I appreciate the debate, because I’m one of those junior-officers-rising-into-leadership who the articles are for and about. This quote from Peter Munson’s response article made me cry, “Yes! He gets it!”
Today’s military is facing a significant crisis. This crisis has several dimensions. The rank and file of the military who have made or witnessed the massive efforts and sacrifices of the past decade, and who have seen so very little in the way of satisfying results in return, are puzzled by the self-assuredness of their leadership. They question the slogans and the continued assurances that things are “on-track” and that we are accomplishing the mission. They are disappointed by the failures of leadership and imagination that have yielded toxic commands, a rash of firings in some services, and a breach of trust with our most vulnerable servicemembers. They wonder about the future of the weapons systems that support and defend them as they read tales of acquisition woe. They question the growing focus on bureaucratic minutiae. They question how they can be trusted so completely in a combat environment, but are treated as children in garrison. They wonder how a military system that prides itself on justice will reward the generals that have presided over failure, whether at the operational and strategic levels on the battlefield, to the continued failures of the institution in the realms of personnel, acquisition, and budgetary policies, while at the same time eroding the autonomy and discretion of junior commanders with a creeping campaign of bureaucratic centralization.
This discussion has helpfully surpassed the usual cliches about innovative junior officers vs. stale bureaucracies and ignorant senior leaders. It has raised prudent questions about what kinds of disruption are actually constructive and effective. Several commentators have noted that plenty of “disruptive thinkers” are really just disruptive non-thinkers. These individuals can be loud and immature at worst, and sadly ineffective at best. Unfortunately, I know a thing or two about that; I’ve had a couple bruising experiences where my attempts to be a disruptive thinker backfired badly. Sometime I will tell those stories.
That is why today’s SWJ article, The Disruptive Poets Society, is my favorite so far. The article reads like a history of my intellectual journey as a loyal dissent within the U.S. Air Force. I’ve gradually learned that constructive criticism and innovative ideas are not enough; ultimately, the only thing that counts is causing institutional change. Martin writes, “It is a rare gift to find a person who can both think against the grain AND get the institution to change” and asks how the DOD can better leverage the disruptive thinkers it already has. Martin lists ten principles for disruptive thinkers. The first is so vitally important that I will repost it in its entirety:
Be effective. Learn to work within the system. The system won’t change any time soon, if ever. Develop informal networks, build rapport, work behind the scenes, let others take credit; find those who are gatekeepers and facilitators. In short, use UW and COIN doctrine and TTPs in getting around the bureaucracy within our own commands.