- Paula Bronstein/Getty
- Stanley McChrystal is a retired four-star general in the US Army who led America’s Joint Special Operations Command and NATO forces in the War in Afghanistan.
- McChrystal led Joint Special Operations Command from 2003-2008, and assassinated Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.
- JSOC was initially outmatched by Zarqawi, but McChrystal responded by changing its hierarchy from a pyramid with him at the top to a web of teams with him at the center.
When Stanley McChrystal took over Joint Special Operations Command in 2003, he entered a system that had been refined over 20 years.
The United States started JSOC in 1980 after the failed response to the Iran hostage crisis, as a way to develop techniques for the different branches’ special operations teams, coordinate among them, and execute special operations missions.
“And this force was, you’ve seen it in movies, bearded guys with big knuckles and fancy weapons, and these surly arrogant attitudes, and that’s pretty accurate – but the hearts of lions,” McChrystal, who retired as a four-star general in 2010, said in an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This Is Success.” It was a force that was insular and comfortable with its way of doing things. That changed in 2004, a year into the Iraq War, with the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“We found that very narrow, insulated way of operating before, tribal way, it didn’t work because you had to have this synergy of a real team and at first we almost were in denial because we’re so good at what we do,” McChrystal said. To adapt, McChrystal transformed the way the US ran special operations, which resulted in tracking down and assassinating the jihadist group’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006.
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As McChrystal explained in his 2015 book “Team of Teams,” JSOC was able to perform complicated operations without diverting from protocol, but the complexity of Zarqawi’s network was unlike anything it had ever faced. It didn’t matter how smoothly McChrystal’s men were able to execute their tasks if Zarqawi’s were never meeting expectations, leaving them always a step ahead.
“Really starting in early 2004 we came to a collective understanding that we were losing, and we were likely to lose if we didn’t change,” McChrystal told us. “Now we had no idea how to change, there wasn’t a road map, I wasn’t the visionary leader to provide that. ” That realization didn’t yield a self-defeating attitude, but rather led to perhaps the most important leadership insight of McChrystal’s career.
“When I took over I was approving every mission because I’m the commander, and I found there’s no way you can be fast enough, so my role changed,” he said. “I went from being the micro-manager, the centralized director, to being a commander who creates this ecosystem in which this group of really talented people figure it out. And my goal was to keep the ecosystem going, grow it with new participants and keep everyone supported and inspired.”
He transformed JSOC from a pyramid hierarchy to a web of teams with him at the center. McChrystal said he told his organization, “We’re going to start changing to whatever works, so what we do that works we’ll do more of, what we do that doesn’t work we’ll stop.”
It was what was necessary for the American operators to hunt down Zarqawi’s jihadists and eventually Zarqawi himself. McChrystal said, “that freed the organization to constantly adapt. We’re able to modify, adapt ourselves and constantly change without the limitations of a doctrine that says, ‘You can’t do that.'”
Subscribe to “This Is Success” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. You can find the full McChrystal episode below.