Small Wars Journal

disruptive thinkers

Reverse Leadership? Another Buzz Word for Disruptive Thinkers?

Wed, 05/16/2012 - 9:04am

This will be no news to most military leaders, but is still worth pointing out the source and a different perspective on leadership.  A Harvard Business Review blog post discusses the concept of "reverse leadership."  This is a buzz phrase for what some call functional leadership and what could be simply stated as "letting experts or other people with good ideas in your organization take the lead on creating a solution even if they don't hold a formal leadership billet."  Yes, yes, another buzz phrase, grumble, snipe, snark, but it is worth considering concepts and we don't have to carry the buzz phrase branding with them.  The author, Scott Edinger offers a list of suggestions.

  1. They're the ones with strong interpersonal skills born of self-awareness. [To lead through influence and not authority] they must be self-aware enough to understand the effect their words and actions have on other people. ...
  2. They focus more on results than on process. Anyone can follow the process, as the old saying goes, but it takes leadership to know when to break from it. Reverse leaders don't break rules simply to be rebellious. They break them because they're focused on the outcomes rather than the process for producing outcomes. ...
  3. They exhibit particularly high degrees of integrity. ...
  4. They have deep professional expertise in at least one discipline vital to the organization. ...
  5. They maintain an unswerving customer focus. [R]everse leaders ...tend to be found further down the organization and by extension closer to the customer. ... And such focus can have tremendous value to any organization, if properly recognized and encouraged.

Read it all here.

Disruptive Thinking and how the iPad changed Close Air Support in Afghanistan

Tue, 05/15/2012 - 5:48am

Editor's Note: This entry was also posted in slightly different form at the Disruptive Thinkers blog.  For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the bureacracy surrounding naval aviation, what may seem like a relatively simple effort to gain approval to use iPads in the cockpit of an attack aircraft is no small feat.  The lesson here lies not only in the innovation, but also in the persistence in pushing the system to serve the need, and not a small bit of luck in having a former test pilot who was not only willing, but eager to be disruptive in an unresponsive system - and had the knowledge to do so productively - on staff at 3rd MAW.

Most Marine Corps aviators who have served in Afghanistan in a close air support (CAS) role have used or heard of iPads being used to store and view the over 1000 maps that make up the Helmand Valley.  These maps are made using high resolution imagery on which every compound is identified by a unique number.  This allows aircrew to quickly correlate friendly and enemy locations and more effectively provide accurate and timely aviation fires in support of ground forces, ultimately saving the lives of young Americans and their allies.  The downside of this system, which originally required aircrew to carry all 1000 map sheets, is that they had to sort through 30 lbs of maps to find the appropriate map sheet.  In fact, there are so many maps sheets that they won’t all physically fit in the cockpit.  Finding the right map could take several minutes, precious time during a fire fight.

In order to solve this problem an enterprising AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter pilot, Captain Jim “Hottie” Carlson, developed a system to electronically stitch these maps sheets together so that a pilot could view them on an iPad.  With the iPad’s embedded GPS the Cobra now had a moving map, something that the early 1990’s era helicopter is lacking.  On his own initiative and without official Marine Corps support Captain Carlson was able to provide the aging aircraft with a navigational system as advanced any available in the civilian world, all for less than $1000 per aircraft.   So efficient was his solution that an entire HMLA can be outfitted with iPads for less than the cost of fuel for one day of combat operations in Afghanistan.

While the technical details of the “Combat iPad” are best left for another discussion the interesting story lies in discussing the key factors that allowed Captain Carlson, along with several other individuals, to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles they faced in bringing this program to bear.

First and foremost Captain Carlson was the right person in the right place at the right time.  As one of the senior pilots on the deployment Captain Carlson had the tactical expertise and credibility to 1) understand the problem and 2) to navigate the bureaucratic morass of the Marine Corps.  Additionally, he had a technical background (a computer science major) that allowed him to view the problem from a different angle and come up with a unique solution.    

Second, Captain Carlson had the support of key players both in the squadron and at 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  LtCol William “Hoss” Bufkin, a Cobra pilot who served on the Wing staff was in the perfect position to help work through the bureaucratic red tape needed to bring these tablets to the battlefield.  LtCol Bufkin had previously served as an evaluation pilot with the AH-1Z upgrade program and was no stranger to the aviation procurement process.  With his experience he was able to work through or around many of the top level bureaucratic challenges of procuring iPads and getting approval for their use in flight.  LtCol Bufkin knew that the bureaucracy would tell him “no” when it came to asking for this new technology, but had the will to effectively fight the system in order to get this critical piece of equipment to the fleet. 

Third, Captain Carlson had the entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic needed to solve this problem.   It is interesting to note that many (but not all) of those Marines involved in the original iPad solution and those who have continued to improve on the program have had experience as civilians before joining the Marine Corps.  Did their experiences before entering military service help them in solving this unique problem?   Some may argue that because they began their professional careers in places where innovation and entrepreneurial spirit were valued that they were already comfortable working in environments where unique approaches to problem solving existed.  This is not to say that those who have worked in the civilian world are more likely to be Disruptive Thinkers than those without civilian experience (Colonel John Boyd, inventor of the OODA loop and one of the most influential military thinkers of the 20th Century began his military career by enlisting in Army at age 17).  However, it would be fair to say that we in the military too often write off potential solutions to problems because they do not fit into our preconceived notions of what fits into doctrine.  The real question is whether we want to promote this entrepreneurial problem solving spirit.  If so how do we do it in a large organization like the Marine Corps?

 I would argue the Marine Corps is going to need more of these types of Marines as we enter the next 10-15 years of fiscal austerity.  As is often quoted, “we’re out of money, its time to think”.  We as Marines, especially the Staff NCOs and company grade officers, need to do better at taking responsibility for our own organization.  The following are some ideas of how Disruptive Thinkers can be more effective.    

1-Be a Disruptive Doer, not just a Disruptive Thinker.  Good ideas are a starting point but actions speak louder than words.  Captain Carlson put in hundreds of hours of his own time, in addition to flying combat missions, in order to get the Combat iPad up and running.  If he and LtCol Bufkin had simply talked about their solution and hadn’t put in the work we would still be sifting through 30 lbs of paper maps. 

2-Be ready for a bureaucratic knife fight.  It often takes a strong personality who is willing to get his nose bloodied to affect the bureaucratic inertia of large organizations.  Choose your battles wisely and have your proverbial “stuff in one sock”.  You may only get one chance to convince someone that you have a better way.  Make it count.  Nixon summed it up best when spoke about Admiral Rickover, the father of the modern nuclear Navy:

 "I don't mean to suggest ... that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service… is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity."

3-Don’t forget that the Marine Corps is a warfighting institution, not a think tank.  The Marine Corps isn’t an organization like Google that requires constant innovation out of its employees.  The Marine Corps more like McDonalds, in that it needs employees to uphold a standard to ensure that customers can get the same hamburger in New York as they can in Tokyo.  With the Marine Corps you can expect that any given battalion will perform just as well another.  To provide this service both McDonalds and the Marine Corps have had to develop and enforce a single standard throughout their organizations.  While this process may seem at times anathema to innovation or Disruptive Thinking, it is as at our core what makes us good.

4- Sometimes you can do more good outside of the military.  There is a great tradition of American citizens leaving military service and going on and changing the world.  FBI director Robert Mueller and FedEx founder Fred Smith ( both earned Purple Hearts as Marine infantry officers in Vietnam.  While the Marine Corps is a great organization, there are other great organizations out there.  America, not just the military, needs innovative leaders.

With that being said, some responsibility does lie on leadership.  We do a very poor job at leveraging our best minds and our most talented leaders.  The Marine Corps leadership can change this in several different ways:

1-Bring “centralized command, decentralized control” back to the Marine Corps.   Innovation is often a bottom up process, where those closest to the fight have the best solutions.  Giving subordinate commanders flexibility to make these decisions will allow the most creative junior leaders to develop innovative solutions to existing problems.   As General Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” 

Avoiding micro-management is risky for the commander and managing that risk is a difficult task, but giving someone “enough rope to hang himself” does two important things.  First, it provides a learning environment for that junior leader, and second it helps to separate the mediocre from the exceptional.    Anyone can follow orders, but the best will excel in the absence of direction. 

2-Strive to keep the best and brightest officers and SNCOs in the Marine Corps.  Every organization from Apple to FedEx to the CIA deals with loosing talent.  However, the military has a unique problem in that it is an “agricultural” organization, meaning that it can’t hire on mid level leaders like other organizations.  Majors and colonels must be “grown” from the ground up.  If you want effective Colonels and Generals you need to keep effective Lieutenants and Captains.  As Colonel Paul Yingling (USA) said,  “It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties. “ 

The post-OIF/OEF Marine Corps will present unique challenges and opportunities for the next generation of Marines.  Fewer resources and an undefined mission will pose challenges that most Marines have yet to experience.  However, this also offers an opportunity for innovative Disruptive Thinkers and Doers to reshape the Marine Corps into the organization that will fight our nation’s future enemies, whoever they may be.  Hopefully they stick around. 

Dear Boss, I Don't Just Quit, I Give Up

Mon, 05/14/2012 - 5:55am

Editor's Note: For background and history of the "Dear Boss" letter, see this post.

Dear Boss,

I don’t just quit. I give up.

Why should I keep on bleeding myself and my family dry on MQT, CMR, FMC, UTE, RAP, FLUG, DTS, TDYs, OPRs, ATSO, SARC, CBTs, AT/FP, IA/IP, UCIs, SORTS,OREs, ORIs, AEFs, IPUG, BMC, when in the end nothing that I do seems to matter? To put it another way, why should I put service before self when my Chief is systematically dismantling my service? To use a perhaps appropriately joint analogy, I’m a strong swimmer – so why stay aboard a ship whose captain is running it aground?

You might think that out in the field we don’t notice what’s going on at Headquarters. You might think that we’re too busy doing more with less, coping with the administrivia of yet another ancillary ground training requirement from some staff puke’s rice bowl, trying to magically improve our “readiness” reporting with geriatric jets that can’t make UTE [See Note 1] and a glut of inexeperienced wingmen that we can’t absorb – that we are too busy to notice that what leadership is doing. Well, we aren’t. When I was an FNG [New Guy], all I cared about was sounding good on check-ins, staying visual, flying good formation, and studying the 3-1. But now I know that senior leadership matters, and what my leadership is showing me is that nothing I do matters or ever will.

As if twelve years wasn’t enough of boring meaningless holes in the sky while our most demanding combat skills atrophied and we prematurely aged our inventory. Now, after a decade of drinking “green” tea and filling “in-lieu-of the Army doing its job” taskings and the “Cult of COIN,” I’m not sure if I’m in the Army or in the Air Force. I’m “all in”: CAS is king, and my Chief publically endorses Gate’s decision to kill the F-22 because Airpower is really just airborne artillery (who needs air dominance in Low Intensity Conflicts?). We’ve instituted two weeks of bivouacking and other mud-infested activities into our basic training so our young enlisted troops are better equipped to integrate and employ with the Army as the Army. We’re all hooah, nation building, and winning hearts and minds. Last I checked, infantry wasn’t an AFSC, and occupation wasn’t part of our 4+1. [See Note 2]

Even AirSea Battle is a setback for the Air Force. Tell me how AirLand Battle, a linear, sequential, and attrition based doctrine in which Airpower is subordinated to Land maneuver, is a good inspiration for AirSea Battle? Tell me how the Navy has the necessary expertise to have input and a vote regarding the requirements and design of our new bomber, or anything else in our portfolio? Tell me how AirSea Battle exploits the inherent asymmetric, parallel, strategic, and effects-based advantages of Airpower, and how USAF senior leadership is championing Airpower so we can do what is needed in this pivot to the Pacific? Joint does not mean the same or subordinate, but we’ve clearly forgotten that over the last decade. We’ve bent over backwards to prove that we’re “all in,” eviscerating our unique, core capabilities in order to prove that we’re good joint team players. I have no trust that AirSea Battle will end up any different.

Why should I have any hope? Being a good joint team player, my leadership offered up $4.8B in cuts (out of a total $5.2B cuts across the DOD baseline) while the Navy only lost $900M and the Army grew inside their baselines.  I understand that this might be a rational approach to managing my household budget, but this is not home economics. Is this how we signal that Airpower is an essential element of AirSea Battle and our new strategic guidance? The last time we bought this few aircraft was in 1916, when we were still the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps. In just FY13, the Army and the Navy will buy more aircraft than the Air Force will buy in the entire FYDP [Future Years Defense Plan]! Everything I see indicates that senior leadership doesn’t understand, or worse, doesn’t care, why we have an independent Air Force. I thought the job of the CSAF was to organize, train, and equip – and be the strongest advocate for those responsibilities? When will my Chief have the integrity to put service before self? When will my Chief have the moral courage to stop being a yes-man and start telling the truth, start protecting our unique capabilities, start advocating for, even championing his Air Force?

I’ve never heard a Marine apologize for being a Marine. Every Soldier I know will proudly and loudly promote the Army. Sailors don’t feel compelled to marginalize or deny the Navy as a “Global Force for Good.” Yet my Chief can only say that we’re “all in” and are committed to being good, supporting partners in the joint team – as if we are just auxiliary members. Has my Chief ever read FM 100-20? What about the Key West Agreement?  I’m accused of being an “Airpower zealot” because I proudly believe in my Air Force, what is unique about it, and what we do. I have worked with and have tremendous respect for and admire the other services. They are consummate professionals and an integral part of our national power as Littoral, Land, and Sea forces. But I became an Airman for a reason and I’m tired of apologizing for being an Airman. None of the other services can do their jobs without us. We bring policy options, capabilities, and alternatives to our Nation that no other service can. If you don’t have an Air Force, you don’t have a joint force. The Navy is buying twice as many fighters as the Air Force is this year, and you wonder why my faith is shaken?

So now my Chief tells me that we will get smaller, but that we will remain a ready force.  Really? We’ve already divested so many fighters that our squadrons are broken. It doesn’t matter how much O&M you throw at us (as if there were any budget left after the cuts our leadership offered up); we cannot make the UTE necessary to create the training capacity required. Now we’re divesting more aircraft, and we’ll never be able to adequately train our young guys. We’re getting smaller and less capable and we can’t stop it. Although we never received as many Raptors as the national strategy requires, senior leadership emphatically denied any fighter shortfall.  We refused a “4.5 Generation” gap-filler, and now the F-35 is slow-rolled with no plan B on the table. Our force was humiliated and betrayed by the shameful and disingenuous capitulation written by the Chief and Secretary after the F-22 cancellation. What happened to our core values? Instead, we’re changing the scenario to fit the tactics! Drop the requirements to meet force structure realities which are dropping to meet budget bogies. So much for a strategy-driven force structure, or even any strategy at all. Next we’ll probably drop experience definitions to meet our aging rate and PCS cycle. Avoiding a “Hollow Force” is a nice talking point; but at least in the 1970s we got the F-15, F-16, and A-10, while simultaneously developing the B-1 and F-117. My Chief is out of airspeed with full aft stick and a boot-full of rudder in an unrecoverable spin [See Note 3].  

So you can keep your Bonus Take Rate and whatever other variables go into your Rated Distribution and Training Management models. Money isn’t going to keep me here. I didn’t become a fighter pilot because I wanted to get rich. I became a fighter pilot because I believed. And after everything I’ve seen, my trust and faith in the Air Force is so broken I don’t know why I’m doing this anymore. This flight path marker is buried in the dirt. I’m punching out.

Editor's Note: If you didn't click through to the link at the beginning of the letter, please go there now to read about the history of the storied USAF "Dear Boss" letter and for some additional background.

Note 1: UTE is Utilization rate, the number of times an aircraft can fly per month. Mission capacity, whether training or combat, is dictated by the number of aircraft available in a squadron (based on maintenance and depot availability) multiplied by UTE. The less aircraft a squadron has, the more each aircraft has to fly.

Note 2:  "4+1" Refers to the unique Air Force capabilities, also known as the Air Force enduring contribution: (4) Air & Space Control (which includes Air Dominace), Global ISR, Global Mobility, and Global Strike; (+) plus Command and Control in Air, Space & Cyberspace.

Note 3: Aft stick and full rudder deflection are pro-spin control inputs; that is, they are deliberate and conscientious control inputs that will cause an aircraft to enter a spin and will keep the aircraft in the spin condition. 

Betting on Economic Crisis as the Sole Route to Reform

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 10:02pm

At the Fabius Maximus blog, Doug Macgregor offers a synopsis of the state of the U.S. military and the prediction that only economic crisis will provide the impetus for reform.


Today, Chuck Spinney, Mike Sparks, along with others seeking to reform America’s military culture, all confront this old American problem in newer and more challenging forms. ...

What is clear is the disposition after January 2013 to just cut defense spending, with little attention to how we do it. If we were Germans, Japanese or Israelis we might ask how we can extract more capability for the money through reform, reorganization and a changed acquisition paradigm, but I am not sure we will ask these questions, at least not initially.

Normally, two things can change this condition either in isolation or combination: economic crisis or serious military defeat. Given the world’s disinterest in waging for just now, I am betting on an economic crisis.

Disruptive Thinkers: A Response

Wed, 05/02/2012 - 6:06pm

Ben Kohlmann posted a lengthy reply to his critics at the Disruptive Thinkers blog.  A short excerpt follows.


I don’t know everything – I know very little.  I know I know very little. But I want to know more.  And I’m going to ask the stupid questions and get things wrong (as many of you are referencing now…).  All the while I’m learning, connecting and figuring out a better way. 
This is the genesis of Disruptive Thinking.  It is not an “us vs them” paradigm, pitting one generation against another.  It is understanding the importance of “conceptual blending” and that military personnel may not have the best or only solutions to military problems.  It’s understanding that our civilian peers, not in the government, have been shaping our world in ways we hardly even understand.  How many of us have truly been affected by the economic downturn of the past four years? We’ve had unprecedented increases in resources, so how could we?  We can learn from non-government civilians, as they can from us.  It’s taking that entrepreneurial mindset and applying it within a rigid hierarchy to come up with innovative solutions and real institutional change. 

Disruptive Thinkers: Complacency and Isolation

Sun, 04/22/2012 - 5:15pm

Imagine an institution that keeps its members cooped up on a compound all day, offering meals, gyms, and other perks to keep them in place and at work, isolated from society and the insights interaction must bring.  A NY Times article warns against such isolation.


Sadly, this isn’t how the rest of the world works.

Most people actually have to leave their offices to get coffee. While wandering out into the real world, we unfortunates tend to do a lot with our mobile phones. We look for new restaurants, check in with location-based apps, share short pithy updates about things we’ve seen in this outside world, and take pictures of food and sunsets.

DoD of course, right?  No!  Google and Facebook.  Read here.