‘Leading’ With a Dinosaur’s Tail

Management Respect Teamwork


Key Point: Command and control leadership is no longer the way to effectively run an organization. However, my observation is that many self-proclaimed contemporary leaders buy this idea on paper, nod their heads in vigorous agreement, but behave very differently. I think too many current managers really like the idea of being “the boss,” not necessarily being a true LEADER, but definitely the BIG BOSS. They mostly just expect people to do what they’re told. And they really think, even when outwardly presenting a “team” belief, that they’re smarter and know what’s best. And if you disagree too much, or step on their egos, there will be consequences. 

In 2004, General Stanley McChrystal was appointed head of Joint Special Operations Command for the US military in Iraq. He subsequently recorded his experience in 2015’s Team of Teams. The following is a quote from McChrystal’s best selling book:  

“I would tell my staff about the ‘dinosaur’s tail’: As a leader grows more senior, his bulk and tail become huge, but like the brontosaurus, his brain remains modestly small. When plans are changed and the huge beast turns, its tail often thoughtlessly knocks over people and things. That the destruction was unintentional doesn’t make it any better.” 

In our current whirlwind environment, traditional command and control structures are no longer very effective. The decision makers at the top of the command chain are too far removed from the relevant information, and are two slow to react. When Gen. McChrystal recognized this to be true, he changed the organizational and decision making structure of the task force to a “Team of Teams” approach. The two primary principles underlying this philosophy are transparent communication and decentralized decision-making. For those making the decisions under Gen. McChrystal, the maxim was simple: “Use good judgment in all situations.” While this may sound overly simplistic, the irony is that in a scrambled world, simple trumps complexity. 

Gen. McChrystal recognized that his role needed to change too. He viewed his primary responsibility as creating a “shared consciousness” or common purpose. One of his great quotes: “Purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team.” Rather than being the master strategist, the general saw his role as being similar to that of a gardener. He needed to create the right environment to allow these teams to flourish and decisions to be made within the context of this shared consciousness and purpose. 

Team driven leaders do NOT demand loyalty to themselves. They DO, however, demand loyalty to the organization’s purpose and expect team members to have the courage to fiercely fight for what they deeply believe best contributes to that purpose. The idea that loyalty is exclusive to people who “do what we say” and “blindly follow us,” is a misguided and outdated concept. It leads to people lining up to where the command power is politically perceived, versus doing the right thing. In organizations, particularly at executive levels, this spurious loyalty is outright dangerous. 

Character Moves:

  1. Determine how much of a “garden leader” versus “dinosaur leader” you and others are. Do you develop and promote shared purpose, values and a networked culture? Are expectations, goals, and projects both clear and transparent? Do you allow for a free flow of information, feedback and expect loyalty to the greater good and purpose? Do you recognize and reward people for their results, collaborative skills and a growth mindset? Or ultimately do you just want to be the “Big Boss?”

Garden leader in the Triangle, 

 – Lorne 

One Millennial View: From a Millennial standpoint, we’re likely to be dealing more with middle management experience… I don’t want to be disparaging to all the great middle managers that are probably out there, but that faux “big boss” attitude seems to start manifesting here. As we start climbing ladders and earning more responsibility, if we pretend to jump into some “big boss” shoes, I predict they’ll likely be way too heavy, we’ll sink in the mud and wind up stuck.

– Garrett Rubis