Highlights of “Boss Level Podcast” – Gen. Stan McChrystal and the Book “Team of Teams”


Hear Mark read this post — subscribe to Lean Blog Audio

I've read most of retired General Stanley McChrystal's excellent book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (I start a lot of books and finish a few). Amazon reminds me that I bought the book just over two years ago.

I meant to blog about it and never got around to it (I have a lot of ideas about posts and write a few). McChrystal, in connecting his lessons learned from helping reshape the military and, in particular, the special forces, to the business world ends up talking a lot about issues and history near and dear to those of us working with Lean as a methodology.

I'll come back to my thoughts on the book later, but I was thrilled to stumble across a podcast called “Boss Level Podcast,” which is hosted by Sami Honkonen from Finland.

His guest list includes a number of folks I know or know of (click on their names for the episode):

Here is a video of the McChrystal podcast episode (I'm jealous, for one, that Sami got to interview him and, secondly, that he got to do it in person):

You can also listen to it through iTunes (as I did).

Here are some highlights with time stamps and me quoting or paraphrasing stuff I think is fantastic:

[12:30] Q: How did you work with people who weren't on board with change?

McChrystal says with mature adults you can't be “directive,” you “have to influence people.” And “part of influencing people is to listen to them.” He says “there's an awful lot of respect involved in allowing that dialogue to occur.” If people have input, they're more likely to buy in.

He talks about people “feeling as if they've been represented.”

My comment: The only thing I take issue with is that I hear talk from healthcare leaders about wanting staff “to feel like they have input.” I try to gently suggest that actually having input is better than being made to “feel” like they have input. But I trust that's not what McChrystal really meant.

[15:50] Q: If you advocate sharing information and data freely, isn't there a risk that you lose control?

McChrystal says, “Control is a fallacy now. You think you've got control if you're at the top. But the reality is you don't know what's happening down low, nor can you respond as fast as the environment is changing. So, you've got to give up a measure of control. You've got to inform and educate people closer to the point of action and you've got to trust them.”

[17:00] “If you're sharing a lot of information, you're more resilient. You're not nearly as brittle.”

My comment: This reminds me, of course, of the Leadership practices of Kaizen and Lean, more broadly.

As I blogged about here, “the decision makers” shouldn't be a term that refers only to executives, as I've heard some people say.

Back to McChrystal… he talks about Frederick Taylor, as he did in the book. Taylor is associated (fair or unfairly) with taking work and breaking it up into small chunks that can be done by anybody, in isolation from others.

[19:00] “If you talk about Adam Smith or Frederick Taylor, we want to demonize them now. In reality, I think if you pulled either of them into today's world, both of them were interested in outcomes… and in the industrial revolution, efficiency gave a great outcome. And I'd argue that Frederick Taylor would probably look at that thing, he'd do reductionism and he's say ‘that doesn't work anymore.' It's not the most effective thing… and he'd come to this conclusion [that it's better to encourage teamwork instead of silos and specialization].”

But, he wrote this about Taylor in the book:

“Taylor told workers, “I have you for your strength and mechanical ability. We have other men paid for thinking.” In the book that became the bible of his movement, The Principles of Scientific Management, he portrayed laborers as idiots, mocking their syntax and describing them as “mentally sluggish.”

Maybe he's right that Taylor was a product of his time and he would have worked differently today. He also writes about how Taylor and that thinking of reductionism and efficiency was very influential to military thinking, but times and needs changed. So, McChrystal helped the special forces evolve in much-needed ways.

Check out the podcast… I think you'll find it thought provoking and stimulating. He also talks about the need for senior leaders to “walk the walk” if you're trying to change the organization and you have to change processes, including about how you share information. You have to change processes to become more agile, not just send a few people off to training. Of course they're going to get frustrated if “the organization hasn't changed.”

Here are some of the notes and highlights I have in my Kindle version of the book.

On the traditional top-down, command-and-control structure of the military and why he needed to help shift that culture because of a new enemy and a changing world:

“In battle, refusal or hesitation to follow orders can spell disaster. But at the same time, the rigid hierarchy and absolute power of officers slows down execution and stifles rapid adaptation by the soldiers closest to the fight. When a subordinate must spend time seeking detailed guidance from a distant officer in order to respond to a rapidly evolving opportunity, the price for traditional order and discipline becomes too high.”


“The chains of command that once guaranteed reliability now constrained our pace;”


“and finding ways to reverse the information flow–to ensure that when the bottom spoke the top listened–was one of the challenges we would have to overcome.”

Instead of order always coming from the top down,

“order can emerge from the bottom up, as opposed to being directed, with a plan, from the top down.”

McChrystal also writes about how healthcare can learn and is learning from aviation safety, something I've talked to two podcast guests about:

McChrystal also sounded like Dr. W. Edwards Deming when he decried internal competition within a company (as I wrote about here a long time ago):

“Some of the twentieth century's most fabled executives extolled this “competitive spirit,” purposefully pitting individual workers and departments against one another. Jack Welch introduced the “stack ranking” system, where employees constantly saw themselves assessed relative to others, an approach that became popular with leaders in other industries. Encouragement to collaborate tends to be more of a bumper sticker slogan than an actual managerial practice. In an interdependent environment, however, collaboration may be necessary to survival.”

There's too much interesting or provocative stuff to cover in one blog post. Thanks to Sami for the podcast and for reminding me about the book.

What did you think about the podcast or the book?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleMy Webinar Recording: Standardize What Makes Sense…
Next articleWebinar Archive: “Teaming with Patients to Improve Safety”
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. McChrystal invited questions in this LinkedIn Post.

    I asked:

    Why are so many organizations and leaders still stuck in the Frederick Taylor reductionist, top-down “do as I say” management model? Do you see good examples of companies successfully changing that culture?

    He replied:

    “Mark, the simple answer is it used to work. I covered this in my book Team of Teams so I’d encourage you to read that if you have not (and not just because I wrote it!). And while this management model is not longer ideal for businesses in the 21st century, human behavior is lagging. Humans by nature are prone to stick with behavior that achieves results because there’s an inherent risk in changing it up. Admittedly, taking a more decentralized approach that embraces empowered execution does have some risk. People can have error in judgment and take detrimental actions that injure the organization. However, the potential benefits (greater contextual understanding, better decision making, increased capitalization on opportunities, etc.) far outweighs the benefits of a controlling, Frederick Taylor-ist approach. One company that has done it well in the past is the software development firm, Red Hat. Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, wrote about his experience in the book, The Open Organization. It’s an interesting read that offers a different take on the traditional hierarchical structure. Thank you for your question.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.