Small Wars Journal

Disruptive Thinkers and Opportunistic Leadership

Fri, 04/13/2012 - 4:30pm

The concept of disruptive thinkers is a good description of the concept of individuals that are innovative, passionate, and seek to change their organization . However, a disruptive thinker is only half of the equation. It is very difficult for a vast organization to sift through thousands of members to identify those with good ideas. Bureaucracy does help to prevent it, but it is foolish to think that bureaucracy can be done away with entirely. The other half of the equation must be Opportunistic Leadership. Disruptive thinkers will rarely have the power to implement or publicize their ideas on their own. There must be assistance from those who do have the power. Those in high level leadership positions within an organization must view new ideas, disruptive as they may be, not as a threat but as an opportunity. An opportunistic leader who has identified a disruptive thinker can mentor, guide, and empower that individual for mutual gain. This is not without precedence; the United States military has never been short on innovative, disruptive thinkers. Lately, however, it has been short on opportunistic leadership.

Most of the criticism of the original Disruptive Thinkers article centers around LT Kohlmann’s focus on bringing business knowledge into the military. However, this was just an example of one way the military can harness disruptive thinkers. Disruptive thinking isn’t necessarily negative. Smedley Butler was certainly being a disruptive thinker when he turned Marine Corps Base Quantico into a network of European style trenches to train Marines in trench warfare in 1914. That disruptive thinking would pay off on the battlefields of France, a full four years later. This was possible because there were no bureaucratic or organizational walls between Smedley Butler the experienced, thoughtful veteran and Smedley Butler, Commander of Marine Corps Base Quantico. Bureaucracy is, unfortunately or fortunately depending on your view, a necessary byproduct of organization. However, Disruptive Thinkers usually disdain or ignore bureaucratic norms and are frequently resentful that they must engage in seeming inanities. Still, innovative thought can vastly improve the organization. In fact, innovative thought is necessary for the survival of the organization. This problem is particularly acute for the US military today because of the high number of veterans. On deployment, junior leaders spend every day face to face with what works and what doesn’t, what matters and what doesn’t, and what needs to change. They are invested with the responsibility and ability to adapt their actions to their environment. When the deployment ends, this ability is stripped from them. They are ensconced in a straightjacket of legacy bureaucracy, regulations, and traditions. Not only is their ability to make decisions stripped from them, but they have no access to those that do have the power to make improvements. They are told by their organization that, no matter what they have seen or done or accomplished, they are not smart enough to know what needs to change. Grown men and women, aged beyond their years by the hardships of war, are told to stay in their room. They’ll understand when they’re older. There should be no surprise that these men and women seek to take their talents elsewhere. It is a paradoxical problem. An organization requires both bureaucracy to sustain itself and innovative thinking to improve. Yet, the bureaucracy stifles innovative thinking and innovative thinking threatens bureaucracy. This problem exists throughout bureaucracies, organizations, and time periods. So, how do we reconcile the two?

To find that answer, we can look to our past and to those that succeeded in disrupting the thinking of their service for the better. Despite Alfred Thayer Mahan’s limited abilities when it came to commanding ships, the Navy recognized his intellectual prowess and planted him at the Naval War College where he produced his revolutionary works. As a junior Captain, Pete Ellis was sent to the Naval War College by the Commandant of the Marine Corps where he predicted war with Imperial Japan and designed the concepts that would carry US forces to victory, thirty-two years later. In 1960, the Air Force adopted an air-to-air tactics manual written by thirty-three year old Captain John Boyd in his spare time. In 1982, the Army released the AirLand Battle doctrine that was mostly written by a Lieutenant Colonel Huba Wass de Czege, a graduate of Harvard.

Despite differences in background, time period, and branch of service, these four men had similar stories. Those in power recognized their ability and placed them where those abilities could best grow. None of them had the power to change how their branch of service fought and operated and yet each of them did. Somehow, within the confines of bureaucracy, those with the power to change developed a symbiotic relationship with those who knew the direction in which change needed to move. In the end, both parties reaped the benefits. This relationship requires that those in power listen to those with ideas, even if they are reluctant at first. If those ideas are good, they will change minds. If they are bad, they will rightly be forgotten. Whether it is the organization itself that is utilizing opportunistic leadership or rather an individual, this relationship and the resulting bypass of standard procedure is beneficial or even necessary.

Can these relationships still develop today? The criticism lobbied at some thinkers belies the possibility that it can. As bureaucracies grow and age, they ossify. More and more regulations and rules are developed and implemented. At some point, this ossification will hinder the organization’s ability to grow and move. At that point, something must be shed or the organization will perish. Like a hermit crab, the organization must at some point leave an old shell for a new one. Not all bureaucracy is bad and it is most certainly necessary. However, aspects of the bureaucracy that no longer make sense must be discarded and newer and better methods must be adopted. Since 2001, the US military has developed some of the new methods required, but as an organization we have yet to shed the old. It seems that today our younger leaders are standing outside our new shell, extolling its virtues and pointing out the shortcomings of the old shell. They perceive that those more experienced leaders, the only ones with the power to move to the new shell, are ignoring their arguments and instead picking out new drapes for the old shell. Whether this is true or not is unclear, but that perception will cause the younger leaders to walk away from the shell game entirely.

It does not have to be this way. All four branches of service have, in the past, demonstrated the required ability to identify brilliance, foster it, and utilize it for the betterment of the organization. This usually requires the organization to make exceptions to its standard way of doing things. This upending of the bureaucratic process by opportunistic leaders was mutually beneficial to the individual and to the group in the four cases cited above. But can those same four organizations do so today? It seems not. Eleven years in the pressure cooker of two wars have not produced a stand out theorist, thinker, innovator, or inventor. The solution to this problem does not lie in upending the US military organization itself. That could not happen even if it were a good idea. Neither does this lie in a special program like Olmsted Scholars or even Disruptive Thinkers. (Although programs like this have their place.) Instead, the US military as an organization must accept that the bureaucracy does not work in every case. Individual leaders must recognize where it is insufficient and must be bypassed. In some cases, it means a brilliant First Lieutenant who is interested in business does get sent to Harvard Business School. It could be a hard charging Captain with an obsession for military theory who gets sent to a War College resident course not as a Colonel but as a junior Captain. Maybe one of them wants to forgo more education but rather embed in a foreign military for a year or two. We, as public servants, must “bloom where we’re planted.” But the US military needs to make improvements when it comes to putting the right plants in the right soil. The Captain who loves esoteric military theory may be miserable at HBS. The Lieutenant interested in economics would hate spending his time in a library at Carlisle or Newport. The comments on the original post have focused on military versus non-military education or military versus business ideas. There is no one paradigm that is superior to others. Whatever development is appropriate for an individual’s abilities and duties, there should be a path for the organization to capitalize on that. An MBA or early admission into a war college are just examples, but the larger point is that educating and fostering many of our servicemembers in a wide variety of fields is the only way we can effectively draw the best ideas from all sources. The bureaucracy and the processes that the US military has built up over the course of its history may very well work for the vast majority of its members, but it can never work for all of them. It is, bluntly, up to General and Flag officers to recognize a disruptive thinker when they see one, realize that if he or she is developed they can improve the organization, and to clear a path through the bureaucracy for them to reach their potential. This opportunistic leadership has the potential to bear great fruit for the organization. We used to do this. There is no reason we cannot do it again.

We should remember that none of those currently calling for change or disruption intends to hurt their chosen branch of service. They’ve been met with derision, a visceral reaction as if they have attacked the US military with malicious intent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The courage to publicly point out where we can improve can only be born out of love. The negative reactions are just another layer between those that seek improvement and those that have the power to implement improvements. Disruptive thinkers can shout at the bureaucratic walls but will never be heard until those with the power on the other side open a window.

Smedley’s trenches are still recognizable in the hills of Quantico, although they have largely faded from our institutional memory. They sit as an example of what can happen when disruptive thinking is matched with the ability to implement it. This example worked because Butler saw the need to prepare for the battlefields of Europe and was invested, as Commander of MCB Quantico, with the power to implement his vision. We will rarely be fortuitous enough that the disruptive thinker and the responsible leader are one and the same. However, if the opportunistic leaders listen to those disruptive thinkers, foster their abilities, and utilize their ideas to advance the organization as a whole, both parties will benefit.

About the Author(s)

Captain Brett A. Friedman is a field artillery officer in the United States Marine Corps and editor of the book 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era from Naval Institute Press. Views expressed herein do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Marine Corps.



Mon, 04/16/2012 - 2:55am

In reply to by Hravenlandeye

Very good addition to the collection. What we are still lacking is a guide for the Opportunistic Leader, a way for that leader to instruct himself, improve his ability to sift thru a good disruptive idea from a bad one. We need a new theory that provides a reliable, repeatable means to achieve a greater likelihood of foresight. Since we spend so much money on toolsets for war, this theory needs to instruct our thinking regarding technology. One such theory was presented at the 2010 Boyd Conference, and has been emerging for the past 30 years in a handful of Universities around the world.


Sun, 04/15/2012 - 7:52pm

Best article of the series. It is comprehensive, addresses both sides of the debate, and goes towards offering solutions.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/14/2012 - 10:43am

Well written article that invokes the response-----Ahmen!

Sometimes those from the "shooter" side hit the nail on the head.

At this point, the blog posts and comments regarding Disruptive Thinkers have become so numerous that it has been impossible to absorb them all. However, I would note, first, that someone referenced Hyman Rickover, and moreover, that this debate presumably is framed (at least with its reference to being "Disruptive") via the work of Clayton Christensen. An appropriate reference, though, and one raised for me by the Rickover reference, may be James Q. Wilson, "Bureaucracy," the title of which is a word utilized quite frequently in this post by Friedman. I don't recall Wilson necessarily dealing as much with Friedman's point per se - quite frankly, the issue of "mavericks" and their impact (including Pete Ellis in particular) is highlighted far better in Rosen, "Winning the Next War," IIRC - but the issue of "organizational imprinting" and such personalities as Rickover, J. Edgar Hoover and (in what may seem like an odd juxtaposition, and in at least some ways somewhat removed from military/law enforcement figures) Gifford Pinchot. In sum, I think the work ("Bureaucracy," although "Winning the Next War," is a great book too) may be of relevance to this discussion.