Leadership becomes McChrystal clear

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

The game of golf is a good analogy for task management, or simply getting through life's day-to-day challenges. It doesn't matter if you've ever played, or even like the game. Among other things, it also has noteworthy implications about your leadership style.

When you set the ball on the tee, your goal is to get it into yonder hole as efficiently as possible. No matter how many playing partners you might have on a given day, or how good you all are, it is guaranteed you will not be taking the exact same path to the hole.

Take it from a guy who's spent his fair share of time looking for a ball in the woods, squinting into murky pond water and, most likely of all, dodging in and out of somebody else's fairway. The ball doesn't always go where you want it to, much as in life. 

Golf teaches us that even if your ball flies far to the right in the wrong fairway and your partner's bounces to the left into the woods, you both -- eventually -- wind up meeting on the same green. It can be maddening if you're a perfectionist who expects things to always fall into an orderly system. Conversely, it can be uplifting when you realize all is not lost even if your first attempt totally misses the mark.

The golf analogy does not have to be overly dramatic: I'd settle for it being an indicator that life, work and leadership are all about preparing, performing and then adjusting to what lies before you.

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal drilled this message home during his keynote address Monday at the annual meeting of the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living. As the leader of forces during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he observed that many traditional organizational structures have changed. This has been notable, for example, when dealing with many-tentacled Al Qaeda and other terrorists scattered across wide areas with no central government or hierarchy.

The result, McChrystal said, was he ultimately learned there needed to be a change in leadership style. A traditional body like the U.S. military and its allied forces had to adapt. Ultimately, it's developed into more of a multiple hub-and-spoke pattern that resembles a broad network of interconnected constellations in the sky. Communication, power and skills are more effectively distributed and implemented this way. The leadership team enables a “shared consciousness” but then can also take a breather from hands-on directing of everyone “under” it.

Describing the new reach of allied forces and their approach to combatting widespread, loosely connected foes, McChrystal noted, “We became much more like a brain than a mechanical machine.” Information and impulses were allowed — indeed encouraged — to crisscross one another, in search of the most effective receptor that could advance the cause. Comparisons were also made to an electrical network.

McChrystal emphasized the importance of becoming a “team of teams.” This is a worthy goal for all work forces and their leaders. That doesn't mean abdicating one's leadership duties or roles, but rather adapting them. It's the equivalent of changing your strategy when you whiff the golf ball. Reflecting on his own early life, he noted that “everything that came out well came with a team … I don't have to be the captain or the coach. Just on a team.”

That last sentiment is something all managers should hope to achieve among colleagues. If key players/employees yearn to be a part of the team, the rest tends to fall into place more easily. When individuals, or teams, within your organization are siloed, you lose the edge. This is especially so in today's high-speed technological age, where information can become quickly irrelevant. If you lose your relevance, any efficiency you might have created becomes efficient irrelevance.

One of McChrystal's more intriguing illustrations showed how teams and leaders must embrace — and adapt to —advances in technology and human behavior to get the most out of one another. Otherwise, a push for progress over time is just a flat line, not taking advantage of momentous upswings that could, and should, elevate results. The message is clear: Ignore or be lazy about capitalizing on tech and human behavior opportunities at your own risk.

Another nugget from McChrystal that bears repeating might have been interpreted as just an aside or afterthought. It's worth repeating because it is so obvious yet so often ignored. A veteran of probably more meetings than anyone else in vast ballroom or perhaps 4,000 people, he reminded that having a meeting is a good first step. But the danger is in taking satisfaction that a meeting was well planned and then held. Letting it go at that, without further movement, is a frequent, and dangerous, default.

"That's the only time meetings make a difference — when they turn into action,” he emphasized.

He advised his rapt audience to turn away from a “chessmaster” mode of leadership and instead turn to a “gardner” model. “Prep the ground, pull the weeds, harvest — create the environment so the plant can do what it's designed to do, if it has an appropriate ecosystem.”

Sometimes as a leader, you have to set up your team to succeed … and then step back. Let team members do what they do best, adapting to wherever the ball might fly after the first whack.

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.