What This General Learned About Leadership in the Iraq War

June 24, 2019

Stanley McCrystal adjusted the american army's leadership approach during the Iraq War out of necessity.

Former General Stanley McChrystal – who was one of America's prominent military leaders during the Iraq War – learned a big lesson about leadership during that conflict.

And it applies today’s workplace more than ever.

For decades, the American military exemplified the “command-and-control” approach to leadership. Soldiers were trained to do exactly what their commanders said. There was no talking back, no deliberation – what was ordered, happened, and happened quickly.

For years, this approach worked. Until, in the deserts of the Persian Gulf, it didn’t.

There, fighting against al-Qaeda guerilla units, this command-and-control approach – despite being executed well – wasn’t enough. Suddenly, the American military had to adopt a new approach, fighting a much more agile enemy.

“Al-Qaeda in Iraq really intersected with the rise in the information age and so, suddenly, they were able to leverage video, they were able to leverage cell phones, the internet, so that they could create an effect in one part of Iraq and suddenly get value from that action in a place like Mosul almost instantaneously,” McChrystal said in the LinkedIn Learning course, Leaders: Make Your Teams More Agile, Creative, and United.

“So what it allowed them to do with this networked approach, almost franchised-like approach, was to be very agile, very lethal and constantly adapt it,” he added. “And so we found that, against that foe, our traditional efficiency, as good as it was, wasn't enough.”

Former General Stanley McChrystal explains why the American military adopted an agile leadership approach in a video from the LinkedIn Learning course, Leaders: Make Your Teams More Agile, Creative, and United.

What Shared Consciousness Is and Why the American Military Adopted It

In response, McChrystal and other American military leaders soon began teaching a new model of leadership called “shared consciousness” to their units. What does that mean?

Two things:

  • Information is shared immediately and with everyone.

The American military’s reputation is one of secrets accessible to only those with the highest of ranks. The Iraq War blew that approach up and demanded the exact opposite – full transparency, where information is shared immediately.

The net effect of this is what McChrystal describes as a “shared consciousness,” where everyone on the team has access to all information, along with sharing their own information. This allows for better decisions at scale.

  • The idea of a single leader being eschewed for small, empowered teams.

Additionally, no longer would teams report to central command, with then central command making decisions for each team. That proved both inefficient and, McChrystal found, people on-the-ground tended to make better decisions than central control.

So, first off, teams were made smaller. “If you think of a small team, four, five, six people, you have shared consciousness automatically,” McChrystal said. “You know what each other's thinking because you're just integrated so closely that you'll constantly see the same things, make the same decisions."

Additionally, these teams were given much more decision-making power. This way, you have agile teams making decisions on the front lines, instead of one central command – and also, one potential source of failure – trying to make decisions for dozens of teams.

“We changed our structure to create a true team of teams, not a single team commanded by a hierarchical leader, but a team of teams that were networked together,” McChrystal said in the course. “Because we found that, in today's environment where things are so much faster and interconnected, you have to make decisions close to the point of action because that's where people understand what's happening and that's where they can operate fast enough to be relevant.”

The America military adopted this approach fully in 2007 – and suddenly, the American war efforts in Iraq became far more effective.

What This Has to Do With Business Today

At this point, you might be thinking this story is interesting, but not terribly relevant. What does fighting a war in Iraq have in common with, say, selling enterprise software?

Well, according to McChrystal, a lot. Because the environment he experienced in Iraq is very similar to the landscape all businesses are in today.

“As we studied this and we went to businesses, we found that the speed and interconnectedness and the resulting complexity are exactly what businesses and other organizations face today,” McChrystal said in the course. “Those 19th and 20th century organizations that look good on organization charts that have silos, they have set processes and checklists, are fine to create organization in a predictable environment and they can be very, very efficient, but they're far too ponderous and far too slow and far too able to agilely change with constant shifting seas in today's environment.”

He’s right – and that’s only becoming more and more true. In the Age of AI, things are changing faster and faster, meaning organizations need to make faster decisions.

McChrystal found this out with the most high-stakes possible, where lives were literally on the line. Most of us don’t have that sort of responsibility in our business lives; although the lesson holds true.

So, here’s the real point – command-and-control structures seem so efficient and effective, there’s a desire to adopt it. But, well, there aren’t, and they just don’t work in today’s world.

Instead, the far better approach is to adopt full transparency and to empower teams to make their own decisions. Yes, you need some structure and policies in place, but you don’t want too much that it hinders agility.

That’s a tough balance, and something that organizations struggle with every day. The good news – if you get it right, you have a massive competitive advantage.

Hungry for more lessons like this? Watch the full LinkedIn Learning course, Leaders: Make Your Teams More Agile, Creative, and United.

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