The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 15, 2021 1:00 am

Fear of failure hinders success, speakers say

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Policy and structure are the backbone of any organization until, well ... they inhibit success or become an excuse for inaction.

Two first-day speakers at this month's Global Leadership Summit – one a prominent pastor and the other a retired Army general – addressed how what's intended for good can inadvertently become stumbling blocks.

Craig Groeschel, whose Life.Church ministry has 36 campuses in nearly a dozen states, said leaders often have a desire to avoid failure. That's especially true in uncertain times.

“The cost of inaction is almost always greater than the cost of making a mistake,” said Groeschel, who is a regular featured summit speaker and considered the Champion of the GLS. More than 2,200 in the Fort Wayne area registered to view via satellite this year's Aug. 5-6 summit.

Leaders, Groeschel said, have to know when to relinquish some control.

“The best leaders don't obsess about controlling outcomes,” he said. “The best leaders obsess about empowering others.”

In some organizations, employees can't order a box of pens without getting three signatures, Groeschel said, adding that policies can be like “organizational scar tissue.

“Someone made a mistake, then a policy gets created,” he said, rather than leaders having the courage to manage the mistake or address the individual who made it.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal learned to navigate the military ladder and shift some of the organizational boundaries after he was tapped to head the Joint Special Operations Command.

Factors such as use of technology, timing and adaptability were crucial in war zones and battling terrorist groups, including al-Qaida. But McChrystal stressed the role of action, structure and communication.

Action, he said, requires overcoming inertia, which can build over time due to missteps.

“Something would be done that didn't go well and afterward we'd write a policy that was intended to never let that happen again,” McChrystal said, reflecting on military leadership. “Or something went well and we'd say, this is what we want people to do in various situations. So the military would write another policy, and then another policy, and then a policy to cover policies.”

Before you know it, you can end up with “a wall of policies around the organization.”

When he started with the Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal said he made a move typical of most new leaders and declared all previous policies remained in effect.

When a candid conversation with a subordinate revealed that approach stalled strategic progress, McChrystal shifted his stance: “I said from now on, here's the policy: It can't be illegal and it can't be immoral. And now get out there and do stuff.”

Organizations often think they can restructure their way to success, but approach it at a surface level. They might, for example, change job titles and parking spaces, but everything still happens as it had before.

“And in the military,” McChrystal joked, “if you want to change structure, you start the paperwork and then your grandchildren execute it.”

Seriously, structure matters, he said. But it's also important to empower people throughout the organization – particularly where real action occurs, whether through interactions with customers, constituents or members of a congregation.

McChrystal said he didn't attempt to reorganize the Joint Special Operations Command, knowing it would “just be an exercise in frustration.” While his team kept structure for finance, personnel and such, the communication strategy changed. They started “letting information flow,” which expedited access to intelligence and individuals having greater context to make decisions.

McChrystal, who now has a consulting agency and a book on risk scheduled for an October release, said he used to tell the force “decentralize decision-making until you're uncomfortable and then decentralize one level more. It will be all right.”

Martin Luther King Jr., as a civil rights leader, employed good tactics, McChrystal said. He used regular meetings to disseminate information and was adaptable enough to “decide within the moment what needs to happen.” He realized, McChrystal said, that each arrest during the struggle could spark media coverage to wide audiences – another opportunity to make the case for equality and justice, even though some civil protests came with great risks.

“We have a risk problem; a big one,” McChrystal said. “But the great news is we can fix it. It's up to us.” 

To share a thought, a favorite quote or other wisdom about leadership, email Lisa Green at Lead On also appears online as a blog at

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