Leadership Principles and Building Resilient Teams with the McChrystal Group

Over the last few months, I’ve been studying leadership. Two people I’ve learned a lot from are retired Army General Stan McChrystal, and author, podcaster and former Navy SEAL Jocko (more on him soon.)

I’ve gained deep respect for their military achievements, leadership skills, and individual missions. What I’ve learned is that the startup world can apply leadership principles with the McChrystal Group and Jocko to our startups. Build a resilient team and you will succeed.

I recently took a class with the McChrystal Group called Build Resilient Teams. I found the material to be very relevant for startups and other high-stress organizations. Believe it or not, the learnings derived from a fast-paced, nerve-racking battlefield can be applied to your company! The lessons were distilled into three core areas, and described as follows in the coursework:

ENSURE STABILITY: Resilient systems are always anchored by a stable foundation. A team’s foundation is rooted in their common purpose – their collective vision, culture, and identity – critical behaviors, and compelling communication. Together, these will enable teams to weather times of disruption, scarcity, and conflict while remaining focused on their true north: their larger mission.  

ENABLE CONNECTION: Resilient systems have strong, but flexible, connections. Team members must be connected functionally and emotionally, maintaining open conduits that allow information and resources to flow to the point of need. Bonds of trust and transparency work to strengthen these channels and enable the team to work as a cohesive unit.

ENHANCE AGILITY: Resilient systems proactively engage with their environment, learn from their actions, and quickly adapt. Teams must adopt a bias for action. They must take calculated risks, learn from their mistakes, openly share information, and then quickly adjust and re-prioritize based on that intel.

Let’s delve a little deeper into some aspects of this so I can share what I learned from these leadership principles from the McChrystal Group.

In order to maintain stability in your group, there are three key variables: common purpose, critical behaviors, and communication.  

  • Common Purpose 

The company’s mission should be tangible, inspiring, and relevant to all levels. It is the glue connecting the team. In times of crisis, common purpose is critical. Just as military units need a clear mission to be effective under pressure, having a common purpose allows your group to be decisive in difficult situations. The purpose should provide meaningful guidance, not just be a bumper sticker. Ownership in the mission must trickle down all the way down to frontline workers. Every individual on the team must feel a personal alignment with the group’s purpose.

Here’s an exercise to determine this:

First, write down your team’s common purpose using 10 words or less. What is the “why” behind the mission?

Now write down what you do in the company. How does this align with your personal values?

  • Critical Behaviors

Be aware that these critical behaviors are essential factors of success. Which is most challenging for your team?

Project confidence: When confidence is felt within, it gets projected outwardly. But real confidence doesn’t mean oversimplifying the answers to difficult questions; it isn’t wild-eyed optimism without grounding in truth or reality. Projecting confidence means empowerment, but it also means realism and boundaries. When your team has this kind of authentic confidence in the mission, it will ensure that everyone stays the course.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” — Admiral James Stockdale.

Prioritize relationships: Building resilient teams rely on relationships. But we know relationships are hard even though they are the sinews that hold an organization together. When there is a sense of teamwork across the board, everyone lifts each other up. It’s imperative to create a sense of “we are all in this together” by reducing distance between front-line staff and leadership. In order to do this, there must be awareness of front-line issues at every level, shared recognition and achievements, and open lines of communication. 

Promote focus: Focus must be balanced with flexibility. In times of crisis and transition, being too flexible is bad. You can’t be jumping around when you need to make tough decisions. In the fast-paced setting of a company that’s undergoing constant change, there is often a focus on the urgent at the expense of the important. It’s easy to get distracted with what’s happening now or what’s happening next, as you simply try to understand the problem in front of you. Set tangible priorities on what needs to be done – strategy with no priorities is merely a wish list. 

Plan for recovery. Are you in it for the long haul? A resilient team has to be. Just answering yes to this is the first, humongous step in your plan for recovery. There are bound to be setbacks, perhaps even crises. But a resilient, agile team that has laid the groundwork for stability can respond and adapt. When stress hormones go off, people’s thinking narrows – so the plan for recovery must be clear. Promote short-term goals, then demonstrate progress against that recovery plan. 

  • Communication

The three characteristics of compelling communication are content, channel and cadence. These are good additions to the communication section of KDAlive.

Content is knowing what to say, and McChrystal is a big advocate for BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. Simplify the message and communicate the why. Say it 7 times (or 14 times in the virtual world) in order to ensure it’s heard.  

Channel is the most effective medium for distributing information. Leaders need to bend to people, not force them to their own side. From a generational standpoint, this means understanding that younger people use different channels of communication. 

Cadence is tone and delivery. Be authentic and vulnerable. Counterbalance emotions: when people are low, go high; when they’re high, go low. Truth above harmony – but with respect – because we won’t always be harmonious, whereas the truth must never be compromised. 

Creating an open space for communication means cultivating what McChrystal calls a “voicing up environment.” People need to feel safe and respected, otherwise, they may hold back from sharing valuable insights or revealing issues before they become full-blown crises. 

As a leader, here are some keys to creating a voicing up the environment:

  • Ask questions
  • Hold back your opinion 
  • Praise, encourage and reward people for speaking up
  • Be accessible and vulnerable
  • Rejected ideas have golden nuggets, so thank people for speaking up, then follow up on potentially useful aspects of their suggestions

From the standpoint of those who will be voicing up, here are some additional considerations:

  • Assess the climate of a particular situation before speaking, as it may be more advantageous to choose a different moment
  • Provide solutions whenever possible
  • Explain the “why” behind the issue
  • Align your message with the group’s common purpose
  • Pick your battles

There were lots more great content in the McChrystal sessions, but I’m going to share one final important point from my notes: Resilient teams live by simple rules. Stress causes us to react and do something, so it’s important to have memorable and understandable rules in place to guide people’s actions, especially during a crisis. 

The star example of simple rules given by McChrystal was the Mt. Everest Rule: if a climber has not reached the summit by 2 p.m., they must turn back. This basic guideline has saved many lives!

Some advantages of simple rules are:

  • By limiting options, they help avoid “analysis paralysis” in tense, high-risk situations 
  • Protecting against decision making that is based on emotions rather than reason
  • Facilitating connection and cooperation by ensuring that everyone operates from the same basic premises
  • They allow leaders to direct the action by proxy, since individuals can easily remember the guiding principles 

Well, that’s it for Leadership Principles with the McChrystal Group! I got a lot out of the course – I hope you were able to glean a few helpful tidbits from my notes. 

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