The Humble Gardener — A Leadership Reflection on McChrystal’s Team of Teams

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Trust, Common Purpose, Shared Consciousness, and Empowered Execution 

“Few of us are criticised if we faithfully do what has worked many times before.”

General McChrystal [i]

As I have now made the decision to leave the military and seek a new career in the corporate sector, I have had to reflect on who I am as a leader now and what sort of leader I need to be for future challenges. I have worked for leaders, and had followers, of varying quality along my leadership journey in the military. I have learned something from all of them about who I want to be as a leader; the values and actions that I never want to be associated with, and the values and actions that I will seek to inculcate into myself.

One thing I have learned is how to apply different leadership styles in different situations. As a leader, I aspire to not let fear of failure or judgement influence my decision making, and to have the moral courage and conviction to create and foster a team that is able to successfully operate in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. General Stanley McChrystal is a leader who has acted in this manner throughout his career.

General McChrystal served in the US Army for 34 years and was known to be an outspoken and unorthodox, but highly successful leader. He maintained an excellent track record throughout this career for leading global teams whilst transforming them to be able to solve the complex problems they faced. He never accepted the status quo, was not afraid of failure, and sought to create the most effective team to suit the environment.

In 2003, General McChrystal was put in command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which comprised the top-tier US and Coalition Special Forces Units charged with removing the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). JSOC had the best personnel, resources, equipment and processes refined over 25 years. AQI had limited personnel, resources and equipment, and processes that were brand new. Yet, AQI was able to effectively fight an insurgency against US Forces. “AQI was an organisation native to the information-rich, densely interconnected world. It operated in a way that diverged radically from what was thought to be correct or effective.” AQI were ‘digital natives’ whilst the structures of JSOC made them ‘digital immigrants’.[ii]

General McChrystal and his team were able to recognise that their large organisation, based on strict military hierarchy and the compartmentalisation and secrecy common in the world of special operations, was not adaptable or agile. One of their most important conclusions was that adaptability and agility are typically characteristics of small teams, enabled by the traits of trust, common purpose, shared consciousness, and empowered execution.

General McChrystal’s ability to transform his global organisation into a ‘Team of Teams’ capable of successfully operating in a complex environment was remarkable, but also replicable. Learning how to incorporate these four traits into who I am as a leader will help me develop my ability to make any team I lead succeed through adaptability and agility in the VUCA world.


“How does a leader stay credible and legitimate when they haven’t done what the people you’re leading are doing. It’s a brand-new leadership challenge. It forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, a lot more willing to be reversed mentored from lower.”

General McChrystal [iii]

The leadership challenge that General McChrystal outlined in this TED talk is something I have yet to deal with on a large scale. In my current profession, we are all ‘soldiers first, leaders second’; I am qualified and proficient at the same techniques and equipment that my soldiers are. With my transition into the corporate world, where it is almost guaranteed that I will not have a grass-roots understanding or proficiency of my subordinates’ roles, I will need to actively focus on making the required changes in myself. Chief among these changes will be becoming more willing to listen and learn – be reverse mentored – from whoever is best-placed to teach me regardless of seniority or rank, both of which will be enabled by developing my ability to trust.

General McChrystal developed a network of trust across JSOC by breaking down barriers. Whereas individuals within the organisation had historically only maintained trust relationships within their discrete teams and the hierarchy above them, they would now build these networks laterally by removing the organisation’s stovepipes. Embedding members from different teams with each other forged this strong network of trust. Each team would send their best to embed with another force for up to six months, where they would each be an ambassador and teacher for their team’s identity, while learning why the other team had slightly different practices and ways of operating.

General McChrystal’s intention was not for everyone to know everyone else across his organisation, but for someone in each team to know someone else in every other team to enable them to “imagine a friend’s face rather than a competitive rival” [iv]. One of the major lessons that I can draw from General McChrystal’s practices to enhance trust is that the ego of an individual or discrete team identity should never get in the way of doing what is required for the success of the team or organisation.

Common Purpose

“You have to aggregate everybody’s capabilities to achieve a single purpose, taking into account the fact that they have distinct authorities and responsibilities. That’s creating unity of effort rather than unity of command, and it’s a much more complex management challenge.”

Admiral Thad Allen, USCG (ret.)[v]

During an interview with the Washington Post, General McChrystal explained that the ‘bulldozer mentality’ with change is counter-productive. Instead, developing an understanding of people’s motivations – their habits, biases, equities, and reputations – can help the leader to demonstrate why the status quo is unsustainable, and that the change needs their help to succeed (Cunningham, 2015).

[Q] What’s the key to being a renegade with clout in an organisation versus one whose ideas are ignored or stonewalled? [A] You have to have empathy.” [vi]. Empathy is a key enabler of change, adaptability and agility in organisations. Without empathy we cannot be inclusive, and without inclusion allocentrism cannot exist. Allocentrism, common purpose, and unity of effort are synonyms for each other; allocentric individuals prioritise collective needs over individual needs.

The development of understanding between the various and dispersed elements of JSOC enabled McChrystal to unify his ‘team of teams’ under a common purpose that everyone was invested in. This investment and unity then elicited genuine contributions from everyone – it gave people a reason to strive to be more than they are. There are five simple rules from General McChrystal and his team that I have identified that make the formation and continued cohesiveness of an allocentric entity more effective:

  • Every interaction is meaningful: Always be in control of yourself and your emotions as each interaction can leave a positive or negative influence on someone.
  • Lead by example always: If people see you cut corners, that will implicitly give them approval to cut corners themselves, whilst also eroding their ability to trust you.
  • Know your limitations: Everyone is human, and no single person is the ‘silver bullet’.
  • Be willing to learn from, and listen to, subordinates: Leave ego at the door.
  • Don’t hide from mistakes; own them, and learn from them: “Leaders can let you fail, and yet not let you be a failure.” (McChrystal, 2011)[vii]

Shared Consciousness

“The pursuit of efficiency was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimising for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency”

General McChrystal [viii]

The asymmetric situation General McChrystal and his team faced whilst fighting AQI forced them to re-analyse the problem they were faced with to come up with an effective solution. They realised that their key problem was their “…approach to management, the internal architecture and culture, not in the tactics or technology being used. Their management structure was optimised for a complicated environment, not a complex one.”[ix]

Once General McChrystal had built his team of teams, with trust and a common purpose, he had to enable them to adapt to the complex problem in front of them. The first component in making this happen was the extremely transparent sharing of information across the organisation, a trait they named ‘shared consciousness’. The time-lag between someone processing data into an intelligence product was too long; sharing the sea of raw data across their new all-informed network enabled the various elements of their broad organisation to react with the speed required to become successfully proactive against AQI. They began getting everyone to think of information like milk or dairy – a delicate item that will not be useable in a few days – instead of a valuable resource to hoard like gold.

One quote from General McChrystal has particularly resonated with me to explain what shared consciousness will do within an organisation — “The organisation has got to look at iconoclastic thinking and say: That is of real value to us.”[x] I had to find out what iconoclastic meant at first, but then a few of its synonyms grabbed my attention; non-conformist, maverick, and innovative. Being typecast as a maverick or non-conformist is typically the first step towards career-suicide due to our zero-defect mentality that does not allow for mistakes; iconoclastic thinking and questioning has to be embraced as this is how we leverage the shared consciousness of our team of teams to truly innovate.

I assess that two values are evident drivers in how people respond to iconoclastic questioning; fear in personnel uncomfortable or unwilling to find out the answers, and courage in the individuals or groups who are willing to question the status quo. The removal of ego from all situations and interactions required to do this resounds well with one of the five rules I identified from the common purpose trait; being willing to learn from, and listen to, subordinates. I believe the continual questioning and understanding of assumptions is required at each iteration of change.

Empowered Execution

“Efficiency is doing things right, effectiveness is doing the right things”

Peter Drucker [xi]

Now that the team of teams was enabled by their shared consciousness, the second component of the adaptation characteristic was required. A new managerial architecture was needed to enable fleeting opportunities to be acted upon or adapted to. General McChrystal called this empowered execution. Empowered execution is a process of decentralising decision-making authority with a new organisational structure; a networked and non-hierarchical one. Militaries around the world have been using decentralised decision-making models for almost 80 years — the German Military in WWII employed Aufragstaktik [mission-type orders] and Schwerpunkt [point of effort], which have since evolved into the widely-employed Mission Command model and Manoeuvre Theory.

Within these models, the articulation of the desired end-state and commander’s intent enables flexible and adaptable decisions to be made that nest within the intent; however, the organisational structures and hierarchies in the military still make this ill-suited to a complex operating environment. This was proven by the inability of the International Stabilisation Assistance Force (ISAF) – a coalition of approximately 130,000 soldiers –  in Afghanistan to achieve any lasting strategic success, and an innumerable amount of missed opportunities over a decade of operations.

Drucker’s quote above highlights that organisations commonly mistake efficiency for effectiveness, as ISAF did in Afghanistan. Two terms I have learnt to employ through my most recent operational experience is (1) Measures of Efficiency and (2) Measures of Effectiveness. It is of no benefit to the organisation if what I’m doing is highly efficient, where efficiency equals 100%, but totally disconnected from what I’m meant to be doing, where effectiveness equals 0%. A successful leader in the VUCA world needs to maintain a constantly reviewed and tangible link between these two measures. If our actions aren’t contributing to the achievement of our measure of effectiveness, then we are wasting resources, primarily our most valuable one—time.

Organisations may have the best personnel and equipment, but they may not be an organisation suited for that time and place[xii]. Organisational charts consist of specialised vertical columns (departments and divisions) and horizontal tiers that denote levels of authority, with the most powerful on top – the only tier with access to all columns. The efficiency, strength and logic that we see in such an organisation is an extension of the separation of planning from execution. Dissolving barriers – the walls of the silos, and floors of the hierarchies – that had previously made organisation’s efficient and effective in complicated environments was a key to enabling empowered execution and developing effectiveness in a complex environment. Almost everything McChrystal’s team did ran against the grain of military tradition and general organisational practice. They abandoned many of the principles that had helped establish their efficacy in the 20th century, because the 21st is a different game with different rules (McChrystal et al, 2015, p.52).

The organisational architecture that these four traits knit together led me to my greatest takeaway from General McChrystal; the proof that an organisation is truly adaptable and agile is whether it can survive without any one person, even if that is me.


One thing I did not focus on in this reflection was specific leadership styles or attributes. My experience in the military has shown me that to be an effective leader of homogenous or diverse teams, all leadership styles need to be employed at various times. This will be influenced by a myriad of factors: time to achieve task, impact of not achieving, personnel and resources available, morale, or whether the problem was known or unknown. An effective leader should be able to, on cue, transition from a directive leader to a participative leader, and everything in between, depending on these factors.

The four traits of small teams that General McChrystal and his team so successfully implemented are a cohesive architecture. It would also be difficult or even impossible to develop shared consciousness and empowered execution without having trust or common purpose. Creating an agile and adaptable ‘team of teams’ is only possible by implementing all four traits.

By applying these traits to such a large organisation, General McChrystal was able to transform JSOC into an entity that could survive the loss of individuals from their leadership ranks. He effectively made the added value of any one individual, especially himself, equal to zero. The greatest lesson I have learned from General McChrystal is that for an organisation to be truly adaptable and agile in a complex world, then it must be capable of adapting to the loss of any one person.

About the author 

Steve Cotterill is a Cavalry Officer in the Australian Army. He is passionate about working to create high-performing and resilient individuals, teams and companies to deliver sustained competitive advantage. He is completing the Executive MBA at Melbourne Business School and is looking forward to moving into a corporate role when he graduates in August 2018.


[i] McChrystal, S, Collins, T, Silverman, D, and Fussell, C (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, 1 Edition, Portfolio, p.8

[ii] McChrystal, S, Collins, T, Silverman, D, and Fussell, C (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, 1 Edition, Portfolio, p.19

[iii] McChrystal, S (2011), Listen, learn… then lead, TED2011, March 2011

[iv] McChrystal, S, Collins, T, Silverman, D, and Fussell, C (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, 1 Edition, Portfolio, p.129

[v] Berinato, S (2010), You have to lead from everywhere, Harvard Business Review, Leadership Lessons from the Military, pp 11-15.

[vi] Cunningham, L (2015), Stanley McChrystal on how to shake up the military [online]. Available at: [Accessed 07 Apr 17]

[vii] McChrystal, S (2011), Listen, learn… then lead, TED2011, March 2011

[viii] McChrystal, S, Collins, T, Silverman, D, and Fussell, C (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, 1 Edition, Portfolio, p.20

[ix] McChrystal, S, Collins, T, Silverman, D, and Fussell, C (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, 1 Edition, Portfolio, p.32

[x] Cunningham, L (2015), Stanley McChrystal on how to shake up the military [online]. Available at: [Accessed 07 Apr 17]

[xi] McChrystal, S, Collins, T, Silverman, D, and Fussell, C (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, 1 Edition, Portfolio, p.81

[xii] McChrystal, S, Collins, T, Silverman, D, and Fussell, C (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, 1 Edition, Portfolio, p.27