By: Jason Criss Howk, Mike Karlson, and Michael Mailloux

1941, North Africa

The British Commander for North Africa was looking for a way to strategically alter the war against the Italians and Germans. He was surrounded by career military leaders, many veterans of the First World War.

Meanwhile in a hospital bed nearby, an atypical British Army Lieutenant grew bored as he hoped to be able to walk again after a parachuting accident. That young officer started talking with the fellow former commando officer who had previously invited him to make his first parachute jump with him.

Those two young officers were interested in winning the war, but not so interested in the Army rules, or their place in the Army in the future. They hatched a plan to create a highly mobile strike force that could get behind enemy lines and destroy critical targets like aircraft, airfields, and harbors.

With the plan, for what would become the SAS in-hand, Lieutenant Stirling used his crutches to enable his unwelcome access to the commanding general’s HQ. The general was intrigued by the idea and weighed the risks versus the possible gains. He decided that possibly losing six officers and 60 men to the unforgiving desert was a low payment for a chance to remove German/Italian aircraft from the skies.

War is Decided by Daring Innovators

This experiment, is often repeated in every war. Someone, who does not care one bit about moving up to the next rank or getting a so-called key command slot, comes up with an idea that changes warfare. It may not always be recognized for winning a war, but often these innovators do just that—quietly. There will always be leaders in the military ranks that focus intensely on winning the current war while putting their own future in jeopardy in the process.

We have served with both type of leaders that populate any army or any organization. There are the risk takers, and there are the risk averse lot. Some are comfortable with a 75% plan that they innovate from while in motion, but others won’t take one step until they have a 100% plan with no chance of failure. There are leaders that follow the field manual and doctrine until it destroys all their own forces, and there are leaders that see the sacred doctrinal texts as mere guidelines.

You have all worked beside the person that appears to work long days but never seems to improve the organization. You’ve worked with those, that some think are lazy or reckless leaders, but are beloved by their teams and make their teams better. You have seen the leader that takes the failures in stride and quickly moves on; and seen the ones that freeze at the thought of failure and collapse when faced with disaster.

War doesn’t tolerate laziness or short-sighted ideas. Those who often think that innovators with a true vision are lazy daydreamers, have lost the plot. War produces only a few mavericks that can find the seams in the enemy’s defenses, and quickly decide to launch into the breach. Think of all the great leaders you have studied and tried to emulate. Were they innovators and change-makers? Or were they status-quo, play it safe, or will this get me promoted folks?

We have been lucky to work with some amazing innovators and been led to study many more. As we look at the wars since September 11th 2001, we see that the impacts that changed the arc of the war came from the risk-takers. At first those mavericks were ridiculed or misunderstood, but when they finally put their ideas in front of the right senior leader—they lifted the campaign out of the ditch.

Marshalling Success

Perhaps you’ve read up to this point and thought, “Ok sure, risk-takers and mavericks can win battles and do well in small units, but large organizations can’t function without the status-quo lot.” General George C. Marshall would have likely challenged that sentiment as a Major in the 1st Infantry Division.

It was 1917 and things were not going well for the 1st Infantry Division. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) Commander, General John Pershing, knew it too. He routinely inspected the 1st Infantry Division, oftentimes unannounced. It was after one of these unfortunate inspections that a dissatisfied General Pershing felt someone grab his arm as he was walking away. Major Marshall had something to say, and he would be heard.

The rest of the 1st Infantry Division staff watched in horror as Major Marshall unleashed a slew of facts about the inadequate conditions and support from Pershing’s AEF regarding everything from supplies to motor transport. As General Pershing left, Marshall’s peers were absolutely positive that was the end of his career; some even offered their sympathies. Marshall said, “All I can see is that I may get troop duty instead of staff duty, and certainly that would be a great success.” Marshall was willing to risk his rear of the battlefield job for an assignment leading combat forces if that was the outcome.

The exact opposite of what was expected happened for Marshall, and he worked his way up to the AEF General Staff to fix all the problems he told Pershing about. He would eventually become Pershing’s aide de camp. Many years later, General Marshall remembered the value of risk-takers and truth-tellers in large bureaucratic organizations. In WWII Marshall expanded the U.S. Army from a small and outdated force to the largest it has ever been in history as the Army Chief of Staff. The growth of the WWII Army began with the relief of approximately 600 officers Marshall regarded as laggards and deadweight. These officers were replaced by a generation of younger and more energetic officers like Eisenhower and Ridgeway. He wanted solution makers, daring leaders, and unconventional choices that could conduct diplomacy one day, while planning secret invasions the next.

General George C. Marshall was the exact opposite of a people-pleaser. He even went so far as to make it a point to never laugh at any of President Roosevelt’s jokes and insisted he be referred to as General Marshall instead of the more familiar ‘George’. Yet General Marshall is widely regarded as one of the most successful American generals of all time and is credited with building the Army that won WWII; and then being wise enough to buck the congress and build the peace after the war.

Strong personalities and mavericks not only thrive in large organizations, they make those organizations achieve the impossible. Unique leaders are the reason why people join many organizations. They do the very things in a war that doctrine later tries to capture as a possible solution to future wars.

Always Hit War in the Flank or Rear

There is a great observation of the SAS founder David Stirling, made by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, who was allowed to join the SAS by Stirling. Allowing the PM’s son to become a commando in a high-risk unit may seem short-sighted, but Stirling was always recruiting opinionated and divergent thinkers to join his desert strike team. Stirling enjoyed studying the new ideas and solutions that come from a chaotic and sometimes clashing team.

Randolph Churchill told his father in a letter that he was glad to be with the SAS for they were making great impacts in the war, and that its leader, Stirling was a “original and enterprising soldier.” Randolph continued by explaining to the Prime Minister that Stirling, “not being a regular soldier, is more interested in war than in the army…he thinks of war in three-dimensional terms.”

As SAS biographer Ben Macintyre puts it, “Stirling approached war sideways and from an amateur perspective.” This gets to the crux of our thinking, if you are not willing to hit war in the flanks, you will continue to try to force your way into the jaws of the beast. The Army requires both type of leaders to be sure; and it makes leaps when it listens to those rare breeds that can do a bit of both.

The Army rolls along between wars largely due to the leaders that avoid deviating too far outside of the lines. But in war, the innovators that don’t care about where their career map points must be unleashed. As Mclean, another of Stirling’s junior officers once remarked, there were two main reasons that men loved to follow Stirling into battle, “his never-failing audacity” and the “gift of daring improvisation.”

The army as an institution may often push aside or throw away the leaders that dared to risk their careers during war. The best leaders in any organization know that it is best to tolerate the mouthy or seemingly distracted innovators and keep them handy for the next big mission. If the army can focus on lightly harnessing their wildest horses, instead of gelding them—the next war may not get off to such a rocky start.


Jason’s co-authors

Mike Karlson is a Civil Affairs officer. He commissioned through ROTC in 2008 from VMI. He holds a MA in Strategic Security Studies from NDU and a MA in Organizational Leadership from Brandman University. He deployed to Afghanistan and several countries throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

Michael Mailloux has served in the Army on numerous deployments Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere for over 20 years. He earned his commission through ROTC.

The opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the authors and do not represent the views of any U.S. government organization.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.