Should the leader be a chess player or a gardener?

Pallai Katalin | Senior consultant

Pallai Katalin | Senior consultant

A book about war, armies, leadership, and building troops that can react quickly and safely. And a surprising message: a good leader should be a gardener, not a chess player.

Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of the United Forces in Afghanistan, has written a fantastic book on leadership, Team of Teams. He fought in tough terrain, against unrelenting and dynamic opponents in Afghanistan. In that environment, the rigidity of a predetermined plan and command and control based on precise orders from above made deployed troops vulnerable casualties. McChrystal knew that to have a chance of fighting effectively, he had to develop an organisation capable of rapid and effective response. Units in which soldiers could make decisions quickly and responsibly, even during deployment, and implement them in a coordinated manner, with their backs to each other. In his experience, the key to this is the team, a cohesive team characterised by connection, shared commitment, knowledge and integrity, and the Team of Teams, an interconnected network of teams. McChrystal argues that rapid response, effective solutions and coordinated action are only possible when a team operates on the basis of shared information, common understanding of the situation and trust.

He gives two keys. One is team training, the other is “extreme transparency”. Team training means joint, complex training, one of the aims of which is to develop knowledge and skills. The other, equally important, is the shared experience. Tough situations are experienced and solved together by the teams. Through this process, mutual trust and cohesion is built between team members, and shared values and commitment are developed. The training strengthens the integrity of the group.

McChrystal argues that in order to maintain the cohesion built during training and lead to meaningful cooperation during deployment, leaders must provide maximum transparency. Although a soldier, he argues that if a leader is a chess player, deciding alone and trying to control his people in a hierarchical information system by drip-feeding information or withholding it for power, he is unable to run a cohesive team and a safe system. It is necessary that when the team is in the field, it can make its own decisions in response to developments. However, decisions can only be decentralised as long as it is ensured that whoever makes the decision understands and sees the circumstances and the organisation as a whole, and can weigh up the consequences. And this is only possible on the basis of distributed information. However, when everyone can “see the field” in a similar way, shared understanding holds the team together and ensures that they can make sudden decisions quickly and in a coordinated way. In 2015, the American Management Association interviewed Mc Chrystal, in which one of the main questions was what a business leader can learn from the Team of Teams book and the General’s military experience. The first part of the answer probably comes as no surprise to the modern leader: a dynamic organization can only be run by empowering subordinates and delegating decision-making authority. For empowerment to lead to good decisions, you need information and strong integrity. Personal and organisational integrity: shared values and commitment, trust and strong relationships between implementers. It is this second element that McChrystal’s main message relates to: if the leader acts like a chess player who moves the pieces himself, his organisation cannot respond effectively to challenges. Instead, like a gardener, he must focus on creating an environment in which flowers can thrive.