1

1. About the Author. The book is written by Gen Stanley McChrystal, a retired United States Army General, best acknowledged for his role as the leader of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He has written two other books on leadership, ‘Leaders: myth and reality’ (2018) and ‘My share of the task’ (2012). His last assignment before retiring was to lead the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has been attributed to the focused and innovative efforts of the General. The author is known to be bold and is recognised for highlighting what other military leaders were afraid to bring out. This was one of the prime reasons why he was chosen to lead all forces in Afghanistan. Former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates described the author as, “Perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I ever met”. The author’s wealth of experience from his military career and his research, from sources as diverse as hospital emergency rooms to NASA’s space program, suitably qualifies him to cover the subject in detail.

2. About the Book. Team of Teams gives a perception of the contemporary application of leadership and management in today’s intricate world. The book is not a study of past military events, but alternatively, a brief and exceptional compendium of intuitive thoughts. It puts forward delightful narratives varying from locations like industries to hospital emergency rooms. The book is recommended for leaders from all organisations. It brings out the pressing requirements to shatter the result of siloed teams or a strict hierarchical structure. The author suggests ideas to overcome limitations that leave decision making unproductive in the modern domain.

3. The discussions in the book are primarily on organisational management theory and leadership methods. The book does not suggest a particular way or a secret to becoming a great leader. In fact, it focuses on becoming a unique individual, who has the ability to guide each member of his team to evolve into exceptional leaders at their level. An alternate title may have been ‘Empowered execution through trust and purpose’.

Synopsis

4. The book is written in a very simple and lucid manner. Even though a retired military general has written the book, its application is not limited to the military. The author has suggested that even business executives could effectively apply wartime lessons to their boardrooms. The author has covered a vast canvass in the book and has touched upon various issues relevant to modern leadership. Using simple logic he draws parallels to show, how the challenges faced by the US Special Forces in Iraq can be relevant for any leader.

5. The Strong Points. The author believes that the world is now so complex (vice complicated as explained in the book) that the old models of command and control are extinct. The Task Force’s journey towards shared consciousness and smart autonomy start in 2003, with the stunning realisation that the result of the war was tilting in Al Qaeda’s favour. The author then interlaces interesting examples and case studies of organisational models, leadership techniques, and technological advances from a variety of areas. These examples are extremely helpful in understanding the associated situation. The examples include big data, basketball, airline customer service, aircraft crew, NASA, plastic surgeons, SEAL training, the enduring effects of Ritz Carlton and many more.

6. The discussions found in the various chapters of the book are wide-ranging but relevant to directing all organisations in this modern world. The following facts highlighted in the book may be of interest to today’s leaders:-

(a) The difference between complicated and complex environments.

(b) The understanding that having more information available does not improve prediction nor lead to smarter decisions.

(c) The value of using your best people as ‘liaison officers’ or ’embeds’.

(d) How resilient people make organisations stronger because they can adapt to changing environments.

(e) To learn from your adversary is extremely important, the adversary might have a better organisational model not necessarily better people.

(f) How to delegate authority?

(g) How to build a shared awareness of the big picture – ‘eyes on, hands off’ leadership?

7. The book highlights the point that by changing their culture, structure, and habits the Task Force became as agile and capable as its individual commandos. The details of the successful operations that the Task Force undertook after the shift have been described well. The Task Force invested in trust, transparency and authorised decision making at all levels. The success of this theory was evident in the example of a follow-on-target operation given in the book. The Task Force took risks and their leaders supported them. The force learned from the enemy and finally beat Al-Qaeda Intelligence at its own game.

8. The author states that success comes from giving freedom to subordinates, increasing the speed of action and achieving self-synchronisation – in a nutshell by a decentralised command. The concept is about realising that in order for organisations to take advantage of fleeting opportunities teams must be empowered at the lowest levels to take action. This includes allowing everyone in the organisation to have a say about the direction of the ship and encourage every member to alert others of impending icebergs. General McChrystal also echoes the need to repeatedly broadcast the goals and strategy of the organisation, so that everyone knows and is always on the same page.

9. The author has at the end of every chapter given a block ‘Recap’ of all relevant topics. A summary of the chapter and a revision of what the author wanted to convey. This helps the reader collate his thoughts and link them once again to the relevant examples covered in the chapter. Even when the reader refers to the book in the future, a quick glance at the summary should be quite effective in recapitulating the essence of each chapter. Thus the subsequent reads of the book will be much simpler and brisk.

10. The Only Shortfall. The book lacks an in-depth deliberation on the importance of planning, strategic thinking and details of a specific master plan. The book’s thought process allows organisations to be adaptable and resilient, but there is a definite and irreplaceable role for forethought and strategy which is missing. Maybe it is as straightforward as the old saying ‘the plan is nothing but planning is everything’. One simple reason for this may be the author’s deliberate effort to avoid any classified discussions or data to be included, as this would all be made available on the open source.

11. Conclusion. The book is only 252 pages long but it is full of simple time-tested ideas that can be put into action with little cost implications. General Stan McChrystal describes that the difficult part of shared consciousness is getting your team to realise that they have been empowered to make decisions. He iterates that this task mostly falls on the senior leaders of an organisation. The author also accepts that this method can be exhausting and requires disciplined leadership at all levels, but states that the rewards are unmatched. The book has key lessons for any organisation to be successful in a complex environment and effectively illustrates that whether in war or in business, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical. This becomes even more relevant as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. The focus on new ways to communicate within an organisation and to work together is imperative. All major challenges can be resolved by operational adaptability and by establishing a team of teams.

12. This book shows the reader how to adapt to the complex world we find ourselves in. Team of teams documents how the most professional and deadly special operations force found itself humbled by an enemy that was better adapted to the 21st century way of war. More importantly, it’s about how leaders at all levels need to be unassertive enough to realise when to change their old ways and trust their people to make rapid yet informed decisions. The focus on harnessing and sharing the experiences of many teams is to adapt quickly to changing events at the lowest level. This also delivers innovative solutions that may not be achieved by a top-down approach. The book has shown not just how a military team will make a transition to decentralised control, but also how similar shifts are possible in corporate organisations, large companies, startups and also in governments. The author has overall presented a compelling and effective solution.