adaptability, shared goals, teamwork and empowerment are the keys to successful missions – both within and outside the military, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal told an audience of about 500 at the Lied Center for Performing Arts on Tuesday night.
The former commander of U.S. and international forces gave the presentation as part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering’s “Building the 22nd Century Conference.” The conference’s focus is predicting and planning for infrastructure changes over the next 100 years. McChrystal spoke on his work with intelligence and operations as well as counter-insurgency strategies. He explained how the lessons he has learned can help strengthen leadership techniques that will help society prepare for the “megacities” of the future.
McChrystal’s work with Joint Special Operations Command is credited with the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein and the 2006 killing of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Co-founder of the McChrystal Group, a consulting firm with a mission of providing leadership solutions to other organizations. McChrystal predicts that similar strategies will need to be applied to the military agencies and conflict-resolution groups of the future.
Though McChrystal acknowledges that the future will mean much technological advancement, success of any group will depend on teamwork and communication rather than developing and using new advancements. He began his presentation with historical examples of failures – mainly a 1973 plane crash that he argued was a prime example of failed communication and teamwork.
“Technology essentially increased the challenge that the crew faced,” McChrystal said. “The crew focused on mitigation rather than adaptation and they failed to work as a team. They weren’t communicating well and it resulted in deaths.”
McChrystal transferred the same lessons to the military, citing examples where separate government organizations failed to work together, though they shared a common objective.
McChrystal identified a problem in the military and the government as a whole: something he labels as “predictive hubris,” or the thought that the future is going to be predictable and necessary responses of the future will mirror past reactions.
This is what McChrystal believes contributed to a failure of quickly defeating al-Qaeda terrorists. Al-Qaeda built a network and carried out acts of terror in new ways. In the past, said McChrystal, plane hijacks included ultimatums – release prisoners in exchange for no violence toward flight passengers. But that changed faster than the U.S. military identified a way to respond.
Terrorists began hijacking planes and crashing them into the World Trade Center, killing hundreds without any sort of proposed deal. But there was an adaptability gap, as McChrystal calls it, where the terrorist network had advanced beyond the learning curve of the U.S. military.
“It was like al-Qaeda said ‘the world has changed, how do you like it?’” McChrystal said. “Suddenly we couldn’t have a reactionary response, we had to be out in front of it. We were good at what we did at the time but what we did was no longer working.”
The military had to adapt. As leader of the Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal was faced with the task of developing a new proactive response team. It was about building a network themselves and establishing trusting relationships between groups.
“We needed more – more teamwork, not more talent,” McChrystal said.
Part of revamping the system involved what McChrystal identifies as empowered execution, or revamping the hierarchy system to allow those at the bottom and closer to the issue to call the shots. It was a marked change from the times when soldiers following protocol would wake McChrystal up to ask him if they could drop a bomb.
“We saw responses and solutions much quicker when we empowered them,” McChrystal said. “They owned the problem because suddenly they were making decisions instead of carrying out someone else’s.”
With that system, the military saw the number of night raids in Afghanistan increase from 18 per month in August 2004 to 300 per month in August 2006. The teamwork was making a difference.Though teamwork is a focus of McChrystal’s methodology, he said it all starts with leadership.“Leadership remains core and leaders are going to have to learn to adapt in a world where information can be scary, where you are going to have to say what you believe, listen to what others believe and learn to let go of some of the power to people you trust,” McChrystal said.
The final photo in McChrystal’s presentation was of a coffin draped by an American flag.
“As a leader, you are going to have to make tough decisions that may have the cost born by others,” he said.
Jane-Stewart Engebretson, communications and marketing manager for the College of Engineering at UNLsees McChrystal’s background as providing a unique perspective on the conference theme and a important lesson in leadership for students.
“From the perspective of managing large, diverse populations, Gen. McChrystal’s background and experiences in the military offer us an intriguing perspective on being an effective leader, especially in challenging circumstances,” Engebretson said.
Both McChrystal and Engebretson agree that strategies going into the next century will have to focus on mobilizing large groups of people if they are to be successful.
“For students, we hope they can leave the presentation with a better understanding of how to be leaders in unique situations, as well as understanding the necessity for having and pursuing a vision and working toward a common purpose,” Engebretson said.
Most of the other events of “Building the 22nd Century” Conference were held in Omaha, but Engebretson said hosting McChrystal in Lincoln was important.
“The College of Engineering serves the entire state, but our primary homes are in Lincoln and Omaha,” Engebretson said. “We wanted to make sure both Lincoln and Omaha were well-represented, especially to participants who may not know much about Nebraska, but also for faculty and students.”
Both McChrystal and dean of the College of Engineering Tim Wei appealed directly to students. Wei gave the introduction, telling students that they are the future leaders that the next century’s society depends upon.
“You will have a 40-to-50-year career and at the end, you will be hiring the next generation of leaders who will have their own 40-to-50-year careers,” Wei said. “Everyone in this audience has a first order impact 100 years out so we need to think about leadership.”
McCrystal repeatedly came back to the theme of leadership, emphasizing with unrelated examples again the importance of adaptability in strong leaders.
“It takes about .2189 seconds for a baseball batter to decide if he is going to swing or not,” McChrystal said. “It’s doable when you’ve practiced and get comfortable.”
The key, however, is to never get too comfortable.
“But what if the game changes? What if the pitch is coming at 150 miles per hour? What if a curveball doesn’t curve like you are always expecting it will? Or what if there are two baseballs, two pitchers?” he said. “Suddenly all you are comfortable with has changed.”