Episode 9 of THE THINKING LEADER PODCAST featuring Mark McNally, is now live! Click here to listen.

9/11 Was A Terrible Tragedy: It Was Also The Birth Of Red Teaming

Sep 14, 2021

Like most Americans, I remember exactly where I was twenty years ago. It was just after 7 a.m. in California when a friend woke me up with a phone call, urgently insisting that I turn on my television.

“Dude, they just destroyed the World Trade Center!” he exclaimed.

“Who?” I said, suspicious because my friend was a notorious prankster.

“The terrorists!”

“Right,” I said, thinking about the failed 1993 attempt to blow up the iconic buildings. “How?”

“They flew two planes into them – commercial jets – and one of the towers just collapsed,” he said. “Oh! And they attacked the Pentagon, too. We’re at war!”

It took him another five minutes to convince me to turn on the TV. It wasn’t just that I didn’t trust my friend; it was also because I could not believe that what he was saying was actually true.

My own failure of imagination reflected a larger failure of...

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Cultural Transformation Is Everybody's Business

Aug 31, 2021

When I was studying at the U.S. Army’s red teaming school at Fort Leavenworth back in 2015, I was introduced to a powerful concept called “My 15 Percent.”
The idea is simple: Whether you are a general or a private, there are things you can do to improve the performance of your unit, that will improve the performance of your division, and ultimately, the Army as a whole. It was the product of research by organizational psychologists who found that no matter how disenfranchised or powerless people feel – no matter how low they are on the totem pole – they still have the ability to directly influence at least 15 percent of the part of the organization they work in.

So, we were taught, if you don’t like the way things are going, focus on making a positive change your 15 percent.

The same approach works just as well in corporations, according to bestselling business author and executive coach Barry O’Reilly.

“Often people say that we...

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To Succeed In Today’s Complex World, Leaders May Need To Unlearn What They Already Know

Aug 20, 2021

As leaders struggle to navigate today’s complex and rapidly changing world, many of them are finding that the tactics and behaviors that served them well in the past are less effective when dealing with the challenges of the present.

If you are one of them, bestselling business author and advisor Barry O’Reilly says you may need to “unlearn” what you already know in order to “relearn” the things you need to succeed today.

“Unlearning is a process of letting go or reframing and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past, but now limit your success. It’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding knowledge or experience; it’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively engaging and taking in new information to inform your decision making,” O’Reilly explains.

He recognizes it is a big ask.


Hitting the reset button

In his executive coaching...

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With The Rapid Fall Of Kabul, America Has Suffered Another Failure Of Imagination

Aug 19, 2021

Kabul has fallen, and today is a dark day for America – and an even darker day for Afghanistan. But the speed of the Taliban’s advance, while stunning, was hardly surprising.

I’m no expert, but in conversations over the past few weeks with friends who served in Afghanistan, all of them predicted this rapid collapse of the Afghan armed forces and the Taliban’s rapid advance on Kabul. And all of them thought the insurgents would reach the capitol far faster than American politicians and military planners were predicting.

So, how did Washington get it so wrong – again?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’m not talking about America’s failed attempt at nation building in a country long known as the graveyard of empires; I’m talking about the failure of imagination that led American planners to believe, as intelligence officials said just three days ago, that “Kabul could fall within 90 days.”


Lessons Not Learned


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Creating A “Culture Of Candor”

Jul 27, 2021

Dr. Gary Klein is one of the world’s leading experts on decision making. In his work with nuclear power plants, he noticed something interesting: efforts to eradicate mistakes sometimes made plants less safe.

“People talk about having ‘zero-tolerance’ for errors. It turns out that, when you do research, zero-tolerance for errors usually winds up leaving you less safe, rather than more, because people know that they’ve got to hide their errors,” Klein explains. “Instead of being candid about them, and learning from them, they are trying to deflect blame or to make sure that people don’t discover what went wrong.”

To overcome this dangerous tendency, Klein says leaders need to work develop what he calls a “culture of candor” in their organizations.

“Instead of being critical and impatient, become curious,” Klein says. “Instead of saying, Well, this was a mistake, let’s make sure we don't make it...

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Top Decision-Making Expert Says Leaders Need To Get Comfortable With Uncertainty

Jul 20, 2021
FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2009 file photo, passengers in an inflatable raft move away from an Airbus 320 US Airways aircraft that has gone down in the Hudson River in New York. Accident investigators say they object to their portrayal in a new movie based on the “Miracle on the Hudson” river ditching of airliner seven years ago after striking geese. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Dr. Gary Klein is a cognitive psychologist and one of the world’s foremost experts on human decision making. I had the opportunity to talk with him recently about the present pandemic, and I asked him how leaders can successfully navigate this challenging operating environment.

The first thing leaders need to do, he told me, is get comfortable with ambiguity.

“With a crisis like the one we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, there is so much complexity and there is so much uncertainty that to try to make sure that you can analytically identify the one best option and not to do...

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The Military Needs To Change; Business Does Too

Jul 13, 2021

Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy recently wrote an excellent piece for Foreign Affairs warning that the American military is falling behind adversaries such as China and Russia and offering a compelling outline for “How to Transform the Pentagon for a Competitive Era.”

Many companies now find themselves in an era of unprecedented competition as well, and as I read Flournoy’s article, I was struck by how much of her advice was as spot-on for business as it was for the armed forces. That’s not surprising; the military, after all, is an enormous, hierarchical bureaucracy – just like most multinationals. As such, it faces similar challenges:

“Driving change in large bureaucratic organizations is notoriously hard … The prevailing bureaucratic culture remains risk averse: avoid making mistakes, don’t rock the boat, stick to existing ways of doing business. In addition, top officials face a...

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Legendary CEO Alan Mulally Says Coming Together Is The Key to Navigating Through Difficult Times

Jun 30, 2021

When the pandemic first began last year, a CEO asked me an intriguing question: “If you could tap anyone to lead a company through an existential crisis like this, who would it be?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “Alan Mulally.”

Mulally is the only person I know who has saved not one, but two iconic American companies: first Boeing, then Ford. He was also the subject of my first book, American Icon, and I am proud to call him my mentor.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Alan and ask him how you deal with challenges like the ones so many businesses and governments are dealing with today.

“It starts with really facing reality – not what you wish it could be or hope it could be,” Mulally told me.

He said the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic are not that different from the ones that confronted him as president of Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes division back in September 2001, when the...

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Sometimes, You Just Have To React

Apr 30, 2021

A reader recently pushed back on my personal mantra: bad leaders react, good leaders plan, and great leaders think. He pointed out that there are times when every leader needs to react. He also pointed out that planning is essential.

I couldn’t agree more.

When I speak of reacting vs. planning vs. thinking, I am speaking in terms of default leadership style.

To put a finer point on it, bad leaders are constantly reacting to events, good leaders think their work is done when they’ve come up with a plan they’re satisfied with, but great leaders know that their work is never finished – that they must continue to challenge that plan and modify it as conditions change. Moreover, they know that they must continue to challenge themselves and their teams to improve on that plan.

Every leader needs to be able to react quickly and decisively to immediate threats and fleeting opportunities – and that is particularly true in today’s complex and rapidly...

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Strategies Only Work If You Let Them

Feb 11, 2021

This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom surprised everyone by suddenly lifting the near-complete lockdown he ordered late last year to help contain the COVID-19 outbreak that has made the state one of the epicenters of the pandemic.

The governor’s decision came without warning, and with apparent disregard for the very metrics that he said would be used to determine when businesses could reopen when he issued the lockdown order late last year. Critics say it was a reaction to a strengthening recall campaign being mounted by his political opponents.

Reacting is never a good strategy. In fact, it’s not even bad strategy, because when you react, you are abandoning strategic thinking entirely.

Unfortunately, a lot of leaders are reacting these days, rather than thinking their way through this crisis.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done nothing but react, with government policies sometimes changing by the day. Nor is Newsom alone in abandoning a...

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