In 2003, General Stanley McChrystal became the leader of the Joint Special Operations Task Force. In that role, he oversaw various elite counter-terrorism units, including the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and several classified units. He quickly realized there were significant communications gaps between the 20-to-60-soldier units in the battlefield and big-picture decision-makers at headquarters in Fort Bragg. 

"Even though we kept winning fights, we were going to lose this war," says former Navy SEAL David Silverman, a combat-decorated veteran with six operational deployments worldwide, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem, in a word, was cooperation. The individual units were models of trust, chemistry and altruism. But the units were siloed. They were not properly working together in the service of the larger mission. Without better cooperation, they were not going to defeat the agility of Al Qaeda in Iraq, despite their advantage in training and equipment, says Silverman.

If you're in the business world, it's easy enough to find analogies between McChrystal's organizational challenge and your own. Countless, indeed, are the comparisons between military and business scenarios. The most relied-upon testament of the synergies is, of course, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, a perennial on lists of must-read business books. Stephen E. Ambrose's books, especially Band of Brothers and D-Day, are also leadership classics. 

McChrystal's recently released book, Team of Teams, aims to be part of that list. McChrystal and Silverman co-founded the CrossLead consultancy in 2011, sharing (and selling) the lessons they learned about breaking down silos and fostering alignment. Today CrossLead has more than 80 employees. The book lays out how many of CrossLead's methods stem from McChrystal and Silverman's experiences in the military. 

Co-authored by CrossLead employees Chris Fussell and Tantum Collins, the book declares that the "the most critical element" in McChrystal's turnaround of the Task Force was rethinking the 90-minute morning meeting called the Operations and Intelligence brief, or the O & I. True, the idea of a morning huddle is hardly groundbreaking in business settings. But McChrystal's revamped meeting protocol transformed a culture. In time, the prideful units learned to stop blustering and start sharing. And they learned to work together. Here's how: 

1. Extend more invitations. And show up.  

To reestablish the O & I meeting as a daily ritual with newfound significance, McChrystal first had to stamp the importance of it in the most obvious way: by always attending them and never postponing or rescheduling. If he walked the talk, most of the units would get the message and do likewise. 

The meeting started every morning at 9:00 a.m. EST. Any member of the Task Force could dial in from a secure laptop and participate by video. This in itself was a big change. Previously the O & I meetings had been the exclusive province of a few commanders and unit leaders. Now anyone in the hierarchy was not only invited to attend, but encouraged.

The start time was ideal for the Washington, D.C.-based departments that the Task Force wanted to integrate more seamlessly into its operations. Likewise, the 4:00 p.m. start in Iraq was ideal for the fighting units. It allowed them to train in the morning, provide updates at the O & I, then do their fighting until dawn. The Task Force called this synchronized cycle its "battle rhythm." 

2. Share all your news, whether it's rosy or murky.

Sharing honest information with your boss--or, in this case, the General--is never easy. Unit leaders naturally feared that sharing mistakes or admitting incompetencies could hurt their reputations. Plus, it's never easy to sum up nuanced projects in sound bites. "Broadcasting unfiltered accounts of our successes and failures risked misinterpretation of complex, in-process endeavors or statements being taken out of context," explain the Team of Teams co-authors. 

So McChrystal had to lead from the front. First, he himself had to share all news, whether positive or negative. Second, he had to show during the meetings that he was nonjudgmental about the news, whether positive or negative. For meetings like this to work in your organization, it's important that you have "an incredibly self-aware leader to start," says Silverman. After all, even great leaders can unknowingly express applause or disapproval through nonverbal signals. In addition, the leader has to show "an empathy to new ideas regardless of where they come from."

In short, the leader should use the meetings to support sharing, and avoid the temptation to make decisions or indicate preferences. When Alan Mulally became CEO of Ford, he made of point of forcing his executives to share bad news as well as good--an executive  team can't solve problems it doesn't know about. "I didn't see Stan make a lot of decisions at these meetings," adds Silverman. "He made sure the information exchange was happening irrespective of if it was good or bad news." 

3. Persuade the skeptics by making the meetings too valuable to be missed. 

In the book, McChrystal admits that, early on, the leader of one agency offered the same response every day for one year: "Nothing new to report on our end." 

Rather than reprimand this skeptic and others, McChrystal recognized that "he had to create so much value in the meeting that they could not afford to miss it," says Silverman. This was not just a matter of empathy, but a matter of hierarchy: Even as commander of the Task Force, McChrystal did not have mandate or hire-fire authority over every leader he hoped would participate. So the value-add approach was the most practical answer. 

How did he go about making the meetings valuable? By continuing to share his own news--good and bad--and being nonjudgmental toward the other brave sharers. He also made the meetings as fast--and filled with can't-miss discussions--as they could possibly be. If a particular individual had a four-minute speaking slot, the "update" portion of his slot was limited to the first minute. The rest was open-ended dialogue, which Silverman says helped "in creating a shared consciousness." That is, the units began to learn more about how their own projects fit in with the whole. Moreover, the updates had to be about the present day. "No one wanted to hear what you'd done in the last war," the co-authors write.

The meetings became more valuable to the skeptics as they saw how much insight they could gain by sharing. As an example not in the book, Silverman shared a story about the bomb-sniffing dogs some units used. The dogs were also trained as attack dogs, and every so often, one of them would bite a non-combatant. "Stan was like, if we can't control these dogs, I have to pull them away," says Silverman. 

After discussing the dogs at an O & I, it turned out, there was an in-house solution. "Eighteen layers down in the ranks, some sergeant happened to be working on a remote-control muzzle," says Silverman. "On the call, he said, 'I could probably try this.' Pretty soon, [the muzzle] went viral." In other words, there was a solution somewhere in the organization. But it was a solution Silverman believes would not have been uncovered without the new culture that the revamped meetings had fostered.

Published on: May 15, 2015