Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal
Bloomberg/Getty Images
September 20, 2014 12:00 PM EDT
McChrystal is a former Army General, founder of the McChrystal Group, the founding chairperson of Service Year Alliance, and a co-chair of the Serve America Together campaign to make national service part of growing up in America.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Follow Stanley McChrystal on LinkedIn. This post is part of a series titled “Behind the Scenes” in which Influencers explain in detail one aspect of their work. LinkedIn Editor Isabelle Roughol also provides an overview of the 60+ Influencers that participated in the package.

Thursday, the 8th of June 2006, was extraordinarily busy. The evening before, after 2 1/2 years of grimly lethal effort, the Task Force I commanded had located and killed al Qaeda in Iraq’s senior leader in Iraq – the shadowy Abu Musab al Zarqawi. And now, flush with intelligence carefully gathered during the hunt, we pressed the attack against the former commander’s entire network. On Balad Airbase waves of specially configured surveillance aircraft and helicopter loads of commandos launched into the night sky, destined for a collection of targets across war-torn Iraq. Inside an old aircraft bunker we’d converted into a high-tech command center, flat-screen televisions ringed the walls, glowing with real-time information or live video feeds. Civilian analysts scurried back and forth with hard copy intelligence reports; bearded operators in full kit sprinted in for last minute checks with the operations staff as helicopters whirred on the runway; medical staff ensured the readiness of their teams to deal with any casualties, and aviation liaisons kept dozens of aircraft moving around the battlefield in a high-stakes game of three-dimensional chess.

To an outsider, it might have looked like chaos. But to the trained eye, it was an organization in a state of exquisitely synchronized flow. What looked like a pick-up team of mismatched souls was, in reality, the most sophisticated and tightly integrated thinking organization I had ever been a part of. And this day would be one of the most important 24-hour periods that we would see during the war, with every member of the task force laser-focused to press the fight. It was an effort far beyond the capacity of any one person to manage.

“Sir, you have a phone call,” came the voice of one of my staff. I was taken aback, as he knew the criticality of the moment. My look told him I wasn’t really interested in talking with anyone at the moment, so he jumped in to save me the embarrassment of saying take a message. “It’s the President. President Bush wants to talk with you.” And so… you take the call.

The President was calling, very graciously, to thank me for what had happened the day before. We had killed our enemy’s most ruthless and effective leader. His removal was not the end of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but it was certainly the beginning of their demise.

“Stan, I want to thank you for what you’ve done today. It’s a great service to the country.” The words were kind, and the meaning pure. But as I stared out into the sea of energy in our operations center – where hardened warriors mixed fluidly with young civilians; where uniforms from multiple units were integrated with rock tee-shirts and ball caps; where men and women, youth and veteran, operated as one – I thought to myself, I don’t think I did anything… but they’ve certainly done something incredible.

“Thank you sir, I’ll pass that on to the force. They’ve done truly heroic work, and there’s still more to do.” It was the best I could come up with.

If I learned one thing in my 34-year career, it was this fact: I accomplished nothing, but we did amazing things. As a leader, I have always seen it as my most critical function to create the “we,” to place oneself at the center of diverse and amazing talent, and pull them together around a common purpose. “I” is ego, and a risky path for any leader. “We” is empowerment, transparency, and shared context – all of the things the modern environment requires to be effective.

But it is not enough to say these things – today’s leaders must work like they never have before to create the environment where this is not just theoretical chatter at the quarterly town-hall, but visible to your organization in the way you lead, the focus you demonstrate, and the methods in which you communicate with your people. Today’s workers are watching their leaders like they never have in the past. They know that yesterday’s stove-piped approaches won’t work. The also know that only “we”-focused leaders, those willing to put themselves in the middle of today’s chaos, will send them the message they need to hear.

A false interpretation of history of that critical day in 2006 could point to a few key leaders that were making the most important calls and to a small team that launched to find Zarqawi. But everyone involved would know that was inaccurate. The days of small teams solving for isolated problems are gone. Since leaving the service my colleagues and I have seen this same issue unfolding in every sector. Our mission has been, from our inception, to bring this message to others, to create the “we” that the modern world demands if organizations want to survive and excel.

At our zenith in Special Operations, we were a team-of-teams – a seamlessly interconnected organization the likes of which the battlefield had never seen. The speed at which we were able to share information across traditional silos, the contextual awareness that was shared at every level, and the empowerment that existed on the fringes of our organization allowed our thousands-strong, globally dispersed force to outpace the speed of the network-based enemy we were facing. We did so not by creating verticals of “I” – but by creating networked teams of “we.” The approached, forged in fire, is universal for the 21st century – and an “I” approach will never keep pace.

Stanley McChrystal is co-founder and partner at McChrystal Group.

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