McChrystal: Strive to Close Your ‘Adaptability Gap’

By Theresa Minton-Eversole May 16, 2014

It’s said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But conference-goers attending retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s May 6 keynote session at the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2014 International Conference & Exposition heard that’s not always a good thing.

Even the best-performing teams can be silos, isolated from the rest of the organization and consequently out of step with it, McChrystal said. So leaders must continually work to ensure their organizations are poised to survive never-ceasing change by creating an environment that fosters “organic adaptability.”

“Life is not always exactly what we expect it to be,” he said. “We have to be able to adapt to new things differently” to try as best as possible to keep up with the speed of change.

McChrystal, a four-star general and former leader of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command that oversees the military's most sensitive forces, cited numerous examples of how adaptability—or lack of it—influenced the outcomes of several familiar events.

While the plan for the 2011 capture of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs was well-conceived, the helicopters used by the forces were new. When one of them crashed at the start of the mission outside bin Laden’s compound, suddenly 50 percent of the team was in crisis. The fact that the other half of the team reacted quickly and adapted to the new situation helped ensure the success of the mission.

“SEALs work as a team and build bonds of shared challenge in training,” he explained. “This builds trust and common purpose that allows small teams to work together.”

Scaling such adaptability to large organizations requires leaders to build trust, teamwork and communication among their organizations’ groups by empowering them to make decisions and take ownership of their work, noted McChrystal, author of the best-selling leadership book, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (Penguin, 2013),abouthow he helped change the way military agencies interact and operatewhile he was commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan.

President Barak Obama removed McChrystal from his command in June 2010, following the publication of a Rolling Stone magazine article attributing to McChrystal disparaging remarks about some of the country’s civilian leaders. He is now co-founder of leadership development consultancy the McChrystal Group, which teaches a leadership methodology based on principles such as transparency and inclusion, leveraging the power of teams, and sharing a clear vision. In addition, he is an advisory board member of the military families support initiative Joining Forces.

“At the end of the day, it’s about people and recruiting a ‘team of teams’,” McChrystal said. “It’s about the talent you bring together, the opportunities you give them, and the environment you give them in which to grow. When we put talent and resources together, we can do amazing things.”

The conference ran through May 7.

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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