As a business leader, chances are excellent you've never seen anything nearly as bad as the current pandemic. But General Stanley McChrystal has. The retired four-star general and former Army Ranger was a top commander in both Afghanistan and Iraq and is clearly a guy who knows a thing or two about keeping calm in extremely hairy situations.
So how does he recommend leading in a crisis? One of his top pieces of advice will probably surprise managers whose first impulse is to circle the wagons and put all the weight of decision making on themselves and a handful of trusted lieutenants.
While your impulse may be to take more control during tough times, in Iraq McChrystal discovered it's often better to decentralize authority when you're in a complex fight with a wily enemy, be it terrorists or a deadly virus.
You are the problem, not the solution.
The advice comes from McChrystal's book Team of Teams via Business Insider, which hosted the general on its podcast "This Is Success." In the course of the discussion, McChrystal explained how the U.S. military was losing the battle against Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi back in 2004. Al-Zarqawi kept doing the unexpected, and the American forces just couldn't keep up with his unpredictability.
The problem, McChrystal would come to understand, wasn't his professional and lion-hearted soldiers. It was the rigidity of the command structure.
"When I took over I was approving every mission because I'm the commander, and I found there's no way you can be fast enough, so my role changed," he told BI. "I went from being the micro-manager, the centralized director, to being a commander who creates this ecosystem in which this group of really talented people figure it out. And my goal was to keep the ecosystem going, grow it with new participants and keep everyone supported and inspired."
The title of McChrystal's book encapsulates this approach - he created "a team of teams," in which every decision did not need to be passed up through the hierarchy, but instead could be acted on by empowered local commanders.
It works for business crises too.
All of which is an incredibly fascinating peek into the thinking of a great leader in trying times, but the lessons McChrystal learned in Iraq don't just apply in war zones. They also apply for business leaders in times of crisis, according to top consultancy McKinsey.
"In routine emergencies such as a fire in a factory, senior executives can direct a predefined response. But in a fast-changing situation like the coronavirus outbreak, a small executive group can't collect information or make decisions quickly enough to respond effectively. What you need now is a strong network of teams that share a purpose and collaborate efficiently across groups," Quartz reported as part of a helpful roundup of crisis response advice from the famed firm.
"As an executive, your job isn't to tell your teams what to do; your job is to set clear priorities and empower those teams to shape the company's best response," the piece concludes.
If you're tempted to respond to the current crisis by shouldering every burden and making every decision, remember McChrystal's advice. He managed to hunt down al-Zarqawi, but not by playing the lone hero. Instead he created a team of teams and gave them the authority and flexibility to be heroes in whatever way the situation called for. Consider doing the same within your organization.
Correction: A previous version of this column misidentified part of General Stanley McChrystal's military experience. He is a retired four-star general and a former Army Ranger, and he was a top commander in Afghanistan and Iraq.