04 September 2014

5 Tips to Empower Emerging Military Leaders



Over the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time organizing, building and taking action within numerous deckplate driven military organizations.  Some are official entities, and some are those created by service members themselves.  All came about because of dedicated, passionate emerging leaders who wanted to improve their respective military service. 

My journey towards capturing and deploying the cognitive surplus within our junior personnel began nearly 12 years ago in Northwestern University’s library.  At the time, I was in my senior year of college and a 1st Class Midshipman at the NROTC unit.  We got a new commanding officer, and he opened my eyes to a legacy of critical thinkers and military innovators that continue to shape our forces today.

We worked through the works of Air Force Col John Boyd, the creator of the OODA (Observe Orient Decide Act) Loop, the F-16 and the strategy that defeated Saddam Hussein in 1991.  We explored the leadership of then-BGen James Mattis as his forces invaded Iraq.  We looked to the evolution of British Navy command and control as it evolved from the time of Lord Nelson to the disastrous Battle of Jutland in World War I.  We explored the leadership of Medal of Honor winner James Stockdale as he led men in the horrors of the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. In all these intellectual deep dives, the seeds of critical thinking were planted. 

They would not sprout until seven years later, when I found myself in a bar with a guy who later became one of my closest friends and intellectual sparring partner.  In that conversation, we noted many of our peers had returned from combat with extensive experience in building new concepts to face the uncertainties of war.  Yet, upon return to garrison in the United States, they were put under the thumb of bureaucratic requirements that squashed any innovative thoughts that challenged institutional status quo.  We wanted to find a way to harvest the ideas of our junior folks, help them execute on their ideas, and make our national security establishment ready for the dynamic nature of the 21st century. 

Over the next three years, we built Disruptive Thinkers, the Chief of Naval Operation’s Rapid Innovation Cell, and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.  All these efforts had common themes:  getting the right people in the room together, building relationships across traditional walls, and advocate for an innovative culture within the armed services. 

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1. Seek Senior Leader Top Cover

The Chief of Naval Operation’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) is an organization of 15 junior officers and enlisted personnel charged by the highest-ranking officer in the Navy with integrating new technology into the Navy.  We get funding and time to execute on our ideas.  Thus far we’ve put 3D printers on deployed warships, integrated Google Glass into our processes, and helped shape the future of unmanned underwater vehicles.

But it never would have happened without the tireless advocacy of a 2-star Navy Rear Admiral.  Rear Admiral Terry Kraft, then Commander of Navy Warfare Development Command, believed that junior personnel could contribute meaningfully to the conversation, and literally put his money where his mouth was.  He provided the framework for our projects, let us travel around the country visiting the most innovative organizations, and paved the way for our bi-annual conversation with the Chief of Naval Operations. 

Each CRIC project finds its junior officer or enlisted advocate dealing with flag-level officers. The combination of an energetic, enthusiastic young person teamed up with a tested senior leader creates an environment where ideas are more readily adapted by a change-resistant culture.

2. Understand the next Big Idea can come from anyone

One of the great things about Pixar’s “Ratatouille” is that a no-name rat becomes one of the premier chefs in Paris.  Working on the CRIC and with Disruptive Thinkers, I’ve been consistently impressed by the quality of ideas presented by the junior enlisted folks on our team – and encouraged by their tenacity.  For far too long, they didn’t have a voice – now they do.

One of my mentees is working on a project to bring a ride-sharing service like Lyft or Side-car to the military – and create a 21st century version of Arrive Alive cards.  Whereas in the past, a sailor or soldier would have needed to use a cab with a cumbersome card to be reimbursed, ET1 Anderson’s idea is to use existing technology to match a volunteer service member driver up with a fellow sailor who may have had a few too many beverages.  He has also started a weekly podcast that has featured the likes of LtGen Van Riper all the way down to fellow E-5s as guests.  Empower your people to make constructive change, and they will almost always deliver.

3. Fail Fast – And Learn from your Failures

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried something that didn’t work out.  At first, I hung on and hung on…but as the failures piled up, I slowly became more adept at cutting my losses and moving on.
My most recent endeavor was to create a crowdsourced national security news aggregation website much like the very popular Hacker News.  I built my team, found a guy who could do the code, and proudly launched it.  I recruited friends to beta test it. For a while we had a couple people posting.  After two weeks, it was just me.  Two months after we started, I pulled the plug.

Yet, rather than feel despondent, I was elated.  This was an idea I had believed in for years, finally mustering the guts to make it happen.  When it failed, I was able to move on – it was not cluttering my thoughts anymore, with a constant stream of “what if…”  I now knew that “what if” had turned into “No.”  And I could then concentrate on other projects.

4. Don’t let rank get in the way of innovation 

When we first started the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum last year, one of the first rules we made was that no attendee would be allowed to wear a uniform.  We believe there is a psychological block that exists when a senior person sees a junior person – merely based on rank alone, we have preconceived notions about how much someone is “supposed” to know.  However, ideas can come from anywhere.  We wanted DEF to be a place where ideas mattered more than the relative seniority of the person mentioning them.  

The rank structure in the military is well-established, and incredibly important for success in combat.  However, good leaders know that to get the most out of their subordinates, they need to see past rank and pull ideas up from the deckplates.  They need to be willing to listen, adapt, and admit when they are wrong.  In turn, junior folks must know that sometimes “because” is an acceptable answer to “why?”  Yet, if they have insight and data to back it up, an environment of open communication can blend the best of military rank structure with empowering folks at all levels.

5. Execution is the new Innovation

A strange thing has occurred to me over the past few years:  the more things I take actionon, the more likely I will take action on something else in the future.  What I mean is this:  a lot of folks have ideas.  Not a lot of people do anything about them – and when they do, they are afraid to fail (see above).  Yet, ideas are a dime a dozen.  The diamonds in the rough are the ones who build teams to see them come to reality.

Prove your worth by doing your homework. Present credible evidence…and if you still don’t get support, but believe in your idea, make it happen on your own.  A friend of mine has a passion for helping those with PTSD.  He had an idea for an app that would link military personnel suffering with those struggles to individuals able to help.  His organization told him it was a good idea, but would take too long to create.  So he learned to code, built the app himself, and is paying out of pocket to make it happen – and he has won numerous awards while doing so.  It takes blood, sweat, and tears to see a dream become reality.  

The military is filled with people itching to make a difference – sometimes without knowing where to start.  I’m always an advocate for starting your own venture to improve your service, but if you need a catalyst and fellow service members to commiserate with, I encourage you to reach out to those of us in DEF or the CRIC. Regardless of your service, we can link you up with like-minded individuals and tap into the “innovation insurgency” that is capturing the creative energies of our current generation.  


Comment below or start the conversation here and connect within the military community.

LT Ben Kohlmann is a Navy Officer.  He flew F/A-18s and is the founder of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and other military related innovation ventures.



*These opinions belong to the writer and in no way reflect the views of the DoD or other departments of the US government.

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