Combat Consultant: Q&A With Retired General Stanley McChrystal
Robert Gates, the U.S. Defense Secretary under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, once called Stanley McChrystal, who led the counterterrorist force JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I’ve ever met.” McChrystal was also a maverick thinker within the U.S. military, seeing early that terrorist forces such as al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS were more sophisticated than they appeared. They operated with the logic of a fast-moving startup and needed to be fought differently. Today McChrystal runs the McChrystal Group, which helps companies become faster and more flexible.
Q: What kind of companies seek out the McChrystal Group?
McChrystal: The typical company that comes to us isn’t a failing company. What they say is, “We’ve got competence and motivation, and there’s a market for our products. But we’re not doing very well for less tangible reasons.” They’ll say, “We’re too slow in making decisions and ineffective at implementing them. We have capacity that’s locked up in different parts of the company that we can’t seem to interconnect.”
Q: What tends to go wrong?
McChrystal: If we look inside the company, it typically starts with–and this sounds a bit mundane–how the company disseminates information across the organization, and then what they do with that information. Do they make decisions? Are they then able to communicate those decisions effectively and implement them aggressively? That sounds pretty basic. Everybody says, “We do that fine.” However, the reality is that they don’t. They have huge problems with it. The various pieces of the firm don’t work together.
McChrystal: Because managers are classically taught to lock in a standard operating procedure in which people don’t have to organically collaborate.
Q: Which worked well for most of industrial history.
McChrystal: Exactly. For years having a standard operating procedure was good and right. But it’s too mechanical for today’s speed and complexity.
Q: Take us back to your epiphany in the armed services, when you realized that, despite all the might, money and reputation of the U.S. military forces, the asymmetry of fighting al Qaeda in Iraq–and subsequent groups, such as ISIS–was going to require a real rethink on the part of our military.
McChrystal: Yes, it did require a rethink. We had purposely built a counterterrorist force, JSOC, and over 22 years we had tweaked it until it was unparalleled in the world, in terms of competence and professionalism, as well as in its use of existing technologies, and things like that. We could do things that were literally elegant: precision raids, hostage rescues and whatnot. We were a beautifully crafted bullet that would fly straight and true, and be lethal if aimed correctly and fired at the right time. But we weren’t responsible for those two parts of things–which is fine, as long as you’re going up against a somewhat predictable enemy.
But in Iraq we got into a constantly changing environment, against a different kind of enemy, and, suddenly, we had to operate much faster and couldn’t take our time painting the Sistine Chapel. We had to paint faster and get the job done quickly, and we had to make that decision right up close, at the moment.
We stopped being able to be the bullet; we had to become the gun. We also had to be the brains to figure out what the situation was and when to pull the trigger. The bullet still needed to be good, but elegance was less important than effectiveness. So the organization, at a much lower level, had to accept responsibility for decision-making and understanding that hadn’t been required before. And we couldn’t do it just once; we had to literally change the organization on a daily basis—which, therefore, changed the relationships in the organization.
Q: Did you have to upend the classic military hierarchy?
McChrystal: Not formally. What changed was who got what information, how it was controlled, where decisions were made and who was responsible. It even changed sort of the meritocracy inside this, which upset things, but made us remarkably better. That was what happened in Iraq while we were fighting against al Qaeda. If you think about ISIS now, ISIS is Uber.
Q: Uber? I don’t think Uber would like the comparison.
McChrystal: People don’t think about this, but ISIS has almost no investment in what it’s doing. It had Raqqa and Mosul, but most of the people involved there were people ISIS had motivated but not really paid. ISIS wasn’t heavily invested financially. And around the world ISIS is recreating that same model, whether it’s in Europe, the U.S. or Africa.
Q: As a business model, how does ISIS work?
McChrystal: It creates franchises, and those franchises are very well suited to the conditions on the ground because they formed themselves, and they constantly adapt. The upside for ISIS is that these groups are willing to call themselves ISIS. If they succeed, that’s good, but if they fail, ISIS has no investment. This gives ISIS remarkable flexibility—a tremendous ability to change direction, to make new investments. But governments such as the U.S. and others have legacy systems to defend. We’re a little like Ford and GM that way, with a lot of retirees’ health care plans to pay for. We have to defend stuff, while ISIS can constantly morph to our weakest points.
Q: How do you instill cultural changes, such as driving meritocracy deeper into an organization, when people at the top don’t want to give up power? Who wants to give up power?
McChrystal: Well, nobody is the answer, because it’s just not in our nature. We convince ourselves that we hold onto power not because of ego but because it makes us more effective at our jobs. And there’s a logic to that. The trick is to convince people in different parts of the organization that it’s in their best interest. You incentivize them to be connected to the larger goals.
There’s a great story I got from a board I was on, an insurance company that was selling all these policies to people. It came to light that the company was losing money on every policy it sold. So the board called in the head of sales and asked, “My God, what have you done?” And the guy replied, “Exactly what you told me to do.” And the board said, “What do you mean? We didn’t tell you to lose money.” He said, “No, you pay us to sell policies. You don’t pay us to ensure that the company makes money. We did what we were incentivized to do.”
Now, that’s a very stark case, but, in reality, most organizations incentivize people in power, position or control with a pretty limited set of outcomes.
Q: How do you create what you call a shared-consciousness culture?
McChrystal: What you can do is tell people how to think about things and the broader mission. There’s a great line we used to use in Afghanistan: “If, when you get on the ground, the order that we gave you is wrong, execute the order that we should have given you.” Think about the responsibility you’re giving your subordinates when you issue that instruction. You’re looking for them to use their best judgment.
Q: But when you ask employees to use their “best judgment,” that means they’ll be overriding rules. What’s the right level of dissent in an organization? I imagine, that will vary. A freewheeling software company might be a more accommodating place for raucous debate and dissent than the military or the factory floor. How do you get the right level of creative dissent in an organization? And I’d especially love to hear your perspective, because your previous business, the military, doesn’t appear to tolerate much dissent.
McChrystal: [Laughs] There’s a pile of dissent in the military! It just takes different forms. In all healthy organizations, dissent takes place face to face. People tell you, “Okay, I disagree with that.” In unhealthy organizations dissent is passive-aggressive resistance.
Q: Which then poisons a culture.
McChrystal: Exactly. So here’s my view on dissent. Dissent is important. The problem with dissent is that there’s a time and place for it, and there’s a time and place not to have it. I tell people, “When the landing-craft ramp drops and hits the beach, that’s not the time to discuss the plan.” Unhealthy dissent goes away when you show your team respect, engage them in the process and pass information along to them. Give them as much transparency into decision making as is possible and practical to do.
But everybody needs to understand that there’s a point–once a decision has been made or a line has been crossed–at which dissent is no longer appropriate, unless it is very carefully and very maturely provided in the right time, place and way. And that takes a deft hand. What I’m saying is that it’s not okay to bitch about everything all the time and fight things. There’s a time to shut up and execute, and the organization should be schooled in that.
When we work with companies, we explain that planning and executing a task has three phases. The first phase is information gathering, and the second is considering what information to include. These two phases are when you talk things out; dissent at this point is not only essential but also a moral responsibility. If you’ve got something to say, you’ve got to say it then. After a decision is made, it’s probably no longer appropriate to say anything.
In reality, I’m not that black and white, because there might be things emerging after the fact that people should know. But if you didn’t speak during those first two phases, I think it’s inappropriate to raise things that aren’t of an emergency nature.
Q: Diversity of thinking style—how important is that? Or do you prefer uniformity?
McChrystal: I would say diversity on a team or in any decision-making process is really valuable. The challenge is in creating diversity that communicates well. If you take a SEAL or a Ranger organization–they’re like the ones I grew up in–they’re pretty homogenous. You may not think so, but they are: Everybody decided to go into the military, the group is made up of all males, and all are in a pretty tight age range. But within that group, getting different thinking styles is extraordinarily important, as is having a process that allows everybody’s input to be heard … even those people who aren’t as aggressive in the way they talk. To me, that diversity of thought is really, really important. That said, you can’t create the United Nations for every decision that needs to made, or you won’t get anywhere. [Chuckles.]
As for data and intuition, you have to get the data and analysis right. But at the end of the day, the decision maker or the commander—if he or she is good—relies on his or her intuition to sanity-check the data. If a staff puts together a detailed analysis and then says, “You must take course of action two, because it came out the best,” and a commander just accepts that, then automatically I think that’s a weak commander. Good commanders take in all the information, use it to inform themselves and pull their thinking in various directions, and then they go with their intuition.
That turns out to be a really good combination.
Q: Switching subjects, how do you keep so damned fit?
McChrystal: I’m getting older, so I alternate days now. On one day, I get up and run for at least an hour and then do some kind of stretching. On the alternate day, I get up and do about an hour of abs and core workouts in the house, and then I go to the gym and do another hour to 90 minutes of weights and pull-ups. That starts my day. I’m pretty disciplined about doing this every day. I almost never take a day off.
Q: Specific workouts?
McChrystal: On my non-running days I start with pushups. The first set is 51. Then I do three more sets of 46. Then I go down to the basement, where I do 105 sit-ups, followed by a four-and-a-half-minute plank, then a set of yoga stretches. Next I do a set of 72 crossover sit-ups, followed by a four-minute plank and a second set of yoga stretches. Then it’s 36 crunch sit-ups, a three-and-a-half-minute plank, followed by more yoga. For the fourth set I do 52 flutter kicks, a three-minute plank and another set of yoga stretches. For the final set I do 36 crunches—a version in which I alternate legs—followed by a last two-and-a-half-minute plank, then another yoga set.
Q: Then you go to the gym?
McChrystal: Then I go to the gym, where I typically do four sets of pull-ups, with 15 in my first set and then three sets of 10. Then I do three sets of an incline bench press and three sets of curls. But between each of those, I do these things where I balance on one foot holding my other ankle behind me. Those are to build balance and whatnot. The gym part only takes about 40 minutes, which isn’t bad. You can get at it and then move on, and get back, cleaned up and head to work.
Q: Besides your insane fitness regimen, you eat just one meal a day.
McChrystal: Yes. I’ve been doing that for about 40 years, because I thought I was getting fat. Everybody told me how stupid I was, how that was bad for my body. Now, they’re starting to say it’s okay. In a few years, they’ll say it’s bad again. I’m 63; if I change suddenly now, it might kill me. I do this because it feels right for me. I get hungry, and some days I’ll eat lunch. If somebody sets up a business lunch, I won’t sit there and be rude and not eat. But 99% of the time I eat just once, because that feels right. When I got up this morning, I weighed 178 pounds, which is exactly what I weighed when I reported to West Point in 1972.