“Leadership in a Time of Crisis: General McChrystal’s Advice for President Trump, Governors & CEOs” – Heather Clancy and Christopher Lochhead
What’s the best way to rally the troops, so to speak, in time of crisis? Who better to ask than a decorated American military serviceman?
Retired Four-Star General Stan McChrystal is best-known for his command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the mid-2000s, where he was credited with the death of the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
After a long career serving the United States, he founded McChrystal Group in January 2011 to deliver innovative leadership solutions to businesses globally — helping them transform and succeed in challenging, dynamic environments.
We last featured McChrystal’s insights on leadership on the podcast back in 2018, so when we were selecting guests for our conversations during this time of international crisis, he was at the top of our list.
We’re grateful when he joined us in mid-April to share is thoughts about how to lead through the coronavirus pandemic.
Whether you’re a private-sector executive or an elected government official — yes, even you, President Trump — there’s much to unpack in this episode.
So we encourage you to carve out an hour of your day to listen. Meanwhile, here are 8 highlights from our discussion every leader should put into practice immediately.
First and foremost, provide a sense of direction.
Most leaders never dreamed they’d face such a dangerous invisible enemy. And we’re not used to having our freedom of movement restricted.
Layer on top of that a monster economic crisis, the likes the world hasn’t seen since the Great Depression, and people are disoriented, depressed, distressed and discouraged.
“You may have had a business that was going one way and after this crisis, it’s quite possible that many businesses will go in very different directions and they could be good directions, but people can feel as though everything they are doing is either no longer logical or they can’t put the pieces together to understand where they’re going into,” McChrystal says.
“The leader’s got to provide that direction, but the leader doesn’t have to have a crystal ball. The leader can say, listen, things have changed dramatically and be humble enough to say, I’m not sure how this is going to play out.”
Keep your people synchronized, often.
Use videoconferencing to the extreme to keep teams in touch virtually, since in-person huddles aren’t likely to be an option for some time. This is a technique McChrystal used to advantage during wartime, to keep operations on the same page across multiple locations and time zones.
“Everybody exchanged what they knew,” he says, recalling his experiences. “We got a common picture of what was happening. We call it shared consciousness, and then they could go out and execute. They didn’t have to be told what to do. This wasn’t a decision-making forum. When everybody knew the big picture, they could go out and make good decisions based upon the unique situation in their area and yet have it contribute to the whole.”
Be present, especially when you’re not in the room.
Distractions come easy on virtual meetings, especially for people who are juggling multiple responsibilities — like homeschooling their children or sharing an office with their domestic partner. Digital etiquette needs to start with you.
“When I talk to somebody like a junior person, I can’t be down at my computer multitasking or looking over and talking to somebody else,” McChrystal says. “I’ve got to focus right on them to show my respect and to show my interest … You’ve got to communicate more, you’ve gotta be more disciplined about how often you communicate and when you communicate, you got to try to wring out every bit of value out of it.”
Be radically transparent. That includes you, Mr. President.
Use facts and data, not intuition or unproven theories or hearsay, to keep people updated on a frequent basic. If you don’t know an answer, admit it.
“I think the desire to not scare the people that you are leading so that you don’t get an overreaction is a mistake because eventually the reality comes out and then your credibility is gone,” McChrystal says.
“I also think people can deal much better with transparency and clarity. If people know that it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to last a while, tell them that.”
While he gives good grades to some business leaders and governors for how they’ve responded and communicated, McChrystal says President Trump needs to do better about bridging the gap between his fervent supporters and those who don’t embrace his politics: “The gap between those two iso stark, it’s hard to make a country work. You can disagree with people of different, uh, political backgrounds. But now we don’t believe that. We just discount everything that’s said. And if we can’t close that part of the gap, then I think we’ve got a problem, and I think it starts with the President. The President has to set an example.”
Be a digital-first entrepreneur.
McChrystal’s own company was already flirting with transitioning some portions of its services, such as training, to virtual and digital formats. The COVID-19 crisis forced it to embrace that change more quickly, and he suggests other leaders do the same.
“Some are just waiting for the water to recede and they want to get back to it,” McChrystal says. “But what they’re going to find is their competitors and the people, their clients, customers, suppliers will have started moving on and the future is going to be some hybrid between what we did and probably what we’re doing now, and, and really forward-looking organizations are figuring that out right now.”
Embrace real data.
In a crisis, data saves lives.
Data saves money.
Data drives revenue.
Data synchronizes supply chains.
Data empowers employees.
The real challenge for any leader, private or public sector, is deciding what’s credible and what filters to use for decision-making.
McChrystal notes: “What I worry most about is right now we are suspicious of data, and I am suspicious of data because we used to have a period when there were news sources, information sources, and you, you treated them with a fair amount of credibility …
Nowadays, there’s no filter, so anybody with information can call it data or they can call it truth and they can pump it out and show the ability to curate that. To figure out what’s true and what isn’t is hard in real time. And we’re not doing very well.”
One big reason for the “pathetic” U.S. response to the pandemic was the denial by federal officials that there was a problem, McChrystal says. This forced all 50 states to wage war on coronavirus on their own or as part of regional cooperatives.
“Every part of the U.S. should have been getting a common picture every day of what the COVID-19 situation was so they would have common understanding,” he says. Then, informed decisions could have been made about where to send ventilators, medical supplies, personal protective equipment and other resources first.”
Something to take out of this crisis: Every business, state and the federal government should be preparing for and drilling for situations like this in years to come more seriously. “It will wax and wane, but it will be in our lives until a vaccine is here, and then the threat of other pandemics will be there,” McChrystal says.
Don’t forget to look into the future.
It’s time for companies of all sizes, but especially large businesses, to look more thoughtful about fundamental questions in the American economy about income inequality.
“You are happy to be an American because you have rights and you get thanks,” McChrystal says. “You also have some obligations, but the day you don’t believe that the American experiment as it is constructed now is likely to give you a better future than you have now why would you sign up for it? Why would you believe in it? And so as soon as you have a significant part of the population that no longer believes in it, then why should they follow the rules?”
As private and public sector leaders assemble plans for the recovery, this should be a foremost consider. “Someday we’ll talk about this time and if we get it right, I mean, if we care about the people we care about, and if we do the right things … then we can hold our heads high after the fact,” McCrystal says.
To that we say: “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Listen to the full podcast >>
This post is based on episode #155 of Christopher Lochhead | Follow Your Different™ and was written by Heather Clancy and Christopher Lochhead, authors of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Niche Down: How To Become Legendary By Being Different