Posted on October 16, 2019 at 2:33 pm

Humble Leadership Lessons from the War on Terror

Humble Leadership Lessons from the War on Terror

Humility often gets a bad rap because it is associated with weakness or being “soft” and as a result is resisted by a lot of leaders. Leaders often think of being humble as lacking confidence, ambition, and assertiveness. 

Nothing could be further from the truth: We can lead with humility while being incredibly ambitious, confident, and highly driven. Humble leaders are not “soft.” 

Take, for example, retired U.S. Army four-star General Stanley McChrystal. He is best known for his command of the Joint Special Operations Command fighting terrorism in the mid-2000s and is one of the first prominent leaders embracing humble leadership. 

McChrystal eats one meal per day, runs 8 miles daily, does not drink, and sleeps four hours per night. McChrystal is one tough guy! 

And yet he had the humility to recognize that he needed to change the way he structured and led his task force in order not to lose the war on terror. General McChrystal is many things, but I dare you to call him “soft.”

When he took over command of the Task Force, he quickly realized that conventional military tactics were failing. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a decentralized network that could move quickly, striking ruthlessly, then just vanished into the local population. 

The allied task force had huge advantages in numbers, training and equipment – but none of that seemed to matter. The task force was losing and fast. Why? The task force was structured and led in a very traditional and hierarchical way with lots of silos and centralized decision making which made it too slow to adapt and act. 

McChrystal had the humility to remake the Task Force, in the midst of a grueling war, into something new. He found a way to scale the strong relationships that make special Ops team so effective to the whole task force through what he calls a “Team of Teams” approach. Silos were torn down and the Task Force became a network that combined extremely transparent communication with front-line decision-making authority. 

In the process McChrystal had the humility to recognize that he needed to change his leadership style. He needed to move from heroic leader who knows it all, has all the answers, makes all the decisions (the classic command and control micro-management leadership) to humble creator of the broader environment and culture. He started to lead, in his term, like a “gardener.” 

As a gardener, you cannot actually make plants grow. But you can plant the right seedlings at the right time, nurture them, provide them a healthy environment by watering and weeding so that they can thrive. 

Similarly, McChrystal’s “gardener leadership” became all about creating the right environment based on strong relationships, open, transparent communication, and clear shared purpose to enable front line execution. 

In short, McChrystal adopted the mindset of leading with humility. 

As a result of the Team of Teams structure and his humble leadership, the Task Force became measurably more effective. Its speed and precision improved by a factor of 17! 

Importantly though, this was not a triumph of fine-tuning the Task Force into a hyper-efficient machine. It was the result of the Task Force becoming a more transparent, networked and empowered entity with a humble leader at its helm.

McChrystal writes: “Few of us are criticized if we faithfully do what has worked many times before. But feeling comfortable or dodging criticism should not be our measure of success. There is likely a place in paradise for people who tried hard, but what really matters is succeeding. If that requires you to change, that’s your mission.”

I absolutely love this quote because it stresses the importance of personal change at the top: if succeeding requires you to change, then THAT becomes your mission!

McChrystal had to unlearn the outdated, command-and-control, top-down leadership approach he had been taught over the course of his long, illustrious career and adopt a more humble approach to leadership. 

Your take-away:

  • What personal change might you have to undertake in order for your organization to win?
  • Which elements of General McChrystal’s humble leadership most resonates with you?