The responsive leader’s mission: Empower your teams then get out of the way

The U.S. Military likely wouldn’t top many lists of agile organizations. As a whole, it historically functioned—and functioned well—with regimented processes, clear org charts, and top-down control (not unlike many corporations before “future of work” became a thing).

20617 CIP 36B PD ChrisFussell copy.jpgBut when the Navy SEAL Special Operations Task Force found itself struggling to defeat Al Qaeda in the 1980s, they recognized that what had worked in past was no longer effective. So, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal and his then aide-de-camp Chris Fussell made a bold decision to revamp the behemoth operations of the U.S. Navy, innovating a remarkable 24-hour “operating rhythm” centered on a  daily 90-minute teleconference (of 700-plus people). The purpose was to equip each team with the time-critical information needed for them to determine their own day’s course of action. As Chris describes in One Mission (the follow-on to his and Stanley’s earlier book Team of Teams), the intent was to “reestablish broad shared consciousness...followed by 22.5-hour windows of empowered execution.”

Let’s put this in proper org-change perspective: the Task Force upended conventional operating systems, to prioritize getting necessary information to SEAL teams, so those teams in turn could spend 94% of each day free to make their own decisions.

Can you appreciate the degree and scope of this change? For a historically command-and-control entity like the U.S. Military, such an org-redesign was sharply counter cultural.

Let your best do their best

As a behavior designer I study what creates the inflection points for change and what impedes them. What strikes me about the team-of-teams approach (which Chris described at a recent Geekup co-hosted by Culture Amp and Responsive Conference) is the caliber of leader behavior required for such transformation—a demonstration of characteristics that are common sense but not always common practice.

Consider that true leaders grow more leaders. They empower their teams, which means they clarify objectives precisely, align teams collectively, then get out of the way so teams can execute. High-performing organizations that hire high-performing individuals should have a primary objective to create the conditions for people to do their jobs well. (It’s a joke among my consulting friends that employees’ work would be easy if it weren’t for companies getting in the way.) If you’re going to hire the best people, give your teams the freedom to create success on the organization’s behalf. That’s the crux of “empowered execution.”

Give permission to report the worst

Obviously to enable teams this way requires that leaders invest enormous trust in their teams—but trust in a team-of-teams culture must be bidirectional. Teams have to know they can report all mission-critical information up to leadership, even (and perhaps particularly) the unpleasant realities. People need to feel free to share all relevant data and feedback.

This too might seem more straightforward than worth mentioning, but think about the most difficult manager you've ever worked with and how easy it wasn't to report to them any negative news about a project. As Chris put it, he'd witness people willing to risk literal life and limb on the battlefield but afraid to confront caustic leadership.

The concept of social threat explains this oddity. But whether or not leaders appreciate the social neuroscience of such avoidance behavior, what’s essential is to give teams explicit and tacit permission to feed all relevant information back into the org—unpleasant/pleasant, good/bad. Just as military threats today have become exquisitely networked and agile, so too could be described many of the challenges encompassed by the future of work. Responsive leaders know they cannot afford to restrict information flows, and they take on the self-regulation necessary so they not only accept unpleasant feedback but actively seek it.

Cohere as leaders

Equipping teams to succeed demands leaders of principle who themselves align in a clear purpose. In its work with organizations, leadership and change consultancy The McChrystal Group will only proceed once there is full buy-in from the C-suite. The team of teams framework of organization-wide strategic alignment, operating rhythm, and decentralized decision-making lives or dies depending on leader behavior—singularly the most important thing, Chris insists, for the approach to work.  

Chris Fussell Writing on wall.jpg

Like with any culture or change initiative, implementing a team of teams isn’t without challenge (as Culture Amp knows from applying the concept across its four offices). The logistical hurdles might be real—but however much hierarchy or fluidity an organization’s culture embraces, in the end there’s little denying that being Responsive to the future of work means building strong teams and freeing them to do what they do best.  


Culture Amp has implemented its own version of a “team of teams” strategy across its four offices, which Robin Zander, Founder and Director of Responsive Conference, discussed with Didier Elzinga in this podcast.

Jeff Eggers of the McChrystal Group will delve into team-of-teams leadership, at the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference, Sept. 18–19 in NYC at the Museum of the Moving Image.  Culture Amp readers are eligible for a 15% discount off the door-ticket price. Use code CultureAmp or follow this link.


Ellyn Kerr is a behavior designer and instructional designer for leadership, inclusion, performance, and culture initiatives. She studies resistance (individual, team, org) to get at what makes change efforts fail or succeed, and combines applied neuroscience, somatic psychology of emotion and motivation, and tech-industry communications experience from a previous life.

She currently serves on the organizing team of Responsive Conference 2017.

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