Digital Leadership: Lessons from a Four-Star U.S. Military General

January 21, 2021
| Posted by
Scott
Stiver

"A leader isn't good because they're right; they're good because they're willing to learn and to trust." Think about that for a moment. As we enter 2021 with the memories of 2020 in our wake, most leaders have learned a lot about themselves and their team members over the past year. The quote above is from four-star general Stanley McChrystal's TED Talk delivered back in 2011. I recently came across this TED Talk, and to my surprise, I find it even more applicable today than it was ten years ago.

In the session, McChrystal discusses the challenges of being a remote leader. When leading a team spread out over 20 countries, he began to utilize new technology (videoconferencing, chat, text, email) to communicate. Merely staying in contact was not the problem; it was effectively communicating with his team that McChrystal found difficult. He had to build trust with them from a distance and vice versa. Instead of giving orders, his challenge became building consensus and a shared sense of purpose, despite all the distance between him and those he led.

Many leaders today are finding themselves in the same situation as McChrystal. Many, if not all, organizations have canceled their annual in-person meetings and have opted to hold these conferences remotely. As we are all finding out, communicating with our team is easy (send a video call link, shoot off an email or text, create a Slack channel, etc.), but effectively communicating to build consensus on a mission, project, deal, or idea remains the real challenge.

Inversion of Expertise

McChrystal talks through some timeless leadership attributes and practices he had to implement to become a more effective "Digital Leader." The first point that stuck out to me is this idea he called an "inversion of expertise." If you are leading a team of individuals much younger than yourself, understand generational differences. Your goal should be to create a shared purpose and shared consciousness, despite leading a group of people with different experiences, different skillsets, and maybe even different vocabularies. Understand that the people you lead may have more knowledge than you do about effectively communicating via technology in our digital world.

McChrystal asks, "How does a leader stay credible and legitimate when they haven't done what the people they are leading are doing?" and his answer is simple. Be transparent. Be willing to listen and learn from your team and be willing to be reverse-mentored.

Personal Relationships Remain Key

As McChrystal was leading a remote force, he learned that personal relationships were more important than ever. "They are the sinew which holds the force together," he states. He tells the story of an old friend of his, with whom he had spent many years in his career, who sent him a note with a quote:

"I knew if I ever got in a tight spot, that you would come, if alive."

He described the relationship with his friend as being critical to him at many points in his career. Although the quote may be a dramatic example, the point still stands. Organizational relationships bond you to your team, and they are essential when things get tough.

Find ways to create and maintain relationships with your team members. Just as the relationship McChrystal created with his friend, you could have that critical impact on someone at many points in their career.

I would argue that Stanley McChrystal's TED Talk is more relevant today than it was when he delivered it 10 years ago. Being a successful, influential Digital Leader is not an easy feat. It requires transparency on behalf of the leader, a willingness to listen and learn continually, and a paramount emphasis on relationships. Remember, as McChrystal says, "A leader isn't good because they're right; they're good because they're willing to learn and to trust."

Image source: @StanMcChrystal. (2015, December 15). It's always about building relationships #InternationalTeaDayhttps://hbr.org/2015/08/what-companies-can-learn-from-military-teams. [Twitter post]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/StanMcChrystal/status/676774407696728064