In today’s highly competitive business environment, owners and leaders who desire to become their best may be faced with making a choice between enhancing their competency and perpetuating their culture. If you were to face this decision, which would you choose?
I choose both. What I mean is that to become your best, you must find the right balance between organizational competency and a cultural environment that aligns with your core values and your core focus as a company. It is the effective balance between culture and competence sustained over time that can provide the foundation for a lasting and growing enterprise.
In his book, “Team of Teams”, retired General Stanley McChrystal, who assumed command of the Joint Operations Special Task Forces in Iraq in the spring of 2004, describes in vivid detail the challenges he faced in confronting an enemy, which by all accounts was winning the war. What he observed was a situation that defied his decades of training and preparation. On one side, he had command of the best trained, best equipped, and most disciplined fighting force ever assembled. On the other hand, the enemy was highly fragmented, poorly equipped, under resourced, and inadequately trained at best. Yet the enemy was winning.
McChrystal concluded that to shift the advantage and change the momentum, something had to happen other than what he and countless other soldiers had been trained to do. Rather than rely on a highly disciplined command and control leadership and management structure, the Task Force would simply have to adapt. They had to change their culture in the middle of a war, one in which they were already well behind. McChrystal realized that until the culture of decision-making and tactical accountability changed, the massive advantage in competency he possessed would not be enough to ensure success. One can only imagine the scene in the meeting room when that conclusion was reached.
At the conclusion of chapter one, McChrystal describes how he draws from his passion for military history to make his point clear. Drawing from Adam Nicolson’s Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Traflgar, McChrystal presents the case of British admiral Horatio Nelson, who faced overwhelming odds against a larger and vastly superior Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The conventional story holds that Nelson’s “brilliance and ingenious plan allowed the British to execute a marvelous trick and win an uphill battle.” Yet McChrystal argues “Nelson crafted an organizational culture that rewarded individual initiative and critical thinking, as opposed to simple execution of commands. The maneuver Nelson pulled that day was clever, but it was just the tip of the iceberg, and the real magic lay beneath the waterline. Nelson’s real genius lay not in the clever maneuver for which he is remembered, but in the years of innovative management and leadership that preceded it.”
McChrystal realized that to change the tide of the war on terrorism and ensure success, he had to lead a highly complex and very large organization by changing its culture. In order to capitalize on its superior competency, the Joint Operations Task Force would need to adapt its decades old thinking to strike the right balance between culture and competence.
If you’re a leader in today’s business environment struggling with finding or leveraging a competitive advantage, the choice is clear.