General McChrystal and the Butterfly Effect

by Andrew Forrest

In fall 2003, General Stanley McChrystal?was appointed the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, giving him authority over what were the best-trained, best-equipped, and most-lethal special operators in the history of the world. And yet, these elite soldiers (Navy Seals, Delta Force commandos, etc.) were unable to stop impoverished jihadists from using the most basic technology to create mass murder in Iraq. Why? McChrystal’s answers have a lot to do with the realities of leadership in the 21st century.


Stan McChrystal

Like most Americans, I’d heard of General Stanley McChrystal from his time in the headlines during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d seen a TED talk he’d given on leadership, but a few months ago I stumbled across a couple of interviews with General McChrystal on the Tim Ferris podcast that made me think: “This guy is impressive.” (You can find the long interview here and the much shorter follow-up here. Recommended.) On the podcast, General McChrystal and his former aide-de-camp Chris Fussell mention a book they’d written called?Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. I read the book, which confirmed my impression: these are?impressive guys.

The Problem with Al-Queda

When General McChrystal became commander of the JSOC in 2003, he was frustrated by his force’s apparent inability to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by?Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. McChrystal may have had enormous resources at his fingertips, but his special operators always seemed one step behind AQI’s terrorists, and the result was a bloodbath in Iraq, exemplified by the September 30, 2004 bombing of an opening ceremony at a brand new water treatment plant in Baghdad that killed 41 people, including?35 children.

The U.S. military easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s army during the invasion, but, in the occupation, a small number of impoverished terrorists were literally destroying the country. How?

The answer, General McChrystal learned, had to do with complexity.

Complexity and the Butterfly Effect

In everyday usage, we tend to use the words?complicated and complex interchangeably, but in?Team of Teams General McChrystal points out that in chaos‘theory?complex refers to situations that are made up of innumerable possible causes and effects such that correctly forecasting or planning for an outcome is literally impossible. Weather, for example, is an example of a complex system.

The famous butterfly effect refers to the idea that, in a complex system, a very small change in input can produce a great difference in output: the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Africa might?(but not necessarily) result in a hurricane in Brazil. The weather man can forecast the next hour’s weather with relative accuracy, but forecasting weather a week from now is just a guessing game, because weather is a complex system: there are just too many variables.

The modern world is a complex world, which means that small inputs can make a great difference. The problem for McChrystal and the U.S. was that AQI was set up to thrive in a complexity, whereas JSOC, for all its power and wealth of resources, was not.

Team of Teams

On the small level, the individual SEAL and Delta Force and intelligence teams at McChrystal’s disposal were excellent, but the organization of JSOC itself hindered cooperation and made adaptability impossible. The main strategic advantage of?AQI, on the other hand, was precisely in its ability to adapt. McChrystal’s insight was that if JSOC was going to defeat AQI, it would have to become as adaptable as its enemy.

The individual SEAL and Delta Force and intelligence teams were already capable of adaptability, which is why there were so effective; McChrystal’s reform was to get them working together as a team of teams. He did this by constantly pushing authority?down the chain of command, even when that meant relatively junior officers were making decisions with huge national security implications. He required each of the various groups in his command to send one elite operator to work with the other groups, so that trust began to be built between teams. He conveyed a daily briefing that involved hundreds of participants (via video) from all over the world so that information could be shared as widely as possible. Over time, these and other reforms began to enable the JSOC to effectively adapt to AQI’s tactics, and one of the stories McChrystal tells in the book is how these reforms enabled JSOC to track and kill Zarqawi in 2006.


Team of Teams is an interesting, thorough book (I’ve only referenced a very small part of its content here), but I’m not totally convinced by its argument. General McChrystal and his co-authors argue that in our complex world, a?great team or team of teams is a greater strategic advantage than a great leader. I agree with that, as far as it goes, and I think the insights in the book about how to create an organizational culture that is adaptable and resilient are helpful. But, I can’t help thinking that part of the story of the book is also that it takes a great leader to create that kind of organizational culture. Maybe the kind of leader who could lead that kind of change would end up thriving in any situation, complex or not. The Admiral Nelsons of the world might just make any team successful. A team is important, but a team requires a leader. As Bill Hybels likes to say, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” As I said, the more I read General McChrystal’s book, the more I thought,?”This guy is?impressive.”


Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World,?by General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell

???? worth reading



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Barbara Stewart July 8, 2016 - 7:51 pm

Andrew, I read another book not long ago that discusses the value in the kind of thinking you mention cited by the author: that of developing a culture in which everyone’s input is regarded as equally important and ideas from people lower on the proverbial idea and management food chain are given a chance; they get to explain, create, innovate, and are also given credence for real-life experiences in the line of duty, albeit in this case not the field of battle but within large corporations. An interesting read, if not my first choice of book, and maybe something you’d like as a follow-up or corollary to this. Charles Duhigg’s “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.”

Andrew Forrest July 9, 2016 - 6:45 am

I’ve not heard of that book, but I have ready “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg, which I found really interesting. Thanks for the tip.

Father’s Day Book Ideas – Andrew Forrest June 15, 2018 - 2:48 pm

[…] war novel. ?I was browsing the end notes of Tim Ferriss’s?Tools of Titans and saw that?Stanley McCrystal referenced it. ?(It’s my understanding that it’s required reading for all the cadets […]


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