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Book Review: Team of Teams

Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army, Retired Book Review by Bob Schoultz All American Leadership

To Read More Book Reviews by Bob Schoultz, click here.

Why this book: Team of Teams continues to be talked about in many of my circles of friends. This book is retired Army General Stanley McChrystal applying lessons he learned fighting Al Queda in Iraq to leadership in other settings. Given that much of what I now do is translate lessons learned from my career working with elite military units into useful guidance in the private sector, I knew I would find this book of interest.

My Impressions: The bottom line of Team of Teams as I read it: McChrystal is advocating that an organization function more as an “organism” than as a “machine.” He advocates that a great leader behave more like a gardener than a chess master. He advocates that interactions between teams within an organization be modeled after interaction within great teams. If that is unclear, read on.

Team of Teams is a book for a thoughtful reader – it is very content rich and provocative. McChrystal, his co-writers and the rest of his team researched the evolution of leadership and management philosophies over the last 100 years to provide a background and framework for making his case: He argues that an organizational culture that is transparent in its goals, objectives and decision making, that shares information extensively, that has thoughtfully and deliberately pushed decision making authority down to the lowest possible level, is much more agile, creative, and effective than organizations that are led in a traditional top-down, what McChrystal calls a “reductionist management” manner. He is advocating a different leadership and organizational model from that which was the hallmark of the 20th century. Old-style leadership – focused on faster, cheaper, more efficient – privileged cost savings and timing over quality. In today’s rapidly changing world, he says, “Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our new central competency.”

The framework for his discussion was how the best counter-terrorism force in the world was getting its butt kicked by Al Queda in Iraq because it was too slow, too traditional, too stove-piped, too control-focused in its command and control. He likened the US military to a dinosaur struggling to get out of a tarpit. He said that “This was not a war of planning and discipline; it was one of agility and innovation.” So, as leader of one of the primary task forces fighting Al Queda in Iraq, McChrystal threw out the book on how to run military operations, and created a very different model.

McChrystal recognized what John Boyd postulated decades ago: If your enemy is able to Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act faster than you, you will lose. McChrystal realized that he had to get his team inside of Al Queda’s OODA loop – otherwise, no matter how good his individual operators and staff, no matter how good his intelligence, no matter how extensive his resources, he would always be reacting, always be on the defensive. He determined that Al Queda was evolving through ongoing adaptation; with more resources and better trained people, he realized he had no option but to seek to better them at their own game. This book is about how he did that.

This book makes many points – these are the ones that resonated most with me:

  • The best organizations seek to enculturate adaptability, teamwork, and commitment more so than individual specialization. That doesn’t say that it isn’t important to have people with specialized skill sets – it just isn’t as important as adaptability, and the willingness to subordinate individual self-interest to group goals and purpose.

  • The 20th century was very much about leaders seeking to have their organizations run like machines – efficient, predictable, and scalable. The 21st century will be about the best organizations functioning more like organisms – adaptable, self-regulating, and inter-connected.

  • He made an interesting distinction between “complicated” and “complex,” noting that traditional organizational models (including the US military) deal well with the complicated, but are poor at dealing with the complex. Complicated: Lots of discrete pieces interacting in a predictable manner – like a machine. Complex: the number and nature of interactions and interdependencies between components yield consequences that are unpredictable. He argues convincingly that the world is becoming increasingly complex.

  • Leaders must develop “shared consciousness” of context and purpose within their teams. He argues that a leader’s primary responsibility is to create a culture of shared consciousness, and that this is a pre-requisite to what he calls “empowered execution” – empowering subordinates to make and execute decisions.

  • Regarding empowerment, he emphasizes that “…simply taking off constraints is a dangerous move. It should be done only if the recipients of newfound authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely.”

  • Developing this “shared consciousness” requires transparency and extensive information sharing – and this requires assuming risk by trusting others, way beyond what most leaders and organizations are willing to do. This information sharing must take place within the leader’s team, and between teams in the “Team of Teams.”

  • In the organization he describes, he turns the traditional leadership model on its head. Traditionally, organizations provide their leaders with information so that the leader can make decisions. In McChrystal’s organization, the leader provides the organization with information (context, transparency, big picture perspective, commander’s intent, the “vision” ) and then empowers the organization to make decisions.

  • Throughout the book, he repeatedly stresses the importance of information sharing. It demonstrates trust, and taps into what James Surowieki has called The Wisdom of Crowds. It brings all the minds in the organization, including those closest to the problem, to bear in solving problems and improving operations.

  • Extensive information sharing enabled what MIT professor Sandy Pentland called “idea flow.” Idea flow he noted, has two major determinants: “engagement” within a small group or team, and “exploration” – frequent contact with other units. “The teams that had the highest levels of internal engagement and external exploration had much higher levels of creative output….” This describes McChrystal’s Team of Teams.

  • McChrystal argued that his task was to reverse the normal results of the prisoner’s dilemma. In the classic prisoner’s dilemma, people don’t collaborate, simply because there is less risk in pursuing one’s personal self-interest. Not the case in the Team-of-Teams-world McChrystal created.

  • I loved the chapter in which he describes the leader as a gardener more than a chess master. As gardener, the leader’s primary purpose is tending the garden, pruning, watering, even fertilizing. “The gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash, or beans – she can only foster an environement in which the plants do so….Tending the garden –creating the culture – became my primary responsibilty. Without my constantly pruning and shaping our network…our success would wither.”

  • In building his Team of Teams, he said it was a struggle to overcome tribal boundaries, where elite teams were comfortable working in parallel, but not in collaboration with each other. Through trust-building, great liaison officers, and extensive information sharing, he was able to overcome much of the traditional tension that existed between loyalty to one’s “small team,” and a loyalty to what is good for the cause, the “big team,” the Team of Teams.

What I see as a shortcoming to the book. McChrystal makes a strong case for information sharing, developing shared consciousness and and an execution empowered team, and then ultimately, a very collaborative “Team of Teams.” But if it works so well, why isn’t more the norm? Because leaders are people, and I’ve seen damn few people OR leaders who are as confident, as willing to assume risk, as engaged with their people, as dedicated to a larger purpose as Stan McChrystal was. It must also be noted that he was working with the very best of the best in the US Special Operations community -he and his team had nearly complete hire/fire authority and the the most experienced operators with the strongest reputations gravitated to his task force and its mission. This level of selectivity is seldom available to most leaders. Also, McChrystal wasn’t randomly selected to lead such an elite team – he was extremely well prepared and personally selected for his unique talent. In the “real world,” we seldom find such confident, insightful, and innovative leaders, able to effectively share information to build shared consciousness, able to judge when people adequately understand the leaders perspective, and are sufficiently engaged with the purpose of the organization to be empowered with execution authority. Will this model work for most leaders? In most organizations? I wonder.

I recently read a pretty amazing study by Gallup which makes the case that only 1 in 10 people have the high talent to effectively manage others, and only another 2 in 10 have functioning managerial talent. Of those 3 in 10, I wonder how many have the experience, confidence, and belief in themselves, their people and their larger purpose to assume the risk necessary to push execution authority down as McChrstal describes in Team of Teams. I am normally an optimist, but here, I’m wondering if the bar he sets may be too high for most leaders, and most organizations.

That said, I’m really glad he provided this model that the best leaders in the best organizations can strive to achieve.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book (with page numbers, refering to the 2015 hardback edition):

“Management systems can be efficient, but not adaptable….Many of the practices that are most efficient directly limited adaptability.” 82

“Team members tackling complex environments must all grasp the team’s situation and overarching purpose.” 99

“On a team of teams, every individual does not have to have a relartionship with every other individual; instead, the relationships between the constituent teams need to resemble those between individuals on a given team.” 128

<To defeat AL Queda> “…would involve a complete reversal of the conventioanl approach to information sharing, delineation of roles, decison-making authority, and leadership.” 131

“Most organizations are more concerned with how best to control information than how best to share it.” 141

“…whatever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of ‘interface failures.’” 151

“We wanted to fuse generalized awareness with specialized expertise…. We dubbed this goal – this state of emergent, adaptive organizational intelligence – shared consciousness. And it became the cornerstone of our transformation.” 153

“Our standing guidance was ‘Share information until you’re afraid it’s illegal.’” 162

“We decentralized until it made us uncomfortable, and it was right there- on the brink of instability – that we found our sweet spot.” 214

”..we found that, even as speed increased and we pushed authority futher down, the quality of decisions actually went up….We had decentralized in the belief that the 70 percent solution today would be better than the 90 % solution tomorrow. But we found our estimates were backward – we were getting the 90 percent solution today instead of the 70% solution tomorrow. “ 214

“An individual who makes a decision becomes more invested in its outcome.” 215

“Experience had told me that nothing is heard until it has been said several times.” 226

“The risks of acting too slowly were higher than the risks of letting competent people make judgment calls.” 209

“We had become not a well-oiled machine, but an adaptable, complex organism, constantly twisting, turning, and learning to overwhelm our protean adversary.” 243

“Shared concisousnesss is a carefully maintained set of centralizd forums for bringing people together. Empowered excecution is a radically decentralized system for pushing authority out to the edges of the organizations.….the union of shared consciousness and empowered execution is greater than the sum of their parts. “ 245


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