Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘Team of Teams’: The new McChrystal book is good but a bit heavy on SEAL role

A book release with a more promising premise is hard to imagine: the inside story on the military’s elite Joint Special Operations Task Force adaptation in the War on Terror, reversing the outcome from failure to success.



By Maj. Gen. David Fastabend, U.S. Army (Ret.)


By Maj. Gen. David Fastabend, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense book reviewer

A book release with a more promising premise is hard to imagine: the inside story on the military’s elite Joint Special Operations Task Force adaptation in the War on Terror, reversing the outcome from failure to success. Moreover, the lessons learned from that experience can be applied to the leadership and management of any organization struggling to address the dynamic, complex environments of our globalized lives.

Up front, Stan McChrystal offers a vital caveat that all readers ignore at their peril: Team of Teams is not a war story. This is a leadership story and a management story, masterfully crafted and compellingly delivered by McChrystal with the assistance of two former Navy SEALs — David Silverman and Chris Fussell — and Tantum Collins, a Yale graduate currently studying at Cambridge.

The text is a tour de force of management theory over the past century. Beginning with Taylor’s work on efficiency and the foundation of scientific management, the authors establish the underpinnings of most legacy military and business organizations. Next there is a thorough treatment of complexity, carefully distinguishing it from mere complication, and how this phenomenon defeats most adherents to scientific management. The next transition is to resilience thinking, adaptability, and the important distinctions between team thinking and command thinking. Finally, there are key observations on how modern technology enables shared consciousness, greater transparency of decision-making and devolution of decision-making authority to lower levels. Anecdotes and vignettes mined from the authors’ military experiences and management studies weave through and connect the argument.

Team of Teams offers explicit and substantive prescriptions for what ails modern organizations. The argument is that the benefits of small, effective teams can be scaled up significantly through a network approach built on transparent decision-making and an “eyes-on / hands-off” devolution of decision authority to the lowest practical levels. The recommendations include the physical co-location of key stakeholder representatives and robust attention to liaison representation where that is not possible. Technology can be leveraged for large scale communication of context and intent to the “team of teams.” Most importantly, there is a unifying emphasis throughout on the human dimension of organizational behavior and culture.

GEN McChrystal argues compellingly that this is no “zero-defects” approach, and that leaders in a complex environment must be content with a 70% solution. I suspect Stan was significantly “hands-off” in his authorship role here, because 70% is how I would score the military perspective of Team of Teams. Granted — it is not a war story — but most military officers picking up this text will utter a short prayer: “Please God, don’t let this be about how SOF won the war. And if SOF has to win the war, please don’t let it be about how only the SEALs did it.”

Alas, such prayers go largely unanswered. There is no mention of the 160,000 non-SOF military members that shared the Iraqi battle space with JSOTF, or their complementary role as the admittedly non-cool, non-special team in the team of teams. Although there is grudging acknowledgement that there are non-Navy SOF elements, the SEALs overwhelm the narrative with extensive accounts of BUDS training, etc. In a world where the SEALs are painfully over-exposed, this will generate some anti-bodies in more experienced military readers. Such readers will also not find co-location of the joint and inter-governmental battle-staff, attention to LNO assignments, or extensive televideo conferencing of daily O&I meetings as ground-breaking innovations, as these have been standard practice in the conventional forces at least back to Army operations in Bosnia in the mid-90s.

In spite of the scope of this text as a management treatise, intriguing questions go unanswered. The enemy is portrayed as being superiorly adaptive and resilient, with scant explanation of how they achieved that. The role of their ideology as a substitute for directive command and control is unexplored. Although decision authority can be decentralized in an “eyes on / hands off” environment, accountability can not be decentralized — is this risk always acceptable? How does one navigate the treacherous tensions between authority and accountability?

Finally, the elephant in the room is that for all this adaptation and innovation the enemy they defeated has forced the evacuation of the old JSOTF base of operations at Balad, Iraq. Strategy still eats organization and process for breakfast. This omission of context particularly frustrates me because I witnessed GEN McChrystal’s personal and vital role in recognizing the Sunni revolt in Anbar Province and setting the strategic conditions in place that enabled a temporary window of stability in Iraq. The book would be improved if this exemplary, self-effacing leader was more hands-on in explaining the role of effective strategy — in the absence of which even teams of teams will flounder.

Notwithstanding these quibbles, Team of Teams slashes useful trails through the jungle of complexity that bewilders most modern organizations. It is a story worthy of a careful read and even more careful reflection.

David Fastabend is a retired Army officer who served as Multinational Forces Iraq C3 in 2006-2007 and Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy for the Army Staff 2007-2009.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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