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Executing is a Commodity: Sizing Up a Situation & the Race to Figure it Out


The video above features an all-star line up of General Stanley McCrystal, Chris Fussell and Reid Hoffman. In case you are unfamiliar with any of them, Reid Hoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn. General McCrystal is the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the former commander of ISAF (NATO’s Afghanistan Security Mission). Chris Fussell is a former officer within the Navy’s DEVGRU/SEAL Team 6, co-authored the book Team of Teams with Stanley McCrystal and the author of One Mission. This hour-long conversation highlights many of the lessons that McCrystal and Fussell learned while transforming a large organization, JSOC, to operate faster than the insurgents they were hunting in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was written about in the book Team of Teams. While the conversation is one that many leaders and managers will find interesting, I’m sharing it because of a specific statement that General McCrystal makes about the importance of increasing the speed of learning for individuals and organizations.

At about the 34:30 mark in the video, General McCrystal explains how the problem in war has historically been that, because you could find the enemy relatively easily (it’s hard to hide tank divisions), the problem was having the ability to hurt them. But that is no longer the case. McCrystal goes on to explain:

The problem wasn’t finding the enemy, it was dealing with them. But that problem has completely changed.

The problem now is that you can deal with any enemy force where it is, if you know exactly who it is and where it is because of precision weapons, global positions systems, night vision and unmanned aerial vehicles. All of this has changed that [historical problem]. Now, it is not a race to deal with the problem— it is a race to identify, understand and locate the problem.

We started the organization [JSOC] with a DNA of operators, where the brawn of the organization was people who had big shoulders, big knuckles and could shoot straight. That changed completely. That became a commodity. You can train people to do that. The hard part was finding the people who could figure it out. So what happened is, the whole organization started becoming that. Even the big operators started becoming intel people.

It became a different kind of meritocracy. Learning became everything. I believe that is going to become even more true in the future. It will be a race to figure it out.

As warriors, protectors and guardians are out there actively preparing for future battles, I don’t believe that the General’s comments should be dismissed or minimized. The skill set that is most in demand, even in the most elite units, isn’t just the ability to smoothly and flawlessly clear a room, but the ability to think and learn. Many of the “hard skills” we associate with elite units have become table stakes. The skills that had made these units elite (shooting, conducting reconnaissance, raids, etc.) has become the new minimum standard that is expected from each member and operator. You are now expected to be able to learn, understand our adversaries at a deep level and find them to be truly successful.

Like any other skill, though, learning how to learn requires development and deliberate practice. It shouldn’t be assumed that you will be able to do this when the call comes. Instead, it should be a skill that you have put in the work to earn confidence in. The ability to learn quickly and thoroughly that is required when our nation’s security and the lives of our teammates are on the line isn’t something that should be left to chance. This is why we’ve been adding more and more content to our blog and library about how to pursue mastery and break the learning process down into distinct steps—so that we can prepare in peacetime to be ready for war.

Follow on reading:
• “Combatting The Strengths Of Our Adversaries and Learning How To Learn
• “Learning How To Learn: The Steps
• “Building Confidence In Your Ability To Learn