General McChrystal and the Butterfly Effect

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 Worldby General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell

★★★         worth reading



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“If You Can Keep It”

As Benjamin Franklin left the deliberations at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia stopped and asked the old man: “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”  To which Franklin replied, “A republic, madam–if you can keep it.”


This republic that Franklin and the other founders gave us isn’t inevitable: it is a precious gift that must be tended and cultivated, like a garden.  On this Fourth of July, I’m thinking about the gift I’ve received to be a citizen of this republic and the stewardship of the people who passed that gift on to me, and I’m thinking about my responsibility in turn to pass it on to the children who will come after me.

A sacred responsibility.



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The Somme Began 100 Years Ago Today

The Battle of the Somme began exactly 100 years ago today, July 1, 1916.  By day’s end, the British Army alone would suffer over 57,000 casualties, and 20,000 of His Majesty’s young soldiers lay dead in the filthy mud.  That obscenity is worth reflecting on today.

[A British Tommy rescuing his mate during the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. ]


Progress is a Lie

We modern people are so arrogant.  We believe that because we can split the atom and transplant the kidney that we are more advanced than the people who came before us.  We believe in Progress.  In fact, we worship it.

But Progress is a lie.  The Somme is the result of Progress.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, all the right sort of people–cultured and cosmopolitan–knew that man was progressing toward a glorious future, and that scientific knowledge would enable us to obtain greater and greater mastery over the physical world.  However, in their Promethean arrogance the smart set overlooked the stubborn fact that scientific knowledge might give us mastery over the physical world, but it does nothing to give us mastery over ourselves; splitting the atom and transplanting the kidney doesn’t make us wise.

Modernity Began at The Somme

The late literary critic (and decorated WWII combat veteran) Paul Fussell believed that modernity began on July 1, 1916.  That first day of slaughter at the Somme was the beginning of a century of slaughter.  Mass graves, pointless killing: that’s Progress, and that’s who we are.

The Somme, 100 Years Later

100 years later, we have the iPhone and the Global Positioning System and the defibrillator.  Today, all the right sort of people know that humankind is progressing toward a glorious future, and that death and disease will find their end in Silicon Valley.  The inconvenient history of the Somme, if we choose to acknowledge it at all, is just one more example of the pitiful ignorance of past generations.  Unlike them, however, we have Progress, and Progress will make us perfect.  Progress is our God.

So much for progress.




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Grammar Lesson: i.e. & e.g

“Be thankful you don’t have to read resumés everyday: it’s depressing.”  So said an HR professional to me today.  What she meant was that very few of the resumés she reads come without grammatical and spelling errors.  Our lack of grammatical precision bothers me because I don’t believe grammar is just a series of arbitrary rules; I believe grammar affects thought.  So here, in the first of what may very well be a long-running (and doubtless highly popular) segment in Fox and Hedgehog land, is a brief lesson on grammar and the proper use of i.e. & e.g.


Why Grammar Matters

One of my literary heroes is the stubborn English socialist writer George Orwell.  I admire Orwell because of his insistence that language matters, because, as he argues in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” language either obscures or provides clarity.  Insisting on precision in language and grammar is not just pedantry, and Orwell writes that he objects to the idea that “any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.”  Rather, language shapes our thoughts so that

an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.  A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.  The point is that the process is reversible.  Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.  If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly…. [my emphasis]

from “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell

Grammar matters because grammar is about clarity.  It is important to say exactly what you want to say, and not to say what you don’t want to say.  Grammar helps us say what we want to say.

I.e., it matters that we get right the difference between i.e. and e.g.

The Slave Who Invented Abbreviation

Several of the grammatical abbreviations we use today were invented over 2,000 years ago by a brilliant Roman slave named Marcus Tullius Tiro. Tiro was born a slave in the household of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullis Cicero, and was Cicero’s close confidante and personal secretary until Cicero’s assassination in 43 B.C.  Cicero was a great orator, and Tiro would take notes of Cicero’s speeches in the Roman Forum so they could be published around the Roman Republic.  (In recognition of Tiro’s devotion and service, Cicero gave him his freedom in 53 B.C.)  To make note-taking easier, Tiro invented a shorthand method that was still used by European monks until the 18th century, and part of that method included the abbreviations that we still use today, e.g., i.e. and e.g., as well as an early version of the ampersand, &.


i.e. is Latin for id est, “that is.”  When you see i.e. in a sentence, say “that is.”


e.g. is Latin for exempli gratia, “for the sake of an example.”  When you see e.g. in a sentence, say “for example.”

i.e. vs. e.g

These 2 Latin abbreviations do not mean the same thing.  E.g.:

There are lots of ridiculous shows on television, e.g., The Bachelor.

means something different than

Last night I saw a commercial for the most ridiculous show on television, i.e., The Bachelor.

In the first example, The Bachelor is just one of the many ridiculous shows on television, whereas in the second example, I want to say that The Bachelor is the most ridiculous show on television.

See the difference?



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Everybody Wants To Be The Same

Everybody wants things to be different, but nobody wants to be different.  It is the different people, though, who make the biggest difference. The people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were always different, which is why they made the difference they did.

Le Chambon Was Different

Le Chambon is a small town in southwestern France, and for centuries it had been the home for a population of French Protestants called Huguenots.  The Huguenots had been influenced by John Calvin and had been persecuted by the Roman Catholic French state during the wars of religion.  The Huguenots, therefore, knew what it meant to be different and knew what it meant to suffer.

André Trocmé, wife Magda, and their children []

André Trocmé, wife Magda, and their children []

André Trocmé and the Jews

When World War II began, Pastor André Trocmé led the people of Le Chambon in welcoming and sheltering refugees and fugitives, many of them Jews.  The people of the town refused to declare allegiance to the collaborationist government in Vichy and devised ingenious ways to disguise the Jewish population around them.

In August of 1942, the police came to the town and demanded that Le Chambon give up the Jews they were hiding.  On August 30, André Trocmé ascended the steps of the pulpit in his packed church.

The church in Le Chambon []

The church in Le Chambon []

The pastor told the people to “do the will of God, not of men.”  The authorities left the town without making any arrests.

In 1943, however, Pastor Trocmé was arrested and detained for 5 weeks, and after his release he had to go into hiding until the end of the war.  His wife Magda carried on his work and provided leadership to the effort to shelter and save Jewish refugees.

Approximately 5,000 Jewish refugees were sheltered in Le Chambon (a town of only 5,000 people) over the course of the war; not a single Jew was given over to the Nazis.

There is a memorial to André and Magda Trocmé at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Yad Vashem []

Yad Vashem []

If You’re Not Different, You’re Not Any Good

Nobody wants to be different, which is why the world is the way it is: everybody is just like everybody else.

It’s like salt.  Salt is meant to flavor and preserve, but if salt loses its saltiness, it’s good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot.

The people of Le Chambon were different, and so they made a difference.


In memory of the people of Le Chambon, the salt of the earth and “righteous among the nations.”



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My Grandfather’s Grandfather

The Civil War ended exactly 150 years ago today, April 9 1865, and my grandfather’s grandfather was there.

In the Living Room of Wilmer McLean

After an early morning skirmish revealed that the Confederate army had no options but to surrender, General Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, said this to one of his officers: “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Lee and Grant met in the brick house of one Wilmer McLean, who, having lived in Manassas Junction during the first battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run, had retired to Appomattox, only for the war to end in his parlor.

The Civil War ended in the home of Wilber McLean.

The Civil War ended in the home of Wilber McLean.

In his memoirs, Grant records what happened next:

When news of the surrender first reached our lines our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory.  I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped.  The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Chapter LXVII

The Terms of Surrender

The terms of the surrender were very generous and allowed the Confederate soldiers, their officers having sworn that they would not take up arms again against the Union, to leave for home almost immediately.  In his memoirs, Grant explains what he was thinking when he was drawing up the terms of surrender with General Lee:

I then said to [General Lee] that I thought this would be about the last battle of the war–I sincerely hoped so; and I said further I took it that most of the men in the ranks were small farmers.  The whole country had been so raided by the two armies that it was doubtful whether they would be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they were riding.  The United States did not want them and I would, therefore, instruct the officers I left behind to receive the paroles of his troops to let every man of the Confederate army who claimed to own a horse or mule to take the animal to his home.  Lee remarked again that this would have a happy effect.”

The Young Man Who Walked Home from Appomattox

My grandfather’s grandfather, a Confederate private in Lee’s army, was there in Appomattox when the war came to an end, and being in the infantry and so having no horse or mule, walked home from Appomattox. He lived to be a very old man, and when I was a small boy I loved to hear my grandfather tell us stories about the young man who walked home from Appomattox.