Leadership In A Crisis: Tips From Retired Four-Star Army Gen. McChrystal

Steve Scott
March 26, 2020 - 1:30 pm

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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — During what is, for now, our new normal, we're all having to adapt.

Our Steve Scott spoke with retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal about how to make those changes easier.

As a decorated battlefield commander, you’ve had to adapt to quick changes. What advice can you give to people whose lives are being turned upside down?

Leadership fundamentals don’t change. So, just because the way you have to do business as a leader or organization, leaders maintain the responsibility to actually stand up and lead. The second thing I think is understand that the environment we’re in now, and probably for the future, is going to be significantly different than what we had before, and that is going to be disorienting to your team. So, a few things to think about. The first is, understand how your organization used to work. Most leaders think that they do, often we don’t fully understand it as much as we pretend. In the new normal, particularly work from home and things like this, it’s going to require you to do some real thinking and reaching out to your team to understand how information coming, where decisions are being made, and things like that, so that you can do the kind of leadership and management that’s involved.

I think the last thing is that you’re dealing with people. Although most leaders are a little bit older, more experienced, may have scar tissue from a previous crisis or two, young people may not have been through one. So, one of the things they need is a reassurance that although this is difficult, and I urge leaders to be candid with their team about that, they should also provide the realization that we are going to get through this. There is going to be a tomorrow, there’s going to be a next year, and so what we have to do is commit ourselves to leading it and doing it. But then leaders have got to reach out, because if you think much of the feedback and the confidence we got as young employees in any organization came from being around other employees, being around your leaders, those unspoken signals of whether you’re doing a good job or not, the examples that you follow, suddenly when you’re operating virtually, it’s much harder to create that. Leaders have got to be very sensitive to the fact that the individuals that they’re leading can feel very isolated about now.

In the military, establishing a routine is important. You drill, and you drill again and you drill again. Is establishing a routine equally important now for folks who find themselves, say, working from home?

I think it’s even more important. First, the individual may be home, the kids may not be in school if it’s out, the spouse may be at home, as well. The dynamics are different, there are going to be additional pressures. Additionally, for the organization, much of what happened in the normal headquarters or offices or wherever they worked, was a rhythm that was very familiar to people. So, I am a great advocate to establish a very disciplined rhythm at the organizational level. Every day there ought to be a way, a forum, in which everyone gets briefed on what’s going on in the organization, what the context of the moment is. And then smaller groups have got to have similar updates. And then for individuals, having a real start time, when you are ready to receive emails or chats, and when the end of the day hits. Because otherwise, what can happen is, we drift into this idea that we are 24/7. That will burn people out and it will make it really difficult to have predictability for everyone on the team.

I think a lot of us wonder, General, how resilient are we? Are you confident that we, and by we, I mean just average folks, can adapt to this new normal?

I think absolutely, but I think leaders have a big role in that. The first is to understand that because things are different, you’ve got to adjust the rules and the guidance a little bit. You’ve got to give people the ability to adjust how they do work, how you interface and what you expect from them. That’s one thing, and then another is to give people the confidence that they can do things that they haven’t done before. Even if they fail, they’re going to feel like that is a learning experience. I can take that and I can adjust and I can move forward. The idea that we’ve got to produce exactly what we did before, a month ago, in exactly the same way I think is unrealistic.

General, here in New York, the leader of our city, Mayor Bill DeBlasio, has asked that the military be brought in to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic, handle things like logistics. What do you think of that idea?

Well, actually, I am very supportive of what the mayor wants. I’d say from the beginning, the military has gotta be ready to defend our nation. So, I would never move forces needed in the moment to do those things around the world. But, we’ve got an awful lot of forces that are Americans, that would love to help, they would love the feeling that they are contributing right now to what needs to be done. New York City is the hardest hit place in the country right now. I lived there for a year, so I would say that most American soldiers would love the idea of being visible, feeling like they are contributing and being part of the solution.