Listen, Learn, Then Lead

General Stanley McChrystal I’m really enjoying the TED talks I am finding on leadership. (see last week’s post for background on this)

This week I watched a talk titled “Listen, Learn, Then Lead…” by four-star general Stanley McChrystal. He shared what he has learned about leadership over his decades in the military. Fascinating stuff and very relevant to the realm of business leadership.

He talks about traditional ideals of leadership, (what we and many would call the “command and control” model), with leaders like Robert E. Lee, and John Buford at Gettysburg. Many have noted that there is a shift away from this type of leadership, and now, apparently even in the military, this is changing.

The key points he makes which I think are extremely relevant for business are:

  • In the past you could gather a team together and build confidence and trust “eye-to-eye.” This is no longer always possible with forces dispersed all over the world. The same is true in business. With portions of the work force being “virtual” and the global nature of business how do leaders build trust and faith when the team can’t always be together?
  • Building consensus and shared purpose vs. giving orders. This is something very “near and dear” to the heart of 2130 Partners’ work.We constantly work with leadership teams about creating a “Yonder Star,” (meaning a powerful shared purpose), and then aligning teams around that purpose. Working collaboratively instead of “tops down.” It’s interesting to note that even in the military, these notions are taking root.
  • Generational differences. How do you create a “shared purpose and shared consciousness” when you are dealing with people of different generations? They have a different view on history, life experiences, different skill sets with different media and often a different vocabulary. This is true in organizations as well. How do you create this “shared sense” and transcend these differences?
  • Inversion of expertise. What do you do when things that senior leaders grew up doing are no longer being done? When the younger generations understand the new tactics, approaches and tools better than you do? How do you maintain credibility and legitimacy when you are leading people in this scenario?

I was fascinated by what he recommended to leaders about dealing with these new conditions. What he talks about is surely relevant to all leaders:

  • More transparency.
  • Be a lot more willing to listen.
  • Be willing to be “reverse mentored” from the people below you.

He also talked about the fact that “relationships are the sinew that holds it all together.” Again, something very close to the heart of 2130 Partners’ work. We focus a lot on productive interactions and how to work together successfully in “the human dimension.”

The piece he raises about relationships could be a real revelation in business. He talks about the Ranger regiment and their six stanza creed they recite each day. The line he says most of us probably have heard is about, “we will never leave a fallen comrade.” As he so eloquently states, “this is not a mantra or a poem, but a promise that no matter what it costs me, I’m coming for you. Every ranger gets this from every other ranger and because they have lived it and lived up to it he says it has even more power.” It got me thinking – what if instead of being competitive, organizational teams were like this? What if some part of your organization was failing or some initiative failed and instead of writing people up and firing them, or sending them into political exile, the promise from leadership was, “I’m coming for you. No matter what it costs me and I won’t let you fail.” What an extraordinary shift in business! What new outcomes could happen?

And since he is so eloquent, we’ll let General McChrystal have the last word with these quotes:

“Leaders aren’t good because they are right. They are good because they are willing to learn, and to trust.”

“This isn’t easy stuff… and it isn’t always fair. You can get knocked down and it hurts and it leaves scars. If you are a leader, the people you’ve counted on will help you up, and if you are a leader who people count on, they need you on your feet.”