Innovative Leadership In The Military Starts By Leaning Forward

If war drives innovation, institutions smother it. Over the last decade, battlefield ideas and the urgency of persistent threats have led to improvements in armor, equipment, and weaponry, but a personnel system that predates the conflict continues to promote risk aversion and treat individuals as interchangeable pieces. This system frustrates many within and outside of the military. As a future leader, perhaps you’ve considered taking your talents elsewhere, but you believe in the mission of military service and want to take advantage of your talents within, instead of outside, this system.

Luckily, there are signs that military leadership understands the problem, suggesting that there is room and demand for innovative leaders in a military adapting to an increasingly complex world. By its nature, innovation is driven by improvising, adapting, and overcoming challenges in a unique manner. Implementing changes that leap beyond current doctrine requires thinking outside the system and making connections that don’t come naturally to a strictly focused “military mind.” Here are seven ways to do that.

1. Read outside the lines

Military leaders need to learn doctrine and tactics, and be grounded in the profession of arms. That’s our job. However, if you read the same Clausewitz, Douhet, and Mahan as every other leader in the military, then your answers to challenges we face will be the same as everyone else’s. Innovations that shape our world are often put forth by entrepreneurs who make unique connections from reading outside their given industry.

Steve Jobs dropped out of college for “discovery learning” and took classes like calligraphy that would later lead him toward unique user interfaces and would revolutionize computers. Focused so heavily in our own profession, we fail to see the innovation that an outside perspective and skill set can supply.

Next time you are the bookstore, step (or click) out of the military history section, and browse outside your comfort zone. Find books that will broaden your horizon and provide you with inspiration or a novel approach to solving the challenges we face.

2. Question everything

Not literally, because that will annoy your boss, but you should question everything you see or read. “Why do we do it that way?” can be the best question you ask each day. Where the doctrine or tactic is sound, asking “Why” will develop a deeper understanding of your profession. If you question everything, you will identify misguided ideas perpetuated by a system of “That’s how we’ve always done it.” Critical thinking is a skill nurtured by a healthy cynicism and inquisitive nature.

Others will always be comfortable operating within the status quo, complaining about their state of being, but doing nothing to ignite change. If the answer you find to your question is inadequate or misguided, don’t be afraid to propose an alternative.

3. Get connected

Our enemy is already using social networks for recruiting, information operations, and even to organize resistance. In the next conflict we as a country will face, we are likely to experience the effect of flash mobs planned through online networks. Adapting to this changing operating environment requires a similar ability to innovate at speeds unfathomable to our predecessors.

While social networking may be seen as a way to share pictures of your cat, it can also fuel your ideas. A personal learning network can enable you to connect with leaders who inspire you, open doors to new opportunities, and provide a sounding board for innovation.

You aren’t the only leader in the military who questions the current state of affairs and seeks constructive (or disruptive) change. There will be times when you need to bounce disruptive ideas off of other innovative leaders outside your organization. The answer to your organization’s challenge may already exist in a similar organization, a different branch of service, another nation’s military, or a private enterprise.

4. Empower a team of thinkers

If you want to change the pace at which your organization adapts, you must develop a team of innovative thinkers. Encourage your subordinates to question “Why,” consider their alternative courses of action, and force them to think outside their comfort zone. If these methods make you more innovative, they will have a multiplier effect if you can get others to buy into them as well.

The “measures of effectiveness” mindset may produce friction with your intentions, but investing in your team will reap dividends that may escape quantitative metrics. In addition to the traditional “leader professional development” reading of history or doctrine, have subordinates identify their own sources of inspiration and share them with the group. The member of your organization who has interests outside your own comfort zone may be the one to provide a perspective you would have never considered.

5. Take risks

Our jobs, by their nature, involve inherent risks. Over time, we have developed a culture of risk aversion where simple activities require a comprehensive risk assessment and risk mitigation. This process protects resources, but creates an overly careful mindset. Whether it is in the personal courage required to question your superior’s sacred cow, or the training exercises that force participants to perform outside their realm of comfort, risks are necessary to create the innovative culture in our organizations.

Reform, by its nature, requires a leap of faith. If we wait for normal processes, constrained by mechanisms of bureaucracy, and mired in compromise from all affected interests, you can rest assured that reform will occur too slowly, too weak, and too late. If your idea is well founded and you believe in it, you need to be willing to accept risk in order to accomplish your goal. Risk is always a balancing act, but you’ll never go forward if you’re always leaning back.

6. Foster momentum for ideas versus institutional inertia

Bureaucracies, like graveyards, are full of potential that was never realized. To overcome the steady state of the status quo, you must build force through the momentum of your ideas. This is where your depth of understanding, your critical thinking, the network of innovators, your team of thinkers, and willingness to take risks will come into play. The team of thinkers you’ve built may be needed to test your idea on a small scale.

Fostering and maintaining this momentum will require what may be your biggest risk: writing out your ideas and opening them up to criticism. The network you’ve developed will provide you a venue for sharing the results and swarming the higher-level organizations you seek to effect with an idea they must consider. When you receive criticism, and it will come, use it to reflect, adapt if necessary, or defend your position if appropriate. This exchange may not result in the outcome you desire, but may fuel an innovation that would not have been accomplished with your initiative.

7. Learn to fail and adapt

If you do innovation right, you will fail, but hopefully less often than you succeed. We learn and adapt from failure. When lives are at stake, that learning can be painful, but one of the lessons we’ve taken away from the last decade of war is that pulling back into defensive positions often leaves us most vulnerable. Use the breadth of your understanding to lean into a challenge, and learn forward. When you fail, reflect on the causes, identify the weaknesses in your plan, and use that knowledge to develop the means to regain the initiative.

The military is inherently limited in resources, face a changing operating environment, and a determined and constantly evolving enemy. Occasionally, that enemy is our own internal resistance to change. The perceived “leader” who never fails will be wholly unprepared when the environment shifts and he finds himself at a disadvantage, with no experience in resiliency or adaptation. You, on the other hand, have failed many times, reflected, and adapted. With more innovative leaders, the military will move forward into future challenges, boldly learning forward.