Listened recently to an excellent podcast, The Learning Leader Podcast with Ryan Hawk, who had 4-Star General Stanley McChrystal @StanMcChrystal on as his guest to discuss his approach to leadership. The link to the podcast is here.

There are so many great leadership gems in there (it’s well worth an hour when you are on a flight or in a car), but one quote really stood out to me. It’s a quote that McChrystal used when he was an active general leading his troops in Afghanistan.

“If, when you hit the ground, the order we gave you is wrong, execute the order we should have given you.”

The quote struck me for a number of reasons, the first of which is it seems to go against standard military protocol, which is you follow the order you are given and you don’t question it. Isn’t that what orders are all about? McChrystal uses the example of United Airlines forcibly removing a doctor from a plane because they were overbooked. United took a ton of heat for the way they handled it, and it got worse when their CEO came out and said their staff had followed their guidelines correctly.

McChrystal used the example and said when he looked at the incident and the guidelines, the airline was actually correct. They had followed the protocol correctly. The problem was, he points out, there was no freedom within that protocol to not “do anything stupid” as McChrystal puts it. His point being their has to be some flexibility in the protocol to make sure something really dumb doesn’t happen.

The second thing that struck me about the quote was the question – how many leaders actually operate this way? How many actually give their personnel the discretion to make the right decision if it goes against the written directives? Furthermore, I thought about coaching. Specifically, how we coach our kids on the offensive end.

I’ve coached teams, been a part of teams, and seen plenty of teams who are trying so hard to execute on offense that they really struggle to score. We would call it “Death by Execution” in our scouting when we saw a team that was trying way too hard to run the plays, and therefore handcuffing their kids and keeping them from scoring.

It’s an easy trap to fall into as a coach, and I’ve been there. You want your teams to execute and you spend a lot of time on it. And there’s always something about offensive execution that head coaches take a little bit personally – like it’s a reflection of who we are. We love to crisply execute a play not only to get two points, but it also makes us look good (and feel good) as a head coach.

But do we really want to execute, or do we want to score? I learned to tell my teams we are not trying to execute – we are trying to score. Of course I want them to understand the play or the action and to know what’s going to put us in position to score, but ultimately we want to score. And I want my players to be empowered and confident to make the right play at the point of attack. They have to be the ultimate decision maker, and my job is not to get them to execute but to put them in position to make the right decision.

Think about how much the action changes within a game, and how much the unexpected will happen. You can’t script what the defense is going to do or how either team will respond to the heat of a game. The defense might gamble and go for a steal, they may be switching unexpectedly, someone on your team might forget the play for a second or make the wrong read – all sorts of things can happen that might push your players to make a different decision. And if you train them the right way, and you trust them, they should be ready to make the decisions that will help you score rather than make the play run correctly.

If a 4-star general can take that approach – “execute the order we should have given you” – on the ground during a war, surely as coaches we can take the same approach. I think one of the biggest mistakes coaches make is that we try and control too much, when in fact we can’t control very much during a game. Loosen up and empower your team to make decisions. Train your players to make the right call at the point of attack and I bet you’ll score more points.

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