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Team of Teams

team james thomas 7u1SFd5AL7I unsplash 640pxIn 2015, General Stanley McChrystal partnered with researchers from Yale University to study the fight against the Al Qaeda network. McChrystal argues that “to succeed, maybe even to survive, in the new environment, organizations and leaders must fundamentally change. Efficiency, once the sole icon on the hill, must make room for adaptability in structures, processes, and mindsets that is often uncomfortable.”8

According to McChrystal, the U.S. military is the single most efficient, prepared, and powerful force in the world. Yet with all their might and proficiency, they could not defeat the Al Qaeda network: “We were stronger, more efficient, more robust. But AQI was agile and resilient. In complex environments, resilience often spells success, while even the most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insufficient or counterproductive.”9

Many leadership books of past eras highlight the role of the CEO, the pastor, or General Manager. McChrystal states that this type of leadership led to more things being produced in a faster time for less overall cost. However, “This new world [of conflict with Al-Qaeda] required a fundamental rewriting of the rules of the game. In order to win, we would have to set aside many of the lessons that millennia of military procedure and a century of optimized efficiencies had taught us.”10 He adds, “These events and actors were not only more interdependent than in previous wars, they were also faster. The environment was not just complicated, it was complex.”11

McChrystal realized that their leadership needed a new theme: “It Takes a Network to Defeat a Network.”12 He states, “Cooperative adaptability is essential to high-performing teams.”13 McChrystal argues that a more decentralized structure is better designed for this type of warfare: “Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market—the notion that order best arises not from centralized design but through the decentralized interactivity of buyers and sellers—is an example of ‘emergence’. In other words, order can emerge from the bottom up, as opposed to being directed, with a plan, from the top down.”14

Given these new realities, the military instituted a systems form of thinking where information was shared broadly. It was less efficient, but it created holistic awareness and allowed them to operate as a team of teams. McChrystal cites the research of Sandy Pentland from MIT, who found that “sharing information and creating strong horizontal relationships improves the effectiveness.”15 McChrystal concludes with insights on wisdom for leadership in a complex era:

Effective adaptation to emerging threats and opportunities requires the disciplined practice of empowered execution. Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively… The doctrine of empowered execution may at first glance seem to suggest that leaders are no longer needed. That is certainly the connection made by many who have described networks such as AQI as “leaderless.” But this is wrong. Without Zarqawi, AQI would have been an entirely different organization. In fact, due to the leverage leaders can harness through technology and managerial practices like shared consciousness and empowered execution, senior leaders are now more important than ever, but the role is very different from that of the traditional heroic decision maker.16

Discussing Polycentric Leadership

Joe Handley

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