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.