As always, we’ll start with a story. This one is about Stanley Allen McChrystal, a retired US Army four-star General. He fought with distinction in the Iraq War, Operation Desert Shield, the War in Afghanistan and the Gulf War. He served as Commander, Joint Special Operations Command, Commander, International Security Assistance Force and Commander, United States Forces, Afghanistan.

He was described by former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates as ‘perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I ever met.’ In a fight, this is the guy you want standing next to you.

When he was commander of JSOC, McChrystal led the effort to take out one of Al Qaeda’s most high-profile leaders, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After two and a half years of searching, he tracked the Jordanian down and killed him in an airstrike in June 2006. While he may have hated the ‘Sheikh of the Slaughterers’, McChrystal came to respect al-Zarqawi’s ability to lead the militants he commanded. He had no admiration for al-Zarqawi’s cause or methods but he acknowledged his strengths as a leader. He was committed, he was skilful and he was effective. He was willing to – and ultimately did – die for his beliefs.

However, in his book Leaders: Myth & Reality, he and his co-authors Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone have realised that there’s no clear answer to the question – what makes leadership work?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that every scenario is different. The needs of a mission, project or business fundamentally change what is needed from its leader.

In the Army, ‘We actually don’t know how to tell you to be successful. We can tell you how complex it is. What it comes down to is, I can tell you the things we think that make leaders so effective is having the right values’ and this translates perfectly well into any other sphere of influence.

Now more than ever, the world is yearning for heroic leaders like Stanley McChrystal not just on the battlefield but in business, politics and sports – omniscient, fearless, reassuring, capable, disciplined, strong and having the courage of his or her own convictions – but it’s time to ask ourselves whether we want chess masters or gardeners.

The Chess Master

Take Napoleon as an example. Widely regarded as one of history’s greatest military leaders, he was responsible for crafting brilliantly innovative wartime strategy, deftly manoeuvring his troops into precise positions and distributing exact, unambiguous commands to his men in the field. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of military strategy and the rare ability to anticipate, out-manoeuvre and dictate pace.

He was a chess master. He saw his soldiers as pieces on a board. His job was to position each one exactly where he wanted them and to dictate each move. He anticipated what the opposition would do and responded accordingly. The chess pieces didn’t need to think for themselves, that was done for them. They simply needed to respond to instructions and carry out what was asked. They were automatons.

Even today, there are leaders who try to live up to this unrealistic – and many would say, outdated – expectation. They must be the one who knows more than everyone else, they must always have the right answer and they must deliver instructions with force. They construct the corporate hierarchy in their own megalomaniacal vision and they must control the chess pieces like a magician trying to control a thousand spinning plates. Anything else shows vulnerability, weakness or worse, irrelevance.

General McChrystal viewed war like a game of chess – the ultimate strategy game.

‘Empowered with an extraordinary ability to view the board, and possessing a set of units with unique capabilities, I was tempted to manoeuvre my forces like chess pieces. I could be Bobby Fischer or Garry Kasparov, driving my relentlessly aggressive campaign toward checkmate… I felt intense pressure to fulfil the role of chess master for which I had spent a lifetime training.’

While the chess metaphor worked for thousands of years, in the modern forward-thinking organisation there is no longer a central repository of answers, decision-making and hierarchical control.

Chess is a game of order. It has a clear set of rules and an etiquette. One player takes a turn and then waits patiently for his or her opponent to take their turn. In war, in business and in sports, it’s much more fluid. Your opponents are free to smash you around on multiple fronts without waiting for you to have your go. Things happen much faster than one person can control, assess, decide and act upon.

The speed and interconnected nature of competitive battlefields (whether literal, in the boardroom or on the pitch) renders the traditional view of the ‘all-powerful’ leader obsolete.

‘Being a leader is like being a lady. If you have to remind people you are, you’re not’. Margaret Thatcher

General McChrystal has had a volte face. He suggests that it’s time to put the shouty, controlling chess masters to sleep and awaken the humble gardener. ‘Leadership isn’t what we think it is, in fact it never was. But it still matters.’

The Gardener

Today and in the future, the most effective and important leaders are those who are humble and empathetic enough to listen and discern the situation at hand, evaluate what’s required and adapt to that requirement.  Consider the gardener.

A gardener doesn’t grow plants. Plants grow themselves, but plants can’t grow if the gardener keeps yanking them out of the ground to check the roots.

What the gardener does is foster the environment for the plants to grow. They turn the soil, get rid of weeds, water the plants and give them the nutrients they need. If those jobs are done right, the garden will flourish. They take into consideration the weather, the type of soil, the plants, flowers or crops they want to grow and adapt their methods accordingly.

As a metaphor, it works perfectly. Competitive success can no longer depend on the move-by-move control of the chess master. The running of a successful business or organisation relies on constant nurturing of the whole environment – the staff, the processes, the culture – and most importantly it allows for smart autonomy.

According to leadership strategist Chunka Mui writing in, smart autonomy is ‘the ability, responsibility and authority of every part of the team to take action as best it sees fit in pursuit of the overall strategy.’

The gardener will resist the temptation to micro-manage. They are more focused on investing their energy into getting the job done to the best of their ability rather than who gets the credit. They will lift the spirits of those with poor performance records rather than march them out the door. They will eliminate blame culture and create an environment of encouragement, collaboration and personal accountability.

‘The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen’. Simon Sinek

Grow rather than fix.

For more information about whether you should lead like a chess master or lead like a gardener, contact me, Jules Peck on: | +44 7931 325 642 |

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