People have a natural inclination in a time of crisis to work "shoulder to shoulder" to solve problems, retired four-star General Stan McChrystal said during an April 7 webinar hosted by CBIA.

But when the crisis is the coronavirus pandemic, it requires a new approach, the retired four-star general and Green Beret told Connecticut business leaders.

Stanley McChrystal, McChrystal Group
Crisis leadership: Retired General Stan McChrystal speaking during the April 7 webinar.

McChrystal commanded U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and led Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the military's most sensitive forces.

After retiring from the U.S. Army in 2010, he founded the McChrystal Group, a business consulting firm based in the Washington, D.C. area.

"The kind of challenge that should pull us together instead requires us to work in a new way and to be more effective than ever before," he said.

Leading in a time of crisis is hard enough, McChrystal said.

Unique Task

But the current situation presents business leaders with the unique task of guiding teams remotely.

"Because our interactions are mostly digital, we have to be more authentic, we have to be more intentional, we have to be more demonstrative, and we have to be more of ourselves," he said.

That means giving your undivided attention to the person talking on screen and not looking at paperwork or your phone.

"Be open, transparent, humble, and willing to admit your shortcomings."

Gen. Stan McChrystal

"Focus on the camera, respond, and ask questions," McChrystal explained. "You have to be on all the time."

And be genuine.

"When you're leading virtually all the time, you have to be who you are," he said.

"You have to be willing to be open, transparent, humble, and willing to admit your shortcomings."

Resolve, Confidence

McChrystal played a clip from Winston Churchill's June 1940 "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, given just weeks after he became prime minister with England facing a possible German invasion.

McChrystal has heard the speech hundreds of times and said it still inspires him.

"This is a leader leading in a time of crisis when the outcome is anything but clear," he said.

Churchill told the British people the struggle would not be easy.

"Small businesses face a threat to survive and big businesses are being challenged."

McChrystal

"But he did offer the two things," McChrystal said. "First, resolve, when he said, 'We will never surrender,' and that 'we, as a people, are in this together.'"

Second, Churchill projected confidence when he said England will prevail.

"Try to get into the head of the people listening and how important it is for a leader to present that type of confidence in a moment of crisis," McChrystal said.

"We're in a moment of crisis, no doubt about that—small businesses face a threat to survive and big businesses are being challenged."

Change Through Crisis

While a crisis tests operational limits, it can also force change.

McChrystal took command of U.S. Joint Forces Special Operations in fall 2003 just as al Qaeda was emerging and using information technology to grow globally.

JSOP was used to operating one way, and McChrystal had to change it to match al Qaeda's tactics.

"With the right leadership, you have a team that's adaptable and also resilient when crises arise."

McChrystal

JSOP began "to operate in a way they had never done before and push information downward to make decisions by those closest to the action."

McChrystal created a permanent structure that decentralized decision making.

"When you build an architecture like that, and infrastructure and culture in an organization, with the right leadership, you have a team that's adaptable and also resilient when crises arise," he said.

Overcoming Resistance

What if some team members resist change?

"Speak to every leader in your operation and explain the changes you want and see the response you get," McChrystal said.

"Bring the entire team together and share contextual understanding of the goals."

If you have a system where everyone can see what everyone else is doing, group norms will push most people in the right direction, he added.

There will always be a few who can't or won't change. Try to work with them, but usually you have to move them out."

McChrystal

"There will always be a few who can't or won't make changes you need," McChrystal said.

"You can try to work with them but usually you have to move them out."

McChrystal said he usually found that to be a small minority.

"Most people move with the consensus of the organization," he said.