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Leading an Organization Through the Uncertainty of COVID-19: Part 5 – Leader’s Mindset

March 16, 2020

This post was originally published by Stan McChrystal on LinkedIn

A few years after 9/11, I found myself leading the global counterterrorism Task Force in Iraq during the most brutal years of the fight against Al Qaeda. On one fateful evening, we learned of a fast approaching, critical opportunity.  We had located Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  After hours of intense focus we struck the terrorist leader, but then the battlefield  entered into a state of controlled chaos: follow-up on the initial strike, then seventeen additional raids across Iraq to paralyze his network.  We were already several years into operating at a breakneck, 24/7 pace – but I knew we had finally learned to harness the full power of virtual collaboration. 

As we reviewed the intelligence relating to Zarqawi, and conducted other operations, the clock approached the time of an event we had long planned.  Earlier that day we had conducted our daily video teleconference (with thousands dialed in) from which we ran our global task force – synchronizing our counterterrorism efforts across not only Iraq, but the globe.  And now, early evening at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but late night in Iraq, we conducted a farewell of one of our Deputy Commanders and his family who were leaving for another assignment after three years of extraordinary service. 

Back at home the farewell was a touching personal event with my wife and other family members in a social setting for what was traditionally a round of tributes, some modest gifts to the departing family, and an opportunity for them to say goodbye.  As was our culture, some of the tributes and gifts were wickedly humorous in nature and it was a chance for otherwise stoic warriors to express deep feelings in our own way.

That night, although the room was full, the vast majority of our force was deployed to the fight and spread across 27 countries.  But they were there for the farewell.  Leveraging our video-teleconference backbone, and our practiced expertise in its use, we connected ourselves virtually – and emotionally.  The tributes and humor flowed freely.  The funniest was a Sergeant Major participating from Islamabad, Pakistan who came on impersonating a head-of-state (Command Sergeant Major “Gunny” Barreras was later killed in combat in Afghanistan).  Despite the physical distance between us, in the midst of a busy evening, we strengthened the bonds of a war-worn force.

While it may sound strange, we didn’t cancel or postpone that very personal event; we conducted a global, virtual teleconference farewell for an important leader and friend while on the other side of a plywood wall another section of our team monitored critical operations happening a few towns away from where I stood.  We were a team, and a family, that was simultaneously managing battlefield action and organizational culture.  The farewell lasted about an hour (with me and other receiving periodic updates throughout), and then we walked back to the operations floor.

It was the clearest example of what we had built: a global team operating at a 24/7 pace, managing time-sensitive and life-and-death decisions, while maintaining a strong, trust-filled, relationship-based culture.

However, this wasn’t always the case.  When we pivoted the Task Force to a remote footing shortly after 9/11, there were many lessons to be learned along the way.  As the senior leader of the team, I was confident that we would quickly get the process right – I just didn’t know what the path would look like.  I wasn’t sure how my team of more than 20,000 people around the world could possibly feel like they were part of any singular enterprise.  How could we maintain our cultural cohesion and our trust in teammates – most of whom would now go for months or years without ever being face-to-face?

Until the recent rise of COVID-19, I’ve not seen a threat to traditional organizational structure and operations as disruptive as Al Qaeda proved to the US military.  What we found in our years of experimentation and ultimate re-wiring of how we operated was a set of lessons I hope you can learn from.

In the last fight, we established an early guiding principle: anything and everything about how we operate is open to change.  We will make many errors along the way, but we will not fail.  We will exist and thrive long after this enemy.  I believed I held a sacred promise to the organization to build the team that could win – everything else deserved constant scrutiny.  We would adjust our strategy, communications, decision-making, infrastructure, methodology, and processes – but we never lost sight of winning.

Today’s leaders must adjust their thinking, and their footing, immediately.  Your new norm is to adapt to remote work with little warning or planning, for an indefinite period of time.  The hidden bonds that acted as a sort of glue for your team – the hallway conversations, the quarterly offsites, attending key client meetings together – have evaporated almost instantaneously, and you’re left forming a new culture and way of working in flight.

1. Building and maintaining a culture of trust, candor, and performance is possible in a distributed workforce; we did this for years on end.  But your mindset as a leader must shift today, and dramatically.  I recommend you consider the following:Communicate with greater intensity and regularity.  Don’t just execute your normal outlook calendar remotely.  In a time of change, the organization should hear from their leaders, in some form, multiple times per week.  I recommend any text-based email you send company-wide is also accompanied with a video that transmits the same message so people can hear and see you.  Open up your meetings to a broader audience – context is more important than ever.  In my military role, I modified my daily staff meeting into an open communication forum that lasted 90-minutes and included 7500 people, 7-days per week.  Determine the pace your environment is changing – and that must be the new cadence of your meetings.

2. Be inclusive.  Don’t just invite people by layer.  Consider a daily video forum that anyonein your organization can join.  In times of crisis, people will be looking to their leaders for calm and accurate information – ensure they are invited to those conversations.

3. Know the limits of your crisis response team.  Every CEO I’ve spoken to this week has established some form of COVID-19 contingency planning and response team.  Good.  But the most important thing isn’t what they are doing, it is what everybody else is thinking.  Allow your crisis response team to operate, but spend the bulk of your time communicating to your organization at large and make sure people are returning to the projects and products that your customers need so they can get back in action.

4. The camera is your new best friend.  Get comfortable being on camera all day. 

5. Be real.  The camera makes us act scripted.  Talk to the camera as if you’re taking face-to-face with real people.  

6. Refer to people by name, not by office or city.  Take the extra few seconds to say hello to Karen, wish her happy birthday, or ask her how her kids are doing.  Doing this in front of thousands of other listeners isn’t wasting time.  It’s telling people you’re still a family of teammates.  If you don’t automatically know all the names, ask your leaders at various locations to provide lists and photos – it will pay dividends to show that you care enough to know who they are.

7. Be conscious of your body language in a remote setting.  Swiveling around in your chair, looking at your phone, or going on and off camera repeatedly will distract the team and add to their sense of disconnect.  You are on stage – be present and aware of that fact.  It’s now part of your job description.

8. Most importantly, create dialogue.  Don’t ask yes or no questions.  Ask why.  Ask what it means to others.  Ask what they think about a new insight.  Ask anything that forces longer-form answers, if nothing else, simply to build conversation in the virtual-environment.

9. Finally, ensure your team has a disciplined plan in place for remote communication. 

We’ve covered these tactics in depth in previous posts:

             i.      Part One: An Introduction

             ii.      Part Two: Remote Collaboration

             iii.      Part Three: Remote Collaboration Best Practices

             iv.      Part Four: Remote Decision-Making

More than anything, leaders must immediately acknowledge that things have already changed for the unforeseeable future – and start taking action now.  History shows us time and again that the best leaders move before they’re forced to.  If you’re waiting for a directive in a time of unprecedented events, you’re already losing the fight.  As my Navy leaders always liked to remind their Army teammates, “you can’t turn a ship that isn’t moving.”

It’s your job as a leader to keep the ship in motion.  You can adjust the plan as you go, but inertia is a bigger threat right now than a few wrong choices.  In this moment of international crisis, history will remember the vanguard leaders that stepped into the arena first and took action. 

McChrystal Website:

Stan McChrystal Biography:

Chris Fussell Biography:


About the Author
Stan McChrystal, CoFounder of McChrystal Group


More Resources:

More Resources:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5