Small Wars Journal

Disruptive Thinkers: Intrapreneurship vice Entrepreneurship – Why this Distinction Matters

Thu, 05/10/2012 - 5:55am

Abstract: Innovation, driven by critical and often disruptive thought, is an essential tool in advancing our military to meet the complex challenges of the 21st century. In order for this to be a productive vice destructive force, young leaders must abandon the idea of being entrepreneurs in uniform, and instead focus on intrapreneurship. While entrepreneurs define their own desired end state, intrapreneurs operate with the mission and values of their respective organization. For those in uniform, this means that innovation can never come at the expense of executing the Commander’s Intent and supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States of America.

In the wake of LT Benjamin Kohlmann’s seminal article on Disruptive Thinkers, many have advocated a more entrepreneurial approach to preparing leaders, generating strategy, writing doctrine, and actualizing the three. LT Kohlmann describes entrepreneurs as those who “see a need and without consulting higher authority, simply go ahead and try and solve. Their very nature inclines them to disrupt the status quo.” Junior leaders on the battlefield have honed this skill set over the last ten years, yielding what Tim Kane described in The Atlantic in 2011 as “revolutionary innovators.”

The necessity for such dynamic problem-solving skills led Colonel Paul Yingling to praise the pursuit of diverse career experiences in his 2007 Armed Forces Journal article on the “failure of generalship” in Iraq. He explained, “[i]t 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 trajectory of CIA Director David Petraeus serves as one example of a quasi-unconventional, yet productive, career path: while many of his peers prepared for massive conventional fights, Director Petraeus wrote his doctoral dissertation at Princeton on counterinsurgency and the perils of United States strategy in Vietnam.  A step further, Brigadier General H.R. McMaster published his 1997 thesis on the topic in Dereliction of Duty, where he offered particularly harsh criticisms of military officers who did not stand up to the inherently flawed strategy proposed by politicians by giving honest advice (which allegedly delayed his promotion to 1-star by two years).

I concede that such diverse opportunities are quite limited, and they come with a great deal of risk to an officer’s career. But the goal should not be to assemble an Army full of Ivy League PhDs. While the cross-sector networks that would come from more military leaders attending the likes of Harvard Business School would be valuable, relationships built solving problems as groups at the National War College have enhanced coordination in the upper echelons on the battlefield and, given the presence of government civilians in such programs, increased cooperation at the interagency level as well.

And when advocating entrepreneurship among the ranks, one is in turn championing the greatest risk takers of all. When observing the generation of young leaders who have served at home and abroad in the post-9/11 era, I look up with admiration to a group who has categorically stepped up to the plate again and again – who took, and continue to take, risks every day. They are, to me, living examples of Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’: “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

What does failing mean in the military context though? Not getting promoted? Most would contend that John Boyd, creator of the OODA Loop, did more by stepping into the arena – by causing a bit of disruption in the Pentagon  – than he would have had he stayed on the straight and narrow to make General. And while Roy Boehm may be less of a household name, the fact that he never made it past Lieutenant Commander is outweighed by what then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates described decades later as “designing and leading a commando unit that became the Navy SEALs” (despite the fact that he was nearly court-martialed in the process).

But there is one thing that failing cannot mean for someone behaving entrepreneurially within the military: going back on one’s oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. Therefore, what the military needs as it approaches a strategic inflection point is a culture of intrapreneurship, not entrepreneurship. While it may appear to be mere semantics, there is a critical difference. An entrepreneur is their own boss and sets their own strategic vision; an intrapreneur exists within a larger organization, and as former Apple executive Guy Kawasaki explains, puts the goals of that organization first. Accordingly, an intrapreneur must be willing to accept full responsibility in the case of failure, and be equally willing to defer credit to the organization in the case of success.

What makes entrepreneurship appealing to so many is the ability to define one’s desired end state entirely. In his aggregation of the experiences of top young impact entrepreneurs, Shake the World, James Marshall Reilly shows how entrepreneurs driven by self-determined innovation can invoke positive change in the world around them. For young military personnel feeling suffocated by the bureaucracy, especially in garrison, this is an attractive concept. But while still serving in the military, one must remember that failed entrepreneurship in the civilian world results merely in evaporating the financial capital of either yourself or your investors; failing as an entrepreneur in uniform can very well result in breaking a solemn promise between you and the American people.

Two individuals come to mind when considering failed entrepreneurship and undermined oaths: Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and Army Private First Class Bradley Manning. In the Iran-Contra Affair, LtCol North defined his own end state for the profit from weapons sold to Iran via intermediaries, channeling the proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras despite the Boland Amendment prohibiting exactly that. PFC Manning acted entrepreneurially in independently deciding to leak sensitive documents to Wikileaks, in turn diminishing the safety and security of allied forces and indigenous sources, partially reversing post-9/11 gains in the information sharing environment, and undermining U.S. efforts in Central Asia and foreign policy writ large. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Manning’s intentions, his means were destructive vice disruptive, and categorically unacceptable for a serving soldier.

Those of us still in uniform can learn from the many great examples of intrapreneurship, where individuals accelerated beyond bureaucratic inertia in practice, but stayed true to the core objectives and principles of their respective organizations. To match a growing German air threat in 1943, Lockheed Martin authorized the young Kelly Johnson to set up a secret team in a rented circus tent, where he led the design and building of the XP-80 fighter jet in a mere 143 days. More recently, Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer defied orders to ensure that no man was left behind, and received the Medal of Honor for his actions. Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant published his own blueprint for success in Afghanistan based on his experience leading an Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), emboldening the contemporary operator to fight tactically and think strategically “One Tribe at a Time.”

To achieve maximum impact, grassroots intrapreneurship must be met by what Captain Brett Friedman terms opportunistic leadership from the higher-ups. While there are a number of examples of commanders stifling disruptive ideas that may have been hugely productive, there are many of others like General Mattis, who is well known for speaking truth to power and media alike, as well as seeking the opinions of junior Marines in the midst of overnight operations in Kandahar. GEN Mattis, like business magnate Sir Richard Branson, creates the sort of command climate where intrapreneurship and feedback up and down the chain-of-command are encouraged. By empowering individuals to help their organization reach its fullest potential, GEN Mattis and Sir Richard personify exceptions to the notion that innovative thinkers have a shelf life.

In conclusion, innovation, driven by critical, disruptive thinking, is essential for the military to meet the myriad “complex, ill-structured problems” of the 21st century. Strategy must be more concise, procurement more efficient, and human resources management more pertinent, with everyone inside and outside the institution working to learn the right lessons from the last decade. To make these changes, we must soften our bureaucracies and lessen our propensity for centralization of power and risk-aversion, encouraging dissenting views as much in conference rooms as we do in the face of enemy fire. But disruptive thought and innovation cannot come at the expense of executing the Commander’s Intent. By focusing on intrapreneurship vice entrepreneurship, we can better reach a common ground between Disruptive Thinkers’ advocates and critics. The future of our military depends on it.

Categories: disruptive thinkers

About the Author(s)

Mike Campbell is a junior U.S. naval officer pursuing graduate education at King’s College London as a Marshall Scholar and completing a research internship at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). The views expressed here are his alone. Mike is admittedly over-educated and under-experienced, and looks forward to any and all feedback.


Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/16/2012 - 4:31am

If one really looks at the new ADP 6.0 and inherently understands what Mission Command is all about then Commanders in MC do the following:

Therefore, they concentrate on the objectives of an operation, not how to achieve it. Commanders provide subordinates with their intent, the purpose of the operation, the key tasks, the desired end state, and resources. Core to all of this is team building and inherent trust.

Then Staffs do the following:

When given sufficient latitude, the staff can accomplish assigned tasks in a manner that fits the situation. Subordinates understand that they have an obligation to act and synchronize their actions with the rest of the force. Likewise, commanders influence the situation and provide direction, guidance, and resources while synchronizing operations. They encourage subordinates to take bold action, and they accept prudent risks to create opportunity and to seize the initiative.

The core of what we have been discussing is not one of disruptive thinkers yes or no but does the current Command system have enough trust in their Staffs to allow them to be BOLD in their thinking.

I would argue that for ten long years and especially the last five we have had way too many micromanagers at the Command levels---thus the pent up frustration of the Staffs and the perception that nothing is changing.

Mike Few recently wrote a series of changes that has occurred from the bottom up from 2003 to 2010---would argue where that occurred you had Commanders who fully practiced MC long before there was a doctrinal shift.

Even Gen. Demspey gets it with his White Paper on Mission Command from 3 April 2012, but we have a large number of Commanders in the field that know nothing about the WP.

Just my opinion.


Sat, 05/12/2012 - 5:12pm

For this to work. Its not about the disruptive thinker or the leader, but the relationship between them. The leader's have to practice prudent risk taking allowing, initiative but endagering the careers, safety, or the organization. Th establishment of company is a great example. I detailed the story in the book "Wiki at War."

Mike Campbell

Mon, 05/14/2012 - 7:29pm

In reply to by DTC


I think you make a great point here regarding the importance of opportunistic leadership from the upper echelons. That said, I think that in seeking freedom for creativity, it is helpful for us to reemphasize the promise to our Commanders that, regardless of the path / process we choose to arrive there, we will in the end be executing their Intent.

Mike Campbell

While I absolutely support your thesis on the necessity of disruptive thinking, it's my experience that the real burden of moving the military forward lies more on leaders supporting disruptive thinking among their subordinates, than it does on being disruptive as an individual.

Reading about Afghanistan, one finds numerous examples of company-level leaders finding creative solutions to to the problems of their environment--solutions which have this ultimately "disruptive" effect you support. Is this because we've done a great job of finding the most creative people to put on the front lines? I say no--this is more the result of human ingenuity. It is the fact that their leadership has put them in demanding situations, and has then loosed their reigns in such a way as to encourage that sort of creative problem solving.

Why don't we see the same sort of disruptive effect periodically happening within the military finance, personnel, IT/comm communities? I'd suggest that it's because in a rear-echelon environment, leadership is far more likely to insist on direct oversight, and the problems associated with the job aren't unknown in the same way that they are in the mountains of Afghanistan.

In my 7+ years as a commissioned officer in the US Air Force, I've worked for commanders who have varied widely in their tolerance for creativity within their command. In cases where I've been given ample freedom, I'd say I've at least had opportunities to make modest improvements in business practices, and even challenged a few beliefs at higher levels or outside the organization. This sort of environment is fertile ground for people with good ideas throughout the organization. However, I've also worked for commanders who made it clear from the beginning that creativity would not be tolerated. I'd say it's disingenuous and counter-productive to encourage disruptive thought in such an organization. Unless you have the credibility of a mature Billy Mitchell testifying before Congress, there's little to be gained by attempting to buck the system--everyone involved will be better off by observing and learning to be a better leader, and saving that creativity (or tolerance for it) for a future assignment.

The real challenge, as I see it, is encouraging our creative and disruptive thinkers to stay in the service at all. In my experience it is this sort of person who is the first to punch out when their service commitment is up, long before they get to a point where they can truly impact an organization as large and unwieldy as the Department of Defense. Perhaps that's a fine topic for another day...

Mike Campbell

Mon, 05/14/2012 - 7:16pm

In reply to by kmabarrett


Thank you for your feedback, especially the suggestion of Maj Gen Mitchell as a superior example. I had not yet considered him, and should have.

Also, I hope I did not infer support for either LTC North or PFC Manning’s respective actions; I intended them as an example of ‘destructive’, not ‘disruptive’. Thanks again.

Mike Campbell


Fri, 05/11/2012 - 11:17am

Thank you for the thought provoking article.

While I recognize your use of both terms (entrepreneur and intrapreneur) as forms of leadership models, I have problems applying them within the context of a military chain of command. They imply an economic profit motive which seems out of place (for me). I do like the term "disruptive" thinker / leader in a military context, particularly in distinction from/with "opportunistic" leadership (which seems more tactical).

I also (like some of your other readers) question the application of the title to North and Manning. In Col. North's case, he is a convicted felon (albeit subsequently pardoned) who knowingly broke the law. In Manning's case, while innocent until proven guilty, he appears to have broken the law too. While it can be argued that both were acting to their own moral/ethical standard, it seems less arguable that clear and intentional violation of the law serves a military structure as "disruptive" leadership.

I also feel there is a difference between disregarding an order and breaking a law. In this case, assisting fallen comrades is more an example of personal bravery than willfully disobeying a direct order.

I believe the example of Billy Mitchell is a far better example of disruptive leadership. In that case, Gen./Col. Mitchell was intent on proving a superior technology for conducting warfare was imminent and inertia of the military bureaucracy was placing the country at risk. In the end, while history proved Mitchell correct about air power, he was court-martialed for his insubordination. While suffering personal damage to his career, Mitchell was able to foment the disruptive thought conditions which led to the empowerment of the Army Air Corps and ultimately to the Air Force.

I agree it is unlikely a career spent conforming will produce a senior leader capable of innovation. Unfortunately, there are far to few Billy Mitchell's in any walk of life, let alone just the military. Equally unfortunate, to support a military of our size and complexity, we must produce a hundred mini-Eisenhower's for every Marshall or Patton. You must have a vast support staff to both implement grand strategy and fight like the devil.

And just in case no one has said it lately, "Thank you for your service!"


Great article, one comment if I may concerning definitions. I have not had a concern with the term "entrepreneur" meaning someone with values other-than-the-organization, but if that's what the term means to some officers, then it must be qualified as you have done here.

The "organization" is not an end in itself just as entrepreneurial behavior is not an end, either. Advocacy for one's military service sometimes is pursued at the expense of the nation's safety. As Gen McMaster said (and I paraphrase), one's oath is to the constitution, not the Marine Corps (or the Army, or Navy, or Air Force).

Hell Hath No Fury like a senior officer embarrssed before Congress because of its portion of the Support Establishment has been seriously negligent, whether we are talking about the A12, the Bradley, the EFV, the MRAP, UAS or FCS. Yet from some we get happy talk about how great "we" are and how great "we" have always been while we almost lose a 2nd major war in a generation, and anyone with an entrepreneurial bone in his body is sidelined, marginalized, or attacked by those who act under the rubrick of Putting the Goals of the Organization First. When some officer say this I wonder if it does not really mean "my portion of the organization so I can get promoted".

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/11/2012 - 2:04am

Are we sure we want to use COL North as a disruptive thinker example---shredding classified documents to cover one's trail is not an example I personally envision for young officers.

If in fact he was indeed following orders then the civilain leadership that placed him in that position should have stood up and taken responsibility---which if I recall the incident correctly they did not.

We ask our current military officers to adhere to ethnics and morals--never recalled officers being given the choice to ignor that regardless of where one serves---or did I miss something?


Fri, 05/11/2012 - 11:33am

In reply to by Mike Campbell

personally, i'd forget your terms. teach SPORTS. after that, read the Illiad.

i'm in london as well, bro. let me know if you want to get a pint sometime.

Mike Campbell

Mon, 05/14/2012 - 6:42pm

In reply to by ADTS


My [run-on] sentence would probably be: “Doing more with less to meet tomorrow’s threats/opportunities demands critically thought out, innovative, and at times disruptive solutions from within the ranks; these solutions must keep keep the core principles of the institution as the guiding force – strategically and morally – in their every decision.” That said, this article for me is more about introducing a new concept, or way of looking at a problem/process, than perfect diction.

With regard to the use of the term ‘intrapreneurship’ from a rhetorical standpoint, though: many of my peers, like me, are of the generation that copies an idea or phrase from one article, and pastes it directly into the Google search bar when we want to know more. In this case, I would rather we all get a deeper knowledge of ‘intra-corporate’ innovation when considering how to apply said idea/phrase to the military context, hence my call for a shift in language in favor of ‘intrapreneurship’ over ‘entrepreneurship’.

Finally, I hope the fact that my original article focuses on actual examples of risk-taking and action (though perhaps not the very best out there), rather than a litany of academic textbook definitions and Excel shortcuts, proves to you that we are in complete agreement on your fourth point…

Mike Campbell


Thu, 05/10/2012 - 1:01pm

In reply to by Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell

First, once more I appreciate both the humor and humility contained in the initial article and author biography, as well as the polite and courteous receptivity to what could be perceived as tough feedback.

Second, speaking broadly, I would strongly advocate distilling the article to a sentence rather than a paragraph. And any such paragraph should be short.

Third, if asked to synthesize this article, I would say it emphasizes the ethical dimension of being a military officer (or member of the military) be noted in addition to the requirement of thinking creatively and critically. However, I am not sure if that sentence captures the article's essence well. (Does it?) Moreover, it is *your* article. Thus: how would you undertake this task - what one sentence or very brief encapsulation would you offer?

Fourth, I recognize there is an etymology behind intrapreneurship and Disruptive Thinkers. From a purely rhetorical standpoint, though, I question whether the connotations of such terms (as well as the associations Harvard Business School has for people) render them ill-advised. I could be wrong - there are reasons to use them, too - and would welcome any thoughts on this point you would care to offer. I think there are other issues, too - such as business schools and MBAs in particular often being accused of concealing a lack of thought behind exotic terminology devoid of substantive content - and here too welcome your thoughts.


Mike Campbell

Thu, 05/10/2012 - 12:20pm

In reply to by ADTS

Thanks for your critiques. I probably went too far in trying to address points from each of the response articles to the original Disruptive Thinkers piece thus far, in turn ending up with an unnecessarily broad product. What would your ideal for that new paragraph look like?
The Harvard Business School reference comes from LT Kohlmann’s original piece. I should have attributed that and, frankly, for a variety of reasons I’m glad my civilian graduate education came elsewhere.
But regarding the use of ‘intrapreneurship’ as a needless neologism, I disagree. The distinction was first made in a 1978 essay: I understand your resistance to throwing terms out for the sake of branding something (e.g. are we actually doing COIN / fighting an insurgency by definition right now, or should it be called something totally different, or not called anything at all?), but the number of times the word “entrepreneur” came up in this string of discussions over the last month has been a bit worrisome to me because of the message it sends to my peers and I about what’s acceptable from a junior officer.
Mike Campbell

Being over-educated and under-experienced is not a prima facie bar to possessing acute insight (especially when on the part of a Marshall Scholar), and one who looks forward to any and all feedback ought to be commended.

Still, I shall be a bit harsh. I concur with Mac187. This is a very wide-ranging essay that touches upon career paths, education (both PME and civilian), and ethics, as well as perhaps other topics. I read the abstract but think reducing the argument to a sentence, or (another) paragraph (at the absolute most), might be beneficial.

Also, I think the utilization or coinage of neologisms such as "intrapreneur" or "Disruptive Thinker" might be distracting (as with, perhaps, the employment of Harvard Business School as a proxy for "civilian postgraduate education"). I think such terms can easily be derided as vacuous buzzwords and, at the risk of sounding rather cranky, would advise they be used sparingly and judiciously.


i'm confused. who would argue against your premise? any innovator, including Colonel North, would claim to be trying to support the constitution. otherwise, what are they doing in the army?